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  • Writer's pictureRobert Sproul-Cran

Hiding in plain view

Updated: Feb 22

Although most of the exterior of the old Scottish Parliament is hidden there are still remarkable remnants if you know where to look.

Here is the turret on the south east corner of the old Parliament Hall. This view is from the roof of the court buildings, but there is one vantage point accessible to the public - the roof of the National Museums of Scotland. Here is the south gable end showing the south western turret as well.

If you look to the bottom of the wall you can make out the tops of two of the original windows which were replaced in 1868 by the Great Window we see today. The de Wet print of 1640 shows how the turrets embellished each corner of the original building.

The roof provides other views, plus some fascinating architectural details.

You'll notice that sundials were an important feature of that era. Was this a service to the public? Or a way of ensuring that court and parliamentary sessions went ahead on schedule?There may be an additional function. On top of the south gable end above the Great Window is another sundial not visible from the ground.

This might suggest that guards kept watch from the roof. They would need to know when their watch finished and it was time for another guard to relieve them. Speculation - but it would be interesting to know if another explanation is known.

The roof reveals another glimpse of a seemingly lost feature of the old Scottish Parliament Hall - because the top of the circular staircase tower still exists. It's not visible from below, surrounded by balustrades and Sphinx statues from the Reid facade. But it's still intact - and hides a fascinating secret...

This illustration from Hugo Arnot's 'History of Edinburgh', published in 1816, shows the top window in the tower with diagonal leading, matching that of the main windows on the original facade of Parliament Hall. But the original window still exists - and it doesn't match!

It is possible to gain access to the inside of the tower. The window has now been completely enclosed by the later stone facade. But we can see that the glazing is more in keeping with that of the Exchequer building which was built alongside the 'Jamb' - the wing adjacent to the Parliament Hall in the original L-shaped building. Compare the de Wet print earlier in this post with the Arnot print above and you can see the new Exchequer buildings added along the south side of Parliament Square. So were the tower windows replaced with a more contemporary style at the same time as the Exchequer was built? It seems the most likely time for this to happen.

It's this kind of research which is allowing an increasingly accurate virtual computer model to be created. This in turn allows virtual photographs to be taken of the buildings at various stages of their history. So - much more to come. Let's finish this post with an image which shows the scope of what now becomes possible. This is Parliament Square in the period between the construction of Parliament Hall, finished in 1640, and the addition of the Treasury and Exchequer buildings a few years later. As yet, no equestrian statue, and the building to the right of the main door is the one shown in the de Wet etching - possibly a timber framed predecessor to the later Goldsmiths Hall.


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