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Parliament House

Parliament House is the centre of the Scottish legal system, housing the Court of Session, the Court of Criminal Appeal, and, in the Advocates Library, the Faculty of Advocates and the national law library of Scotland. It does not house the Scottish Parliament. Substantially built in the 1630s and extended and remodelled in largely its present form in the early nineteenth century, it is currently undergoing rebuilding. The exterior can be seen here. Plans of Parliament House showing it as of 1852, 1999 and, hopefully, 2012 are here (1852 and 1877 plans downloadable). A photo gallery is here (not including the Signet Library). An illustrated guide to the neighbourhood, concentrating on more modern architecture, is here; another, going down the Royal Mile from top to bottom with a map, is here; and some of the many older buildings in the neighbourhood are pictured here.

This page seeks to answer some frequently asked, and some less frequently asked, questions. There is a good booklet on the building for sale at the reception desk, and the Faculty of Advocates publishes books, not cheap, on the history of the Advocates Library and on the portraits of Parliament House.

1. Is there any nearby car parking for visitors?

Hardly ever, although you may find short-stay places in Cockburn Street. The best bets are one of the two car-parks on either side of New Street, down the Canongate; the eastern is another couple of hundred yards, but cheaper. Coming from the west, there is a multi-storey carpark in Castle Terrace. A map of the area is here.

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2. What facilities are there for the disabled?

There are hard wooden benches to sit on in Parliament Hall. There is a bed in the first aid room. The cafeteria is down two flights of stairs and not wheeelchair accessible; the semi-accessible alternative is the Lower Aisle, outside and under St Giles cathedral. There are toilets outside Courts 6/7/8. A few courtrooms have chairs to the standard of an airport lounge; all others have wooden benches; most but not all are wheelchair accessible with two assistants. The Disability Discrimination Act is here and a description of DDA requirements is here. It is accepted by the Scottish Executive that facilities are grossly inadequate (press release for Minister of Justice). Rebuilding, planned for completion by 2012, will ultimately improve the situation.

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3. Is this where Parliament sat before the Union in 1707?

Yes, except that the sessions in which those members bribed to do so signed away independence took place in a pub cellar at 177 High Street and in Moray House in the Canongate. The Scottish Parliament website has a brief historical description of Parliament Hall, and the Scottish Parliament Project website has fuller historical material and links.

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4. What is shown in the great painted glass window in Parliament Hall?

The official version is that it shows the inauguration of the College of Justice and the Court of Session by King James V in 1532. He is shown presenting the charter of confirmation granted by Pope Clement VII to the first Lord President, the Abbot of Cambuskenneth; the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Glasgow pronounces a blessing. In those days judges were not legally qualified. It is, alternatively, suggested that it shows the first application for an additional fee circa 1538. The window, known as the south window, dates from 1868; it is of German design and execution and cost ú2000, which is around ú300,000 at today's prices. Picture in photo gallery .

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5. Are courtrooms open to the public?

Yes, when sitting (unless highly private matters such as adoption petitions are being heard); they may be locked when the court is not sitting to safeguard papers. If your concern is whether the public may come to hear your case, the reality is that the public have no interest in sitting in on civil cases; any member of the public in court is almost certainly a law student or a foreign lawyer. Criminal trials are held in the High Court; this is on the other side of the High Street.

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6. Why are so many of the paintings so dirty?

Because they, and the sculptures, are not cleaned. I would doubt whether there is any public art collection in Scotland, or elsewhere in Britain, which is of comparable importance but so neglected. There are at least eight portraits by Raeburn; not one, it seems, was in sufficiently good condition to find a place in the National Galleries' 1997 exhibition of his work. Ancient cobwebs, thick with dust, may be seen on Chantrey's statue of Lord President Blair. When Parliament Hall was repainted in 1960, a number of paintings were cleaned by volunteer advocates; more recently, the Faculty of Advocates has occasionally had a painting cleaned professionally. A few appear to be dusted, or wiped with a damp cloth, more frequently. On others it is hard to tell whether the blackening is decayed varnish, smoke from the coal fire lit in winter, or ordinary dirt.

