‘The Assembly’ was in a sense a club open to those of a certain rank. Edinburgh's first Assembly Room was situated on the West Bow, which was a winding street which led from the Grassmarket to the Lawnmarket.
Originally the street was filled with a quirky assortment of 17th century tenements, with crow-stepped gables, flight-holes for doves, towers and merchants’ shops. Regular assemblies, or dances, were held there for several decades from 1710. The first assemblies were organised for profit, but they soon came under the direction of a company of philanthropic and titled ladies, the Lady Directresses, with the proceeds going to charity – for instance towards the founding of the Royal Infirmary in 1729. It was only in 1787 with the opening of the new Assembly Rooms on George Street that a Master of Ceremonies, Captain Graham, was put in charge.
In December 1781, a design competition was advertised with a prize of 25 guineas. In February 1782, John Henderson was chosen as the architect for the new Assembly Rooms but his plans were revised three times before the foundation stone was laid in May 1783.
The addition of a Supper Room under the Ballroom was only proposed after the foundation stone was laid in May 1783. The building opened with a ball given by the Caledonian Hunt on Thursday 11 January 1787 and was described by the then Edinburgh Evening Courant as the largest [Assembly Room] in Britain, exceeding the Great Room in Bath in elegance and just proportion.
The Music Hall opened in October 1843 after provision for a hall suited to the needs of a musical performance was recommended. Dr D.B. Reid was the consultant for acoustics. The directors of the assembly felt assured that the addition of a Music Hall would ‘materially increase the prosperity of the concern’ particularly as it could be adapted for great public meetings, dinners and other public and private events. The opening performance took place on October 1843, the programme including Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and the occasion was a great success. The Music Hall was later reported by The Scotsman in 1945 as ‘once Edinburgh’s premier concert hall’. By 1843, the Assembly Rooms had become a principal performing arts venue, vital to social and artistic life in Scotland’s Capital City.
In the 1880s decoration was added to the Ballroom, in particular the chimney pieces and mirrors. In 1895 the mirrors were placed across the main stairs closing off the windows and forming the service passages behind.
In 1906, the East and West Drawing Rooms were added to either side of the Ballroom and the Supper Room was formed. This involved the relocation of the kitchen to the east side of the building.
In 1922 the Music Hall underwent extensive alterations. The organ was removed and the whole shape of the front of the stage was altered, while the gallery was rebuilt to increase its capacity.
The holding of regular assemblies died out in the early 19th century but the Assembly Rooms is still uniquely suited for major social events such as civic banquets and balls. The variety of events and activities taking place and for which the rooms are hired is extensive. A conference may last a day or a week and usually involves the whole complex of rooms.