The Close becomes the Square

All our beauty might have been preserved, without the extinction of innumerable antiquities conferring interest and dignity.  But reverence for mere antiquity, …is scarcely a Scotch passion. Henry Cockburn[1]

….the modern taste had substituted, at great apparent expence, a pile so utterly inconsistent with every monument of antiquity around,…Walter Scott[2]

The character of the Close and the appearance of the Parliament Hall was to change fundamentally during the years which followed the Painting. Acts of Parliament of 1806 and 1808 allowed the compulsory purchase and conversion of the business premises and dwellings on the south side of the Square to meet the pressing need for expansion and modernisation of the law courts. The task was facilitated by the Great Fire of 1824 which destroyed the east side of the Square and much of the south side.  

The development work was given to an architect Robert Reid[3] and carried out between 1807-39.  In order to create uniformity between the new developments and the old, Reid ‘modernised’ the façade of the old Parliament House.  This involved the removal of the original entrance in the centre of the east side, together with the Statues of Justice and Mercy which adorned it. The Gothic style of the revered old building was replaced with a radical new Ionic frontage to match that of his new law courts and was applied to all the new building in the Square which followed the Great Fire.  It was closely modelled on Robert Adam’s design of the quadrangle of Edinburgh University which was being built at the same time.  Reid’s design was ‘competent but monotonous’ according to one authority[4] and ‘a ponderous Adamesque wallpaper’ according to another[5].  The covered piazza which was a feature of the new design greatly reduced the size of the Close to the extent that it is no longer possible to visualise the intense commercial activity shown in the Painting.

I The original gothic facade of Parliament House and the south side of the Square. II The new ionic facade designed by Robert Reid. III The New Quadrangle of Edinburgh University which was Reid’s model

The Square today

The new development was not universally popular at the time.  Lockhart, in Peter’s Letters, wrote that the:[6]

….venerable Gothic buildings, which for many generations have been devoted to the accommodation of the Courts of Law, but which are now entirely shut out from the eye of the public, by a very ill-conceived and tasteless front-work of modern device, including a sufficient allowance of staring square windows, and Ionic pillars and pilasters….  It is heavy and clumsy in itself; and extremely ill chosen…Mr Wastle sighs every time we pass through the Close…over ‘the glory that hath departed’.  At all events, there can be no question that the present frontispiece is everyway detestable

Henry Cockburn also did not like it:[7]

When I first knew it, the Parliament House, both outside and in, was a curious and interesting place. No one who remembers the old exterior can see the new one without sorrow and indignation….. The old building exhibited some respectable turrets, some ornamental windows and doors, and a handsome balustrade.  But the charm that ought to have saved it was its colour and its age, which, however, were the very things that caused its destruction.  About 170 years had breathed over it a grave grey hue.  The whole aspect was venerable and appropriate; becoming the air and character of a sanctuary of Justice. But a mason pronounced it to be all “Dead Wall”. The officials to whom, at a period when there was no public taste in Edinburgh, this was addressed, believed him; and the two fronts were removed in order to make way for the bright freestone and contemptible decorations that now disgrace us.  The model having been laid down, has been copied on all subsequent occasions; till at last the old Parliament Close would not be known by the lawyers or senators who walked through it in the days of the Stuarts. …  I cannot doubt that King Charles tried to spur his horse against the Vandals when he saw the profanation begin.  But there was such an utter absence of public spirit in Edinburgh then, that the building might have been painted scarlet without anybody objecting.

Fragments of the original rubble wall of Parliament House have been left untouched and can still be seen.

Illustration IV View of the original west front of Parliament House from George IV Bridge

Illustration V: The south face as seen from top floor of the National Library. Note the sundials inset in the wall.

Maitland commented that ‘The appearance of the Parliament House was completely altered in 1829 with a result the reverse of felicitous’[8].  Some, however, liked the changes. ‘The new Courts of Session House, with the other improvements of the Parliament House and the Court of Exchequer add greatly to the beauty of the Square.’[9]

It is possible that the root cause of the objections was the disappearance of a way of life, as shown in the Painting, which was symbolised by the new façade.  The concurrent development of the New Town which attracted commerce and the wealthy residents away from the Square had much greater responsibility.  Apart from his much-criticised façade, Reid did excellent work designing the admired Signet and Advocates Library extending westwards from the site of the burnt down Goldsmiths Hall and the new law courts on the south side of the Square. He was also much involved in the developing New Town including the completion of Charlotte Square after Robert Adam’s death.

