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  • Writer's pictureRobert Sproul-Cran

Take your seats

The question posed in the last blog was - what is the area in the de Gueudeville print which looks like a balcony?



Our assumption so far is that de Gueudeville only had access to a seating plan and had no idea of the physical layout of the Parliament Hall. A significant clue came from the book 'Reekiana, or Minor Antiquities of Edinburgh' written by Robert Chambers in 1833.



In its section on Parliament House the book contains a floor plan. This is from the 19th Century, but it contains a number of significant observations:


"Till about the year 1780, the house presented much the same appearance as before the Union..."

"The forms of the house survived; but, instead of being used by members of Parliament, only served for wily writers and their unfortunate clients. We allude to the seats; of which those for the nobles and barons extended along the walls, while those for the commissioners of burghs were placed transversely in the centre of the floor; the Scottish Parliament being one body, composed of three different estates."


Here is Chambers' floor plan:

I have included the full text of the relevant section from Chambers at the foot of this blog. But the significant takeaway from this is that the southern (top) end of the Hall was devoted to the business of Parliament, while the northern end not only contained the Sheriff Court (7), but also book sellers (2), a hardware store (3), a hatmaker's stall (4) and a coffee shop (5) belonging to the showman and entrepreneur Indian Peter. And it's the southern end at the top of the diagram which we're interested in for the moment. Because this appears to be the section illustrated in the de Gueudeville print. If he was working from a seating plan as I am supposing, then he would have had no knowledge of the other end of the Hall.


And what do we find there? Section 14 is labelled "Benches raised one above another, where lawyers and writers sat, and were seen by those wanting them." Or pre-1707 their use was noted: "We allude to the seats; of which those for the nobles and barons extended along the walls, while those for the commissioners of burghs were placed transversely in the centre of the floor."


So what would the 'forms' or benches have looked like?


The answer is staring us in the face if we look around the Hall. The walls are lined with benches of many different sizes. They seem to be of sizes which fit different sections of wall, between fireplaces, statues and doorways. It would be easy to guess that these were furnishings relating to the period post 1707 when the building was used exclusively for court proceedings. But take another look. Some are raised on a platform, others raised two levels.





So the benches haven't been made to fit the available spaces. They have been made to seat the Scottish Parliament and Courts, and are now stored wherever appropriate space can be found for them along the walls.The full inventory is as follows:


Parliament benches

Clockwise from N wall W end


Bench 1 - 4 seat 2 plinth

Bench 2 - 4 seat 1 plinth

Bench 3 - 4 seat 2 plinth

Bench 4 - 4 seat 1 plinth

Bench 5 - 3 seat 0 plinth

Bench 6 - 4 seat 0 plinth

Bench 7 - 3 seat 0 plinth

Bench 8 - 3 seat 0 plinth

Bench 9 - 4 seat 0 plinth

Bench 10 - 1 seat 0 plinth

Bench 11 - 6 seat 2 plinth

Bench 12 - 6 seat 2 plinth + 6 seat 1 plinth

Bench 13 - 6 seat 2 plinth + 6 seat 1 plinth

Bench 14 - 3 seat 0 plinth


This allows us to create 3D models of each and attempt to arrange them as they appear in the de Gueudeville print. Benches 12 and 13 are a good start. They fit perfectly across the hall, forming what might well be the 'balcony' in that depiction. It would be useful if there were two more six-seaters with no plinth, but these don't exist - unless they're sitting in some other part of the building. There are four three-seaters, but that would be a strange solution. And there's not an obvious way of fitting in the small 'writing desks' which are described as being present at the time the diagram was drawn:

17. A small writing - desk, where lawyers or writers might write, being part of the Upper Bench.

18. Another writing - desk, entering from the Upper Bench, where two or three persons might write.


Chambers also describes some of the benches as 'extending along the walls', but this is tricky to achieve. There are two large fireplaces in the southern portion of the Hall not included in the Chambers diagram. However he does show a low partition which marks the western edge of the space. 'None of the partitions and divisions rose high ; so that the whole of the ceiling or roof might be seen from any part of the hall.' But the eastern, or left, edge is harder to assess. It has two doorways and a fascinating feature - a staircase within the wall leading to the upstairs rooms of the 'jamb'. This is item 20 - 'A stair by which those going from the Outer - House to the gallery of the Inner - House entered, four or five steps being without the wall, and the rest within the thickness of the wall.'


