Storytelling as a freestanding contemporary artform woven into the rich literary history of Edinburgh’s Old Town. Its location at the Netherbow Port, incorporating the iconic, historic John Knox House and re-presenting the long-demolished Port’s historic bell, supports storytelling’s status as “gateway” art, while the project’s urban weave of Court, Close and Garden recovers the mediaeval townscape of Edinburgh whose creative and social interaction sparked its writers, artists and thinkers.

The Story of the Gateway Site

This site, combining the historic John Knox House with the adjacent former Netherbow Centre, marks the historic, mediaeval main gateway into Edinburgh. The original gateway’s width contrasted with the narrow closes which protected other entries into Edinburgh and was frequently breached by invading English armies.

A commercial development in the 1470s, achieved by Act of Parliament, improved civic defences by narrowing this approach with a new set of (foreland) tenements, financed and enlivened by the high-value, commercial bustle of a shopping parade (the “luckenbooths”), and slapped across the fronts of the existing townhouses.

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Roberto Ricciuti

LocationThe Royal Mile, Edinburgh

CLIENT / The Church of Scotland, The Scottish Storytelling Forum

ARCHITECT / Malcolm Fraser Architects

COMPLETION / May 2006

GROSS INTERNAL AREA / 840m2; Capacity 113 children aged from 6 weeks to five years.

BRIEF AND CONSTRUCTION / A Home for Stories Theatre: Court, Café, Offices and Library for the Storytelling Forum in the substantially-rebuilt Netherbow Arts Centre, with alterations to John Knox House to form shop and reception.

Netherbow site history 1
Pre-1470s: the Netherbow Gate was the (often breached) main entrance to the City of Edinburgh.
Netherbow site history 2
• 1472-1517: new tenements built in front of existing townhouses to narrow and protect the Port.

After the Battle of Flodden in 1513 the City Wall moved east to protect this new street, named the Netherbow. The major reconstruction of what is now known as “John Knox House” was carried out by James Mossman – the Royal goldsmith – around 1556, the building largely assuming its present form. 

The gateway, the Netherbow Port, was rebuilt many times, with its great bell being hung in 1621, before being demolished in 1764.

The Netherbow Port Edinburgh
From 1621 Netherbow Port housed the City Bell, which now hangs in the Scottish Storytelling Centre bell tower.
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Netherbow site history 3
1517-1764: the Flodden Wall moves east, to contain the new street - the Netherbow. Major reconstruction of the house now known as "John Knox House" takes place around 1556.
Netherbow site history 4
19th century: the Netherbow Port has been demolished and the Murray Knox Church is constructed, along with new tenements.

A Workshop for Storytelling

Storytelling was explored through an architect-led “Storytelling, Place and Building” Workshop. The oral tradition is strong in northern European cultures in general and Scotland in particular, through the great Gaelic traditions, Border Ballads, Travellers’ Tales, the Viking Orkneyinga Saga and elsewhere.

It is an inclusive and integrative artform embracing literature and performance. The storytelling gathering – in Gaelic the Ceilidh – is seen as art and hospitality combined, and as a “gateway” to a community of artforms and cultures and to “our land, our culture, ourselves”.

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Workshop Abstract

1. A Gate

Following the Act of Union the Netherbow Port was demolished as an impediment to trade, and further traffic considerations caused the Victorians to build Improvement Act tenements back from the historic street-edge.

The Murray Knox Church, celebrating John Knox’s place as Church titan, came and went, to be replaced, in the 1970s, by the Netherbow Arts Centre, which the new Scottish Storytelling Centre builds upon, both physically and in its programme. The rebuilding uses the sense of urban compression and arrival to recover the idea of “Gateway” as historic event, and as metaphor and tale.

The 1621 City Bell is re-presented in a new Outlook tower, combined with forestair entry and complementary to the Renaissance vigour of John Knox House. Tower and entry look from the location of the old gate east down the Royal Mile, over the new Parliament and out to Aberlady Bay: the bell, the gate and the place all wound-about with tales of the City and connections to and from it.

Netherbow site history 5
2006-present: The Netherbow within the 21st century High Street.
The Netherbow Bell hanging in its tower, Royal Mile, Edinburgh
Edinburgh's 1621 City Bell has returned to the Royal Mile.
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the former netherbow
The Netherbow Arts Centre, prior to works beginning.
Exterior of The Scottish Storytelling Centre, Royal Mile, Edinburgh
The Scottish Storytelling Centre builds upon the Netherbow Arts Centre.

2. A Court

Entries through John Knox House and the new forestair unite the differing levels of the previous buildings with the steep fall of the Royal Mile, gathering all into the Storytelling Court.

The Court is informal, a foyer and ceilidh-room with the hospitality of a café as its welcome. It is warm and full of light and adapts to form niches and storytelling places via a great, hinged, “wall of stories”.

The Court is overlooked and also outward-looking, connecting to: the City and its tales through the street window; the natural world of the Storytelling Garden through the big window to the rear; and the sky, through skylights who’s fins catch and diffuse sunlight into the airy Court – a trinity of contexts for stories, with a fourth the view out to the sea, from the Tower

Interior of Scottish Story Telling Centre, Edinburgh. Wood panelled studio with pull-out divider/shelves in wood
The Storytelling Court.
Interior of Scottish Story Telling Centre, Edinburgh. Wood panelled studio with pull-out divider/shelves in wood
The "wall of stories" can pivot to create smaller spaces within the Storytelling Court.

3. A Hearth

Storytelling is, for us, intimacy, warmth and connection. The wee painting is an emblem that the Storytelling

Theatre re-presents: the bank of seats wide and shallow, with aisles to either side so that a Storyteller faces people not corridor; entry from the back so the audience is joined and not disrupted; acoustics tuned to the unamplified voice (the Storyteller can whisper as well as shout); and the theatre lined and boarded dark and warm, but with a (shuttered) window onto the garden outside.

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Theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh
The Theatre, with acoustics tuned for unamplified voice, and suited to both daylight or after-dark performances.
Atmosphere Audience Credit Solen Collet

Main Contractor / Watson Construction; contract value £2.6m.

MFA Team / Neil Simpson, David Seel, Hanne Vanreusel, Pete McLaughlan and Malcolm Fraser, with Tim Beecher, Clive Albert, John Munro, Lucy Sacker, Nick Walker and Tomas Miller.

Structural engineer / Elliott&Co

Services / EnConsult

Costs / Morham and Brotchie

LightingKevan Shaw

Theatre / Andrew Storer

Acoustics / RMP

Client Rep, PS / KLM

Principal Awards

Edinburgh Architectural Association, 2007

Building of The Year

RIBA Award, 2007

Roses Design Awards, 2006

Best Public Building

RIAS, 2006

Doolan Award for Architecture
Finalist

Photography