Parliament House

The main building on the left (west) side of the Painting is the Parliament House, which at that time was the home of the Scottish Parliament and Law Courts. In its early years the Scottish Parliament had a rather nomadic existence meeting in various locations including Perth, Stirling and Linlithgow.  From 1449 its usual meeting place was in Edinburgh in very unsatisfactory and cramped accommodation in the Old Tolbooth which it shared with the Court of Session.  When the Old Tolbooth was condemned by Queen Mary in 1561, Parliament was rehoused in still inadequate quarters in the New Tolbooth and in the Outer Tolbooth created within St Giles itself.[1]  

By 1632 it became apparent that the New Tolbooth was totally inadequate for its several functions which included accommodating Parliament, the Court of Session and the Privy Council. Charles I requested that the Town Council should provide a better alternative. A Town Council minute dated 13 March 1632 records that:

The lack of convenient and fit rooms within the burgh for keeping of Parliament Session, Council House and other public meetings may procure the same to be abstracted furth of the burgh to the great loss and prejudice of the whole inhabitants.[2] 

This threat compelled the Council to provide a new Parliament House. Raising the necessary funds was to be a constant problem.  The cost of the new building was £11,630 sterling or £127,000 Scots, (about £30 million today) which was borne by subscriptions from the citizens of Edinburgh and a large loan which remained a burden on the City’s finances for many years. This was the source of a great deal of protest from the citizens. Maitland wrote[3]

…. this is an affair probably not to be paralleled that a national building for the service of the Kingdom, should be erected at the expense of the Edinburgers without the least assistance from Parliament, for whose use and accommodation it was built.

The building, designed by Sir James Murray, Master of Works to His Majesty, was built during the years 1632-40. The first meeting of the Parliament in the new building was held on 12 August 1639 – just before the final completion. The seating was borrowed from St Giles.

The Parliament House by James Gordon of Rothiemay 1649

The site chosen for the new Parliament House was the west side of St Giles graveyard, which involved the demolition of three houses of the canons of St Giles. It was built over the upper part of the steep slope leading downwards towards the Cowgate. The style, described as Scottish Gothic, was similar to that of St Giles Cathedral. The main building consisted of a long hall measuring 122 by 49 feet (40.1 by 12.8 meters) designed to accommodate Parliament and the Outer House of the Court of Session and an L-shaped extension to the east known as the Treasury which housed the Inner House of the Court of Session on the lower level and the Treasury Chambers and Privy Council above.  

The changing role of Parliament Hall

Inevitably, as had happened with the Old and New Tolbooths and with St Giles itself, the functions to which these buildings were put altered from time to time according to the requirements of the age. The original purpose of the building, as its name suggests, was to accommodate the Parliament of Scotland. The first Scottish Parliament to be held there was on 12th August 1639 and the last on 28th April 1707.  Following the Union of Parliaments in 1707 it was no longer required for this purpose and the Law Courts, which had shared the building since its foundation, became the sole occupants.

The Outer House, which remained as the main occupant of the Hall, contained the courts conducted by the Lords Ordinary, which were concerned with relatively minor issues.  Three such courts could be conducted at the same time in the Hall which was open to the public. The judge sat in one of three niches in the East wall attended by advocates and spectators.  John Gibson Lockhart (Peter’s Letters vol 2) gives a vivid description of the situation.

Here is a perfect world of eagerness and activity – every face alert, and sharpened into the acutest angles. Some I could see were darting about among the different bars, where pleadings were going forward, like midshipmen in an engagement, furnishing powder to the combatants. They brought their great guns, their advocates to bear upon one judge and sometimes upon another; while each judge might be discovered sitting calmly, like a fine piece of stonework amidst the hiss of bombs and roar of forty pounders.