This confirms that the protrusion of the staircase into the Hall isn't just clumsy drafting. There clearly wasn't enough space within the wall to fit enough steps to take you to the upper floor, so the builders fitted some into the Hall itself. The staircase no longer exists, but it seems that the northern alcove where one of the 'bars' were later sited has taken advantage of the pre-existing void within the wall.


So let's try to fit the present day benches into the floor plan of the 3D model of Parliament Hall. De Gueudeville shows some people sitting on chairs rather than benches, so this gives a little flexibility. Here's one attempt.



This is less than a perfect fit. However it's worth having a look at the layout from one or two different angles to see if the overall hypothesis is working.



We don't have a close match to the seating numbers in the de Gueudeville print. But the reason may be more subtle than it would first seem. The print appears precise in its seating plan. But the artist's task has been to create a plausible result where the information available will have been imprecise. One give-away is that the number seated within the Parliament Hall doesn't match the number in the procession. There are fewer in the Hall. Some attendees are exact in number - for instance there is one Lord Lyon King of Arms, one Grand Marshall, one Secretary of State. But many of the others listed are categories - Viscounts, Bishops, Lord Advocates. So although the areas assigned to them are most likely accurate, the numbers are not necessarily correct.


I will continue to experiment with seating plans with the furniture available, but in the meantime I believe we're starting to get a sense of what the old Scottish Parliament would have looked like. I now need to create more individuals to populate the scenes, with the ultimate aim of being able to see what the Parliament looked like while in session.





Finally, here's the full text of the Robert Chambers section on Parliament House from Minor Antiquities of Edinburgh, with the floor plan again at the foot for easy reference.


THE PARLIAMENT HOUSE. 

THE object of the present notice of the Parliament House, is to signify the changes which have, in the course of time, taken place upon its interior. Till about the year 1780, the house presented much the same appearance as before the Union, except that some portraits of the Stuart sovereigns, which hung upon the walls, had been then given by Queen Anne to her secretary, the Earl of Mar, by whom they were removed to Alloa House, where, in all probability, they were burnt in the fire which consumed that ancient seat - and that some tapestry, which hung from a belt along the east wall, had been taken away within the recollection of people living at the date above mentioned. In 1779, the floor of the house presented the appearance which has been delineated on the орроsite page. The southern moiety, divided from the rest by a partition running a short way up the walls, remained as it was when the Parliament sat in it but every object converted from a legislative to a simply legal purpose. The forms of the house survived; but, instead of being used by members of Parliament, only served for wily writers and their unfortunate clients. We allude to the seats; of which those for the nobles and barons extended along the walls, while those for the commissioners of burghs were placed transversely in the centre of the floor; the Scottish Parliament being one body, composed of three different estates. The description of the house, in this its ancient state, may be best given in the shape of references to the map, as follow : - : - 


1. Was a large and elegant door of two leaves, and very high, by which the members of Parliament entered

2, 2. Booksellers ' stalls, afterwards converted into hardware merchants ' stalls. 

3. A hardware merchant's stall. 

4. A hatmaker's stall, afterwards taken into No. 3, and filled with hardware. 

5. Peter Williamson's coffee - house, divided into three or four very small apartments, one within another ; the partitions made of the slimmest materials, some of them even of brown paper. * 


  • Peter Williamson was a well - known and very remarkable personage, considering his station in life. After spending his early life among the North American Indians, he came back to Scotland, and began business in Edinburgh as a vintner. Robert Fergusson, in his poem entitled the Rising of the Ses- sion, thus alludes to the little tavern he kept within the Par- liament House : — " This vacance is a heavy doom On Indian Peter's coffee - room, For a ' his china pigs are toom ; Nor do we see In wine the soukar biskets soom As light's a flee. " Peter afterwards established a penny - post in Edinburgh, which became so profitable in his hands, that the general post - office gave him a handsome compensation for it. He was also the first to print a street directory in Edinburgh. He died January 19, 1799.


