A tour of the Scottish Parliament

Scottish Parliament

A couple of Saturdays ago I fulfilled an ambition to tour the Scottish Parliament building – it’s been open since 2004, so I’m not really slow, am I? The building has always been controversial – it was late, over-budget and not everyone likes the design – but I felt I understood it much better after listening to our excellent tour guide, Adrienne. The Parliament is at Holyrood at the bottom of Canongate, the lower part of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile which is the medieval heart of the city. According to its website:

Drawing inspiration from the surrounding landscape, the flower paintings by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the upturned boats on the seashore, Enric Miralles, one of the world’s premier architects, developed a design that he said was a building “growing out of the land”.

Miralles also alludes to themes of openness and democracy and includes symbols of Scotland. The Main Hall, for example, is modelled on medieval vaults and features the Saltire cross from Scotland’s flag. Here, there is a Visitor Information Centre, exhibition, shop, café and crèche for visitors’ children.

Scottish Parliament Main Hall

Throughout, there are various works of art. Shown below are Contemplace by George Wyllie, the artist’s idea for a Scottish Throne, including the Stone of Destiny and references to Mackintosh, and a head of Robert Burns made of match heads by David Mach.

Travelling the Distance by Shauna McMullan is a collection of 100 handwritten sentences made of porcelain. The sentences were collected by the artist on a journey around Scotland to meet 100 women. Each of the 100 women was asked to write something about a woman they felt had made a significant contribution to Scotland. The artist asked each woman to refer her to another woman until she reached 100. We saw the parliament’s mace when we were in the Debating Chamber, but no photographs were allowed – the picture from the Visitor Centre, below, replicates the head, though the original, crafted in silver and gold by Michael Lloyd, was much more splendid.

It was a great thrill to step into the Debating Chamber having seen it so many times on TV. As I said, no photographs were allowed while on the tour, but we were able to go back to the Visitors’ Gallery later and take pictures from there. The Chamber is built in a semi-circle so that everyone is facing the Presiding Officer (rather than opposing politicians) and has a modern electronic voting system. I feel the archaic UK parliament at Westminster should learn lessons from this!

Scottish Parliament Debating Chamber

Throughout the Chamber, on the light fittings and in the glass, were symbols which we guessed to be whisky bottles, but apparently are stylised people, presumably to remind Members to whom they are responsible – us.

The chairs in the Visitors’ Gallery were rather an odd shape, but surprisingly comfortable – and the view behind was terrific.

Visitor’s Gallery

After our tour, we had lunch in the café before heading back into the cold. On the way out, I picked up a leaflet about Canongate which I’ve walked up and down many times, but following this map took us into some of the closes on either side and we learned some interesting history. That’s for a later post: for now, I’ll finish with some exterior shots of the parliament from Canongate.

The Scottish Parliament website has information on how to book tours. I found this general tour fascinating, and I hope to go back to take a more specialised tour soon – maybe literature or art.


  1. You don’t want to rush into things too quickly. Good that you gave the building time to settle down before visiting. The main chamber looks amazing though I find the layout unusual. It also seems no provision has been made for a second chamber, should that be needed in the future. This aspect reminds me of the Northern Territory Parliament building in Darwin, Australia. It too currently only has one operating chamber but across the hallway is an identically sized room which today houses the ‘state library’. In the event of the Territory attaining Statehood this would become a second chamber.


  2. I think it is always a good idea to go round these historical places (would it be classed historical if it was only built in 2004?) with a guide, you can learn so much more about the history and background


  3. Hi Anabel – I’m saving this to look at over the next few days … it looks so interesting to find out more about it … have a lovely Christmas and festive season – take care and enjoy John, family, friends and all .. cheers Hilary


  4. I/ve read this a few times and enjoyed it tremendously. I’m really impressed with the building and just love the Burns head done in matchsticks. What a glorious colour as well.

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  5. Scottish Parliament looks so much more modern than Westminster! I think, in a way, it must make it easier to get things done if you don’t have the weight of history and tradition pressing down on everything (not that there’s anything wrong with history, but tradition can present a lot of problems!). I love Burns’s head, and Travelling the Distance sounds great too!

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  6. Thank you for this tour, Anabel. I hadn’t realized that the Scottish Parliament was so unconventional. I will definitely add this to my list if visiting Scotland again.