At one bar there was a “mass of eager, bent-forward, listening admirers, assembled to do honour to some favourite speaker of the day”, already smiling at an expected joke or concentrating on his cunning reasoning.  Meanwhile, at the bar of another judge there is no audience.  There stood “some wearisome proser, to whom nobody listens except from necessity… thumping the bar before him in all the agonies of unpartaken earnestness, his hoarse clamorous voice floating desperately into thin air, ‘like the voice of a man crying in the wilderness whom no man heareth’ ”

This unsatisfactory situation remained until the mid-nineteenth century when new courtrooms were built in the developments taking place in the south side of Parliament Square and the 200 year old custom of holding court hearings in the open Hall was abandoned in 1844.  Thereafter the splendid Hall remains as it is today – a meeting place for lawyers and their clients and a waiting room for those attending the many adjacent courts. It has become an essential attraction for tourists who can absorb some of the history of the building from its architecture and artefacts which include many statues and portraits of distinguished jurists who once functioned there. 

Occasionally the splendid Hall has been used for state occasions such as banquets to welcome visits to Edinburgh by royalty. Thus Charles II was entertained in August 1650 and George IV during his visit on 24 August 1822 when he was regaled with Scottish dishes of hodge-podge, haggis and sheep’s heid.

Banquet for George IV in Parliament Hall in 1822. Engravng by W H Lizars

Musical Festivals were held in the Hall in 1815, 1819, and 1824. The Great Fire of 1824 occurred one month after the Festival of that year and was regarded by some as Divine retribution although why that should be so was hard to understand for much of the music performed consisted of religious works such as Handel’s Messiah.

Robert Louis Stevenson described the functioning of the Hall in his day (1878) with reference to aspiring advocates seeking employment:[5]

A pair of swing doors gives admittance to a hall with a curved roof, hung with legal portraits, adorned with legal statuary, lighted by windows of painted glass, and warmed by three vast fires.  This is the Salle des pas perdus of the Scottish Bar. Here by ferocious custom, idle youths must promenade from ten till two.  From end to end, singly or in pairs or trios, the gowns and wigs go back and forward… Intelligent men have been walking here daily for ten or twenty years without a rag of business or a shilling of reward.  In process of time, they may perhaps be made sheriff substitute and Fountain of Justice at Lerwick or Tobermory….to do this day by day and year after year, may seem so small a thing to the inexperienced, but those who have made the experiment are of a different way of thinking, and count it the most arduous form of idleness.

In the Inner House which occupied the ground floor of the adjoining building all fifteen judges of the Court of Session sat together to adjudicate on the more important cases. Cockburn described it as:

….being so cased in venerable dirt that it was impossible to say whether it had ever been painted: …A huge fire-place stood behind the Lord President’s chair, with one of the stone jambs cracked, and several of the bars of the large grate broken.  That grate was always at least half full of dust. It probably had never been completely cleared since the institution of the Court in the sixteenth century. …Dismal though this hole was, the old fellows who had been bred there never looked so well anywhere else and deeply did they growl at the spirit of innovation which drove them from their accustomed haunt.[6]

Cockburn also commented on the absurdity of a bench of fifteen judges deliberating on a cause. ‘Each acting independently was tempted to stand up for every particle of his own notion; and a love of victory, display, and refutation was apt to supersede the calm feelings appropriate to the judgment seat.’[7] This arrangement was altered in 1808 when the Court of Session was split into two Divisions. 

The Laigh Hall

Because of the steep slope on which the building was erected, a large space existed beneath the floor of the southern part of the Parliament Hall and the Treasury. This useful space, known as the Laigh (low) Hall, was to be put to various uses over the years.  Thus the Laigh Hall served as the store of the National Archive until Register House was opened in 1788 and as the Advocate’s Library until its own splendid building was opened in 1818. Space was also found there for storage of civic furniture such as the gallows, the Maiden[8], street lamps and the leather buckets and flambeaux used by the firemen.[9]

During the Commonwealth, Cromwell held 32 Scottish prisoners in the Laigh Hall but thirty of them managed to escape by cutting a hole in the ceiling of their cell. Cromwell’s commissioners replaced the judges in the Court of Session from 1650 to 1661

Section through Parliament House showing the large storage space available beneath the floor of Parliament Hall.
Part of the Laigh Hall as it is today 

Stevenson describes it:[10] (p56)

As the Parliament House is built upon a slope, although it presents only one story to the north, it measures half-a-dozen at least upon the south; and range after range of vaults extend below the libraries.  Few places are more characteristic of this hilly capital.  You descend one stone stair after another, and wander, by the flicker of a match, in a labyrinth of stone cellars. …. A little farther and you strike upon a room, not empty like the rest, but crowded with Productions from bygone criminal cases; a grim lumber: lethal weapons, poisoned organs in a jar, a door with a shot hole through the panel behind which a man fell dead. I cannot fancy why they should preserve them. 

