A review of the buildings and people illustrated in the painting “The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh”

by John Chalmers

Painting of Parliament Square viewed from the south
Courtesy of City Art Centre, City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries. (Currently on display in the City of Edinburgh Museum)

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When visiting an exhibition in the Edinburgh City Art Centre some years ago, I was fascinated by an old painting of Parliament Square – hereafter identified in italics as the Painting. It is teeming with people and surrounded by shops.  Some features were familiar – the equestrian statue of Charles II and St Giles itself, although then with a clock in the steeple, but the surrounding buildings looked quite different. A unified frontage has been applied to all the buildings other than St Giles giving a dignified appearance to the Square – much criticised at the time by those who remembered with affection the historic gothic facades. The new frontage, enclosing a covered pathway, has greatly reduced the size of the Square so that it could no longer accommodate the intense activity shown in the painting.   The Square then was full of people gossiping or conducting business, others selling goods or begging, soldiers marching, children playing and not a vehicle in sight other than a sedan chair. Coffee shops and taverns and premises of jewellers, watchmakers and booksellers etc surrounded the Square, some of them built against the wall of St Giles. The roof of the Old Tolbooth (Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian) can be seen in the left background. On the east side of the Square and on the south side, which cannot be seen for it is behind the viewpoint of the artist, were high tenements. Shops and offices occupied the lower levels with residential apartments above, where lived a cross section of the populace ranging from law lords and the gentry to lowly artisans and seamstresses.  

Setting the Scene: Edinburgh’s Golden Age.

The Painting shows Edinburgh in the midst of what is sometimes referred to as Edinburgh’s Golden Age – the latter half of the 18th to the early 19th century. The City was then experiencing a remarkable transition from a medieval town largely confined within a city wall, recovering from financial depression and the after effects of the Jacobite rebellion to become a thriving, vibrant community. (read more…


Parliament Square today, viewed from the west. It is almost deserted – a car park for the privileged few.

The contrast between the humming human activity then and the cloistral seclusion of the Square today is striking.  A car park now occupies the Square and the tenements have been largely replaced by the ever-expanding law courts. A few lawyers and litigants cross the Square and the occasional tourist wanders in from the High Street, but all the shops have gone. The only remaining commercial activity in recent time was a excellent café hidden away in the basement of St Giles. Alas even this reminder of the past has disappeared in 2020.

The St Giles Cafe – the last residual commercial activity

A visitor to the Square today can hardly imagine the excitements and transformations which the Square has witnessed since the Painting was created. Events which caused this evolution include the Building of the New Town which deprived the Square of much of its commercial activity and its residents; the Rebuilding of the frontages of St Giles and Parliament House which completely altered the appearance of the Square and the Great Fires which destroyed the east and south sides of the Square enabling the rebuilding and extension of the law courts.

This study attempts to identify the artist(s) of the unsigned Painting and to fix its date (c1794).  The Painting is used as the focal point from which to describe life in Edinburgh at that time.  Inevitably, to put the picture in context, it was necessary to examine the neighbouring properties and to widen the time scale.  Where to draw the limits has been a problem and I hope that readers will forgive me if my enthusiasm has carried me too far in both space and time.  It is intended to be a vignette and not a history of Edinburgh. The structural and social changes which changed the character of the Square around the time of the Painting are described. As these transformations took place the name of the area changed from Parliament Close to Parliament Square in the early nineteenth century.  In the text the names Close and Square are used as they were at the time which may cause some confusion but they are for practical purposes synonymous.

Engraving of the Painting by John Le Conte 1844. Courtesy of Edinburgh Central Library.

An engraving of the Painting was made in 1844. The inscription on the engraving reads

Engraved by John Le Conte, Etched by Thomas Dobbie & Published by Alexander Hill, Publisher to the Royal Scottish Academy, 67 Princes Street Edinburgh, October 1st 1844. The original picture in the possession of Robert Bryson FRSE. The figures by Sir David Wilkie, Alex Fraser, Wm Kidd; the Architecture Landscape by David Roberts, John Wilson etc. The Parliament Close and Public Characters of Edinburgh fifty years since.

To open a high resolution version of the Engraving on a new page click here

For the Index to the Chapters, click here

To explore the Interactive Painting, click here