6. A bookseller's stall, occupied by William Gibb, afterwards assistant librarian to the advocates. 7. The area of the Sheriff Court, sometimes used by the Bailie Court ; the north part enclosed by a timber partition, the south part by a rail. 

8. The bench, raised four or five steps. These crames, or boxes, seem to have been established at an early period, the idea being no doubt taken from the former condition of Westminster Hall. John Spottiswoode of Spottiswoode, who, in 1718, published the Forms of Process before the Court of Session, mentions that there were 66 two keepers of the session - house who had small salaries to do all the menial offices in the house, and that no small part of their annual per- quisites came from the cramers in the outer hall." 

9. The clerk's seat. 

10, 10. The remainder of the area vacant, and people of all descriptions walked in it. 

11. The entry from the lobby of the Inner - House. 

12. A small lobby, fenced on the west and south side by a rail, through which people not admitted into the Outer - House, delivered messages, & c., to those within the area of the Outer - House. 

13. The area of the Outer - House, where lawyers and writers waited until called to the bars. 

14. Benches raised one above another, where lawyers and writers sat, and were seen by those wanting them. 

15. The partition separating the Outer - House from No. 10. 

16. The stair by which those occupying the benches ascended. 

17. A small writing - desk, where lawyers or writers might write, being part of the Upper Bench. 18. Another writing - desk, entering from the Upper Bench, where two or three persons might write. 

19. A passage railed off from the Outer - House. by which the clerks of Court entered. 

20. A stair by which those going from the Outer - House to the gallery of the Inner - House entered, four or five steps being without the wall, and the rest within the thickness of the wall. 

21. A platform raised seven or eight steps above the floor, on which was the chair wherein the King or Chancellor sat in Parliament, and where afterwards sat the Lord Ordinary of the Outer - House. 

22. The throne or chair. 

23. A fixed form on which the six depute - clerks of Session sat, to which they entered by the east and west ends. 

24. The table at which the depute - clerks wrote, one half of which was divided into six divisions, to hold their papers separate from one another. 

25. A narrow space betwixt the clerk's table and the bar, wherein parties or witnesses stood, and made oath before the Lord Ordinary. 

26. The bar. It went round from the one 33, to the other 33. 

27. Where the lawyers and agents stood when at the bar. 

28. The bar being raised above the floor, there were three steps up from the floor. 

29. The chair where the Lord Advocate sat, when he attended in the Outer - House. It was raised to the same height with the bar. 

30. The stair to the platform, on which the throne or chair of the Lord Ordinary was placed. 

31. The desk of the keeper of the minute - book. 

32. The desk of the deputy - keeper of the minute - book. 

33, 33. Steps and doors by which those within the bar might go out to the bar and area. 

34. A place railed in all round, which the six assistants of the depute - clerks occupied. 

35. The first side bar. 

36. The other side bar. 

37. A door which was always shut until the Inner - House sat down. 

38. The door by which lawyers and writers went in to the Inner - House. 

39. A door by which the judges and clerks passed and repassed to and from the inside of the bar of the Inner - House. 

40, 40, 40. was always vacant for the conveniency of those within the bar. 

41. A gallery raised higher than the platform, on which the Lord Ordinary's chair was placed, where strangers sat and heard the debates during Parliament, or debates before the Lord Ordinary, and where intimations were made to the practitioners. None of the partitions and divisions rose high ; so that the whole of the ceiling or roof might be seen from any part of the hall. The roof is in the same state at this day as it always was, painting excepted. All of the timber work, ( the outer doors and roofs excepted ) was of common fir - wood, and the workmanship of the coarsest, description, and poor contrivance - apparently mere make - shifts. 





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