As the old Close with its varied architecture developed into a more homogeneous, and to many, a less interesting uniformity, the name Parliament Close gradually evolved into Parliament Square.  Needless to say, the old stagers objected to this change. Wilson wrote ‘…the good old name of Close, which is pleasingly associated with the cloistral courts of the magnificent cathedrals and abbeys of England, has been replaced by the modern, and, in this case, ridiculous one of Square’.[10]  Cockburn referred to ‘The Parliament Square as foppery now calls it,…. used, and ought, to be called the Parliament Close[11] and Scott in Red Gauntlet called it a ‘new-fangled affectation’.[12]

As the rebuilding and expansion of the law courts progressed, the shops and other commercial enterprises which had occupied the Square progressively disappeared.  The shops and taverns had already been removed from the Parliament Hall in the 1790s.  Many jewellers, goldsmiths, watchmakers and booksellers had migrated to the New Town as did the rest who were driven out by the Great Fire of 1824.  The Krames which had clung to the side of St Giles since 1555 were cleared away in 1817 and the damaged walls of the kirk were extensively repaired in 1829-33. Inevitably this much needed development also came in for criticism by the old diehards. Daniel Wilson wrote in his Memorials p378

It must be a subject of unfailing regret to every true antiquary, that the restoration of St Giles’s Church in 1829 was conducted in so rash and irreverent a spirit, in consequence of which so many of its peculiar features have disappeared… .Had its restoration been delayed even for a few a years, the increasing study of Gothic architecture, which is already so widely diffused, would in all probability have secure the preservation of much that is now beyond recall

A few business premises were retained in the rebuilt east side of the Square, but John’s Coffee House and the other taverns in which the legal fraternity enjoyed their meridian were destroyed in the Great Fire.  The throng of activity and vitality shown in the Painting was replaced by a few sedate figures chiefly concerned with the activities of the law courts. Banking activity in the Square ceased when the Union Bank was replaced by the Commissary Court in 1885.

A poem by an unnamed author quoted by Wilson[13] summarises some of the changes which took place in the Square over the years.  Two extracts read:

A scene of grave yet busy life
Within the ancient city’s very heart,
Teeming with old historic memories, rife
With a departed glory, stood apart.
Fire, time and modern taste,-the worst of all,-
Have swept in ruthless zeal across the scene
And the lead king and shadow on the wall,
Alone survive of all that once has been.

Perhaps the Square was not quite as dull as these lines indicate, for another poem suggests that the legal fraternity was capable of having some fun. (The idea of this poem came to John Oliver when he saw a peevers court chalked out in Parliament Square in March 1954). [14]


They’re playin’at Peevers in Parliament Square,
In Parliament Square, in Parliament Square;
And judges and pleaders and writers are there,
A’ettlin’ to play at the Peevers.
They run oot like stour when they’re by wi’ their trokes,
Tis the beds, chalkit oot like a muckle square box
Atween Chairlie’s horse and the grave o’ John Knox –
A gran’ place to play at the Peevers!
The Lord President’s sel’, when the pleaders are mute
And he’d fain hae a change frae forensic dispute,
Has challenged the Lord Justice Clerk to come oot
To see wha’ll be best at the Peevers.
And the Writers and Advocates, gethert aroun,
They a’ held their braiths and nane daurt mak’ a soun,
As ilk ane cam forrit and kiltit his goun,
Syne yerkit awa at the Peevers.
They stood on ae leg wi’ nae shoogle or swither,
And the Peevers they skiffed frae ae square to anither,
And the hale Bench and Bar were sune roarin’ thegither
To see them sae gleg at the Peevers.
But the Lord Justice Clerk, he was soople and strang,
And it seemed he juist couldna dae onything wrang;
But the President could – and it wasna that lang
Till he awned himself bate at the Peevers.
And the Lord Justice Clerk said, ‘in matters o’Law,
My Lord, there are nane that come near ye ava;
In fact ye’re the flooer o’ the Paliament Ha,
But yer’re no worth a drawn at the Peevers’

[1] Cockburn Memorials p168

[2] Scott, W The Heart of Midlothian p219

[3] Robert Reid (1774-1856) was appointed King’s Architect and Surveyor in Scotland from 1827-39.  His work was much influenced by the style of Robert Adam

[4] Youngson A J The Making of Classical Edinburgh p133-5

[5] Gifford J et al The Buildings of Edinburgh p119

[6] Lockhart Peter’s Letters number 14

[7] Cockburn Memorials p97-99

[8] Maxwell p165fn

[9] Arnot History of Edinburgh  p533 Appendix ‘A Sketch of the Improvements of the City from 1780-1816’, written by an unnamed author.

[10] Wilson, Memorials of Edinburgh I p118

[11] Cockburn Memorials p98

[12] Scott Redgauntlet vol 2 p131 

[13] Ibid I pp 219-20

[14] Oliver J W Peevers in Parliament Square and other verses.  Private publication, undated.  Peevers is an alternative name for the better known childhood game of hop-scotch.