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The white elephant on the hill?

The Murdo Macaulay Memorial Hall: Nestled in Druim Fraoich, North Dell, is an unassuming community building, but with a rich history. From its 1964 opening to hosting music bands and training sessions, the hall has left a positive impact. Now, as its 60th anniversary approaches, discussions about its future range from artist studios to potential housing replacement.

Opening night of Ness Hall 21st July 1964. Image Courtesy of Comunn Eachraidh Nis
Opening night of Ness Hall 21st July 1964. Image Courtesy of Comunn Eachraidh Nis

Dell Hall, Ness Hall or the Murdo Macaulay Memorial Hall – all titles used to describe the community building at Druim Fraoich, North Dell – a building that may not resemble a white elephant in design, but arguably does so as a ‘concept’ in today’s social and economic climate.  

White Elephants were treasured in ancient Thailand as rare and highly prized. The saying goes, that as soon as one was discovered it became the property of the King. Once acquired though, and no longer wanted, he would gift them to subjects who had displeased him, in doing so, being sure to ruin them financially, for although rare and prized they were expensive to keep, and unable to be used or sold. 

As the opening of the Murdo Macaulay Memorial Hall by Ness Hall Committee approaches its 60th anniversary, and as the community faces another round of discussions surrounding its future,  we’ve had a look through the Ness Hall archive at Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (CEN), rediscovering  just how important the Hall has been to the people of Ness and the organisations who have benefited so much from its existence. 

The official opening of the Murdo Macaulay Memorial Hall, by The Ness Hall Committee, took place on the 21st July 1964. Designed by Architect Frank Wood and built by Donald Gunn and Murdo Macirtchie, the Hall was the result of years of work. Land for the Hall had been secured in 1961, the original deeds for which and correspondence to secure funds for, can be understood in more detail by reading through them in the  treasure trove of archived material at Comunn Eachdraidh Nis.If you have yet to sign up for the CEN yearly membership scheme we’d recommend that you do. For ten pounds a year you can have unlimited access to the archive records, and electronic copies of the  latest and upcoming ‘Criomagan’ publication

Alongside the ‘official’ documents within the archives are booking diaries and letters detailing how and when different artists were booked for the hall – Fergie Macdonald’s Highland Show Band, The Wick Scottish Dance Band, The Macdonald Sisters, Robbie Hall and Jimmie Macgregor (booked through a London agent with the name ‘Miss Binx’). The long hand nature of the communications makes for  a fascinating and absorbing read, with things in question being raised without the modern day assumption (or indeed feasibility) that an answer would be forthcoming immediately. There is confirmation of the BBC using footage from ceilidhs at the Hall on two separate programmes and, as most people will remember, it was not just music that the hall was used for. 

In 1971 a booking was made by the Post Office ‘for the purpose of training their staff in decimalisation,’ and ‘Direct Carpets’ is frequently referred to. As you read through the archive and move towards the later part of the 70’s, different uses of the hall become apparent in the ‘type’ of music that some members of the community were interested in. A ‘contract of hire’ form from 1977 details the booking of the Hall  for the sum of £40.00, for holding a ‘Disco’ – just a month behind the opening of Studio 54 in New York, but just as popular with the younger generation in Ness, and perhaps on par with controversy as the years progressed. 

Throughout this era, regardless of the different uses and music genres – the Hall was busy. ‘The Alasdair Gillies Show’ in January 1969 sold three hundred tickets with artists such as Fergie, J.M Morrison, Islay MacTaggart, The Three Macs Band and Mary Smith performing. And the popularity in attending was not just from members of the Ness community – audience members came from far and wide, with of course the need for them to make it home again after the Dances finished, but not necessarily in their own vehicles. Fios has it on good intelligence that the inhabitants of South Dell often unknowingly donated their tractors and cars to assist this cause, locating them the next day, if lucky, in the next village. 

The point is that the Hall was not just busy, it was thriving, and yet when you read through the press clippings in the files and the copies of ‘Paipear Nis’ on the shelves, the story of the hall towards the end of the eighties strikes a different tone:

‘Many such magical moments took place at the Ness Hall. The Youth Club was there for years on end. There were badminton nights and historical exhibitions within its walls. It was the building too where Co – chomunn Nis was born – and later died. Ness FC’s re-birth occurred there too – in the days before the Social Club was built. In short, over the twenty-three years since it was created, the hall has played an important part in the history of Ness. Yet over the last few years, it has seemed more and more to belong to our district’s past…..Now, it has reached a point when – with hardly any cash in the coffers, its structure needing repair – the Ness Hall may have to close.’
Paper Nis Vol.11 No 10 30 October 1987

By 1991 the community had rallied, and re- rallied a number of times, raised finances and restructured areas of the hall. Over three – hundred people attended the official reopening concert and the hall was in use again, consistently, if not as flamboyantly as during the golden years. When you read through the fios archives Ness Hall is consistently listed throughout the 00s for almost every type of event or activity on-going within the community – supporting the growth of many, if not all of our Ness based organisations.  As these new organisations developed physical spaces of their own however, the listing of the use of Ness hall reduces, as did its state of repair. By 2016 this situation eventually led to the Hall no longer being used for office space or hire and by 2020 the folding of The Ness Hall Committee. 

This is by no means intended to be a detailed, historical, analysis of Ness Hall, (far more people and documents would need to be referred to for that). The purpose of this whistle stop tour is to highlight the extent of the positive impact that Ness Hall has had on the community, and to help put into context some of the ’future use’ perspectives shared at the Ness Community Council meeting last week, of which there was many – from a traditional boat building unit for ‘Sgoths’; Large scale, artist residency studios; A distillery (preferably Rum I believe was decided) or alternatively for the building to be knocked down to be replaced with housing.

It was made clear at the beginning of the meeting by NCC Chair David Green, that NCC was hosting the meeting to facilitate discussion for the community, and not take ownership of managing Ness Hall. Outwith healthy discussion surrounding the potential use of the Hall, or site, the key areas determined at the well-attended meeting were; there is no longer a Ness Hall Committee, there is no existing organisation within Ness who wants to take on responsibility of the Hall, and should any person(s) have an idea for the use of Ness Hall they would need to form a new Ness Hall Committee  (following legal advice for doing so). 

Nobody stepped forward during the meeting to officially form a committee, but it was agreed by NCC that they would host another discussion with regards to ‘What next for Ness Hall’ at a future meeting. It is at this point that this writer is shamelessly using another’s words to sign off with. Along with the hope that soon, a new King (or Queen) will have been identified, will have to take possession of the rare and precious item at the top of Dell Hill and, rather than pass on the ‘gift’, maintain it themselves – maybe with their lottery win? 

‘It is important that the further use of this amenity – in whatever form this might take – be discussed by as large a number as possible. After all, many locals even owe the existence of their marriages to the presence of the Hall! It would hardly be too much to surrender one evening to repay part of a lifelong debt’.

Throughout June, we are taking part in the ‘No News is Bad News’ campaign – which is founded on the belief that a well-informed community is more able to act together to shape its own future, that local news is fundamental to a healthy democratic society and invaluable in helping to create strong communities. As part of this campaign, any money we raise for the project during June will be doubled by an Indie News Fund. If our coverage has helped you understand our community a little bit better, please consider supporting our Crowdfunder.

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