The demand for shop space within the cramped confines of the Old Town, coupled with the City’s constant need of revenue, resulted in the northern part of Parliament Hall being partitioned off to provide spaces for shops selling books and hardware and even taverns. Henry Cockburn states that by 1792 the bookstalls had been replaced by jewellers and cutlers. He recalled buying his first pair of skates there[11].  During public occasions such as banquets and musical festivals the commercial area with its flimsy partitions, could be removed and the Hall opened up in all its glory[12]. The shops were finally removed by 1805 and the law courts remained in sole occupation.

The early illustrations of Parliament Hall, prior to the addition of the new facade in 1824, show that the main entrance to the Hall was on its east wall. Appropriately for the entrance to such an important building, the imposing doorway was framed by carved stones and on the pediment above the door were two statues standing on either side of the city arms.  

The original entrance to the Parliament Hall with its imposing pediment. (From Wilson D. p99)

The two allegorical statues represented Justice and Mercy.  Justice carries scales in her right hand and Mercy holds a crown against her heart – the seat of pity and compassion. The statues were unceremoniously removed from the wall in 1824 during the refacing of the east wall of the Parliament House. Their subsequent fate and recovery is described in the section on Statues in the Square.  Also removed with the statues was the original pediment stone depicting a crown surmounted by a cross, and bearing the date 1636. This stone has been replaced over a doorway in the new façade of Parliament Hall and is the only external reminder of the original gothic frontage.  The original Royal Coat of Arms which at one time graced the entrance to the Parliament Hall had been removed together with those on Mercat Cross and on the Kings Seat in St Giles by the Commissioners of the Commonwealth Parliament in 1652.

Photograph of the residual fragment of the old pediment 

The statues of Justice and Mercy had been sacrificed in order to allow the new frontage of Parliament House to be built. These alterations which were carried out by the architect Robert Reid during 1807-39 are discussed more fully in the section entitled The Close becomes the Square.  

The appearance of Parliament House before Reid’s alterations
Appearance of Parliament House after the alterations made by R Reid in the 1820’s. (T H Shepherd 1829)
 Parliament House today. The statue of Charles II has been moved eastward.

The modern facade attracted a great deal of criticism. Henry Cockburn in his memorable Letter to the Lord Provost on the best ways of spoiling the beauty of Edinburgh wrote:

I doubt if it be forty years since the Parliament House stood, venerable in its old gray hue, and with its few, but appropriate, ornaments; – the very type of an ancient legal temple.  What is it now? For the modernising of it, who ever heard the shadow of a decent pretence?…That there were paltry wrecks beside it, which it was impossible to save, was only an additional reason for leaving this entire and well placed historical structure as it was.  It dignified the whole vicinity, and would have earned the greater reverence, as what was near it got newer.[13]

The shaded area shows the footprint of the original Parliament House and its relationship with the surrounding legal offices today.

[1] The Outer Tolbooth was created by partitioning off the west end of the nave of St Giles. In 1563 first Parliament attended by Queen Mary was held in St Giles.

[2] Cited in Edinburgh 1329-1929 p5

[3] Maitland p186

[4] Find ref

[5] Stevenson, R L loc sit p53-4

[6] Cockburn, H Memorials pp101-2

[7] Ibid pp232-3

[8] The Maiden was Scotland’s version of the guillotine, used for beheading the better class of wrongdoers such as the Earl of Murray and the Duke of Argyle for whom hanging would be demeaning. 

[9] Maitland p186 details the uses to which the space under the floor of Parliament Hall was put.  

[10] Stevenson R L Picturesque Notes on Edinburgh p56

[11] Memorials p100 

[12] Cullen p11 records that the Town Council provided an annual celebration in the Hall on 4 June, the birthday of George III.  These became rather rowdy occasions, and it was with relief that they were discontinued in 1812 ‘on account of His Majesty’s disposition.’ 

[13] Memorials Appendix p327