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  • Writer's pictureRobert Sproul-Cran

The Opening of Parliament

There is only one picture of the old Scottish Parliament in session, and what it reveals is both intriguing and baffling.



The illustration is of The Riding of Parliament, circa 1685, from Nicholas de Gueudeville's Atlas Historique, ou Nouvelle Introduction à l'Histoire à la Chronologie & à la Géographie Ancienne & Moderne, published in Amsterdam in 1720. There are still copies to be found, some black and white, and some subsequently coloured by hand. So what is the mystery?


The print is meticulous in its listing of the participants and order of procession to the Parliament, as well as where each person would sit in Parliament Hall. Yet the depiction of the hall is utterly fanciful. The door is preposterous. The windows are wrong. So what is going on?


Building started on Parliament Hall in 1632 and a new session of Parliament was hosted there on 12th August 1639 (although building work was only completed the following year). With the Acts of Union in 1707 the Parliament of Scotland was dissolved, although the hall continued to be used by the courts as the seat of the Court of Session, the High Court of Justiciary, the Admiralty Court and the Court of Exchequer. In the 19th Century the Robert Reid facade was built around the outside of Parliament Hall, with the original stone doorway being demolished in 1824. In 1868 the original leaded windows in the south wall were replaced by a magnificent new stained glass window.


The original south facade


South facade with 1868 stained glass window


You can still see the remains of the original windows at either side of the larger replacement. Inside the effect is magnificent.



There is a painting dated 1793 showing the interior in Sir Walter Scott's time. He can be seen second from the left of the foreground figures. At this point he would have been twenty two, the year after he was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates. Towards the north end of the hall, the picture shows a partition which we know from contemporary records to be fifteen feet tall. High up on the right a Macer is calling out, perhaps to announce the start of a session. There were four Macers, and their duty was to support the Earl Marischal in keeping order on the floor of the chamber and to guard the Honours - the Crown, sceptre and sword of state.



We can see the position of the partition in a floor plan dating from 1790.



So the question arises - was this partition the remains of a balcony? Is this what we are seeing in the foreground of the de Gueudeville print at the top of this post? I started working on a 3D visualisation of the hall as it was originally built to see if this would fit. The upper floor appeared to sit neatly above the main door, and between the upper and lower windows on the right of the picture below, looking out on to Parliament Square. I have based the appearance of the balustrade on the balcony of the Great Hall at Stirling Castle.


This image is speculation to test a hypothesis. I don't believe it represents what the hall would have looked like.


This image is speculation to test a hypothesis. I don't believe it represents what the hall would have looked like.


This image is speculation to test a hypothesis. I don't believe it represents what the hall would have looked like.


Another possibility suggested itself. The Macer's window (seen on the left of the picture above) is reached by the spiral staircase which used to lead up from the Square. You can see this on the floor plan as well. So was the Macer's Window originally a door? This would give access to the balcony from the staircase.


This image is speculation to test a hypothesis. I don't believe it represents what the hall would have looked like.


The dimensions work, and that interpretation would make sense of the spiral stair. It seemed slightly odd that there was a main door to the downstairs section of the 'jamb' - the rooms marked E and A on the plan above - and a separate main door into the stair tower to reach the upstairs rooms. But the hypothesis is undermined by the lack of symmetry of the balcony extension. And another issue is that those on the balcony would have been a long way away from the throne and the proceedings at the far end, making it almost impossible to hear what was being said.


This image is speculation to test a hypothesis. I don't believe it represents what the hall would have looked like.


So what was the area at the bottom of the de Gueudeville print? And how far can we rely on it? I now believe that the artist had an order of ceremony for the procession, and an accurate seating plan. There is too much precise detail to believe otherwise. However I'm also sure that the artist was never anywhere near the actual building, and was given the task of creating an image of the Parliament based solely on the seating plan. So what is he illustrating within the enclosed area where people appear to be sitting with their backs to us?


I believe that the answer is within Parliament Hall to this day, staring us in the face. I will reveal the explanation in the next post.





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