The vast majority of the artworks in Parliament House belong to the Faculty of Advocates, which has for centuries followed a policy of art acquisition and of making its art collection available for public display. Others, at least equally neglected, belong to the Royal Collection, the Royal Scottish Academy, and others. None of the owners appear to regard themselves as responsible for the proper upkeep of their artworks; nor do the Scottish Courts Service or the Scottish Executive, in whose property most of them are placed.

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7. What are all these boxes of papers?

Every advocate has a box for papers, left permanently open. On admission, the box is placed in the corridor outside Court 9; with seniority, as others leave places, it gradually moves up and then out to the lower shelf of the main corridor which is shown in the photo gallery (on the right, coming into the building); it again gradually moves round anticlockwise until a vacancy appears on the top shelf, where it stays.

Traditionally, papers in a case are delivered to counsel by being put in these boxes. They then sit there until they are dealt with. Commentators have observed that they appear vulnerable to theft or industrial espionage; in practice these are unknown. There is a theory among junior advocates that business, and hence merit, is displayed by leaving the box piled high.

The tradition may not last much longer. It seems to be resented by the Scottish Courts Service, whether because the boxes are a fire hazard, or vulnerable to terrorism, or perhaps simply untidy or antiquated, and it is believed to seek an opportunity to stamp out, or at least reduce, their current use.

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8. Who is the judge hearing my case?

The order of business (the Rolls of Court) in the Court of Session is published on the Scottish Courts website, week by week; there is a search form on this site. They are also shown on the board to the left of the corridor crossroads outside Court 1. However, the case may not be allocated to a particular court until the day. There are brief biographies of the judges, the Senators of the College of Justice, here. There are also however a number of temporary judges, as to whom no equivalent information is published.

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9. Why have you put downloadable copies of old historical novels on this site?

As samplers of the work of two advocates of the past, I give here 'Weir of Hermiston (pdf)' (780 kb) and 'Redgauntlet' (as a zipped file , or in six parts, Redgauntlet part 1 pdf, part 2 pdf, part 3 pdf, part 4 pdf, part 5 pdf, part 6 pdf: total about 3.4 Mb) to represent Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott respectively; selected because their central themes are dependent on the lives and professional practices of advocates. Stevenson barely practised as an advocate; Scott practised for many years and was Sheriff at Selkirk.

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10. Can I borrow books from the Advocates Library?

Not directly, but the Advocates Library is the national law library of Scotland, and has a close relationship with the National Library of Scotland with the aim of facilitating public access. Together, they have copyright privileges including the right to receive one copy of every book published in the British Isles. Requests to consult reference books in the Advocates Library may be made in the NLS in George IV Bridge. The online catalogue is here.

The Library also holds the Session Papers collection, described by Professor TC Smout, Historiographer Royal, as "the most valuable unstudied source for Scottish history… in existence" . James Boswell described it, over two centuries ago, as 'a treasury of law… a collection of extraordinary facts…' and since then the collection, and its historical significance has grown. It holds the records of many thousands of litigations, some three million pages, from 1666 to 1868. Every conceivable subject is there; four of the better-known examples are the legality and morality of slavery (Knight v Wedderburn, 1778), attitudes to lesbianism (Woods and Pirie v Gordon, 1811-21, the subject of the 1961 film 'The Childrens' Hour' with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine), pillage in the '45 (Magistrates of Paisley v Murray, 1760), and bullying in school (Magistrates of Campbeltown v Hastie, 1768-9 : in this case Boswell, possibly assisted by Dr Johnson, appeared for the defender, see 'Life of Johnson'. His opponent pled "Dionysius the tyrant, when reduced to take up a school in Corinth, was a mild teacher in comparison with Mr Hastie".) For a full description, see the article by Angus Stewart QC in Stair Society volume 49. This vast collection, largely unindexed and unexplored, is not yet publicly accessible.

The Abbotsford collection, which is primarily made up of the working library of Sir Walter Scott and includes such treasures as the largest known collection (by far) of Scottish chap-books, is owned by the Faculty but is not part of the Advocates Library ; it remains at Abbotsford in Selkirkshire.

Exceptional requests to consult historical books and papers may be made to the Keeper of the Library, Stephen Woolman QC.

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