A Brief History of the Garrison Theatre
In 1901 the 7th Volunteer Battalion ‘The Gordon Highlanders’ was formed in Shetland. HQ and facilities were subsequently required. On 22 July 1903 Captain Commandant Moffat of the Battalion laid the memorial stone of the new building, with the formal inauguration taking place on 17 September 1904. It could never have been envisaged at the time that “Da Dreel Haal” would serve the community for over a century and become the much loved “Garrison Theatre”.
The Drill Hall/Gymnasium measured 21.3m by 10m, and the various gymnastic apparatus could be cleared away to leave floor space for drill. The building also contained a Recreation and Lecture Room, Anteroom, Armoury and Toilet.
The Commanding Officer and adjutant had a room upstairs, adjoining the Officers’ Mess.
A Gymnasium Club was formed which was open to Shetland residents of both sexes and all ages. Running costs were met by grants from Zetland County Council, Lerwick Town Council and public donations. The Club employed a qualified instructor and within three weeks of opening there were a total of 238 members.
The Volunteers became Territorials in 1908 and along with the Royal Naval Reserve men they drilled in the Hall every winter. “Da Dreel Haal” played a valuable role in the whole community, town and country. It was also used for Boy Scouts’ activities, school P.E., boxing, fencing, sales of work, exhibitions, as an Up-Helly-Aa hall and by badminton clubs.
Following the outbreak of war in 1914 Lerwick became an important naval base and the Drill Hall was required for wartime use.
After the war the TA was not in operation and the Hall continued to be used for badminton, with the adjacent rooms let as offices including estate offices for the Garth Estate.
Following mobilisation of the Territorial Army (TA) in 1939 the hall was requisitioned as headquarters for the Shetland Defence Battalion and later for the 7th Battalion Black Watch. The population of Shetland doubled with the influx of servicemen and initially the building was used as an army meat store and canteen.
In 1940 ENSA, (Entertainments National Service Association), commandeered the hall as a theatre to entertain service personnel. It was soon dubbed the “Garrison Theatre” and following conversion to a proper theatre by the Royal Engineers and Pioneers it was officially named so when it reopened on 7 December 1941. Now completely transformed with a sloping stage, full stage lighting, cinema projectors and screen the theatre remained in use until the end of the war. It was constantly filled to capacity as army personnel and locals alike were entertained by servicemen, touring concert parties, film shows and famous celebrities. In February 1943 the well-known stage and film comedian George Formby and his wife paid a flying visit and in August the equally well-known and popular Gracie Fields entertained the troops.
Following a period of uncertainty about the future of the theatre this was resolved when the Zetland Territorial Association leased the building to the Education Authority. In 1958 the stage was set back and raked seating was installed in the auditorium. Ownership passed to the Zetland County Council in 1966.
Responsibility for running the theatre passed from the Education Committee to the Islesburgh House Committee on 1 April 1974 and to the newly formed SIC Leisure and Recreation Department the following year. Islesburgh Management Committee, provided input to the running of the theatre through the Garrison Theatre Sub-committee.
A complete refurbishment of the theatre was carried out in 1989 and “Da Garrison” was reopened on 31 October 1990 by SIC Convener Edward Thomason, OBE.
Islesburgh Trust became owner/operator from 1999 until April 2006 when the management and staff of the Garrison Theatre were transferred from the Isl
esburgh Trust to Shetland Islands Council with Shetland Arts Trust, now Shetland Arts, taking over responsibility for its operation.
At the present time, despite the opening of Mareel in 2012, the 280 Garrison Theatre facilitates the provision of a varied annual programme of community and professional shows, including live theatre, fiddle competitions, stand up comedy, concerts, dance and pantomime.
Douglas M Sinclair