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Chapter 3

THE PARLIAMENT CLOSE.

TIME has wrought its changes most notably around the
precincts of St. Giles's Church. The church itself, if
it were not for the spire, would be unrecognisable; the
KRAMES are all gone, not a shop is left to shelter in its
buttresses; and zealous magistrates and a misguided
architect have shorn the design of manhood, and left it
poor, naked, and pitifully pretentious. As St. Giles's
must have had in former days a rich and quaint appearance
now forgotten, so the neighbourhood was bustling,
sunless, and romantic. It was here that the town was
most overbuilt; but the overbuilding has been all rooted
out, and not only a free fair-way left along the High
Street with an open space on either side of the church,
but a great porthole, knocked in the main line of the
LANDS, gives an outlook to the north and the New Town.

There is a silly story of a subterranean passage
between the Castle and Holyrood, and a bold Highland
piper who volunteered to explore its windings. He made
his entrance by the upper end, playing a strathspey; the
curious footed it after him down the street, following
his descent by the sound of the chanter from below; until
all of a sudden, about the level of St. Giles's, the
music came abruptly to an end, and the people in the
street stood at fault with hands uplifted. Whether he
was choked with gases, or perished in a quag, or was
removed bodily by the Evil One, remains a point of doubt;
but the piper has never again been seen or heard of from
that day to this. Perhaps he wandered down into the land
of Thomas the Rhymer, and some day, when it is least
expected, may take a thought to revisit the sunlit upper
world. That will be a strange moment for the cabmen on
the stance besides St. Giles's, when they hear the drone
of his pipes reascending from the bowels of the earth
below their horses' feet.

But it is not only pipers who have vanished, many a
solid bulk of masonry has been likewise spirited into the
air. Here, for example, is the shape of a heart let into
the causeway. This was the site of the Tolbooth, the
Heart of Midlothian, a place old in story and namefather
to a noble book. The walls are now down in the dust;
there is no more SQUALOR CARCERIS for merry debtors, no
more cage for the old, acknowledged prison-breaker; but
the sun and the wind play freely over the foundations of
the jail. Nor is this the only memorial that the
pavement keeps of former days. The ancient burying-
ground of Edinburgh lay behind St. Giles's Church,
running downhill to the Cowgate and covering the site of
the present Parliament House. It has disappeared as
utterly as the prison or the Luckenbooths; and for those
ignorant of its history, I know only one token that
remains. In the Parliament Close, trodden daily
underfoot by advocates, two letters and a date mark the
resting-place of the man who made Scotland over again in
his own image, the indefatigable, undissuadable John
Knox. He sleeps within call of the church that so often
echoed to his preaching.

Hard by the reformer, a bandy-legged and garlanded
Charles Second, made of lead, bestrides a tun-bellied
charger. The King has his backed turned, and, as you
look, seems to be trotting clumsily away from such a
dangerous neighbour. Often, for hours together, these
two will be alone in the Close, for it lies out of the
way of all but legal traffic. On one side the south wall
of the church, on the other the arcades of the Parliament
House, enclose this irregular bight of causeway and
describe their shadows on it in the sun. At either end,
from round St. Giles's buttresses, you command a look
into the High Street with its motley passengers; but the
stream goes by, east and west, and leaves the Parliament
Close to Charles the Second and the birds. Once in a
while, a patient crowd may be seen loitering there all
day, some eating fruit, some reading a newspaper; and to
judge by their quiet demeanour, you would think they were
waiting for a distribution of soup-tickets. The fact is
far otherwise; within in the Justiciary Court a man is
upon trial for his life, and these are some of the
curious for whom the gallery was found too narrow.
Towards afternoon, if the prisoner is unpopular, there
will be a round of hisses when he is brought forth. Once
in a while, too, an advocate in wig and gown, hand upon
mouth, full of pregnant nods, sweeps to and fro in the
arcade listening to an agent; and at certain regular
hours a whole tide of lawyers hurries across the space.

The Parliament Close has been the scene of marking
incidents in Scottish history. Thus, when the Bishops
were ejected from the Convention in 1688, 'all fourteen
of them gathered together with pale faces and stood in a
cloud in the Parliament Close:' poor episcopal personages
who were done with fair weather for life! Some of the
west-country Societarians standing by, who would have
'rejoiced more than in great sums' to be at their
hanging, hustled them so rudely that they knocked their
heads together. It was not magnanimous behaviour to
dethroned enemies; but one, at least, of the Societarians
had groaned in the BOOTS, and they had all seen their
dear friends upon the scaffold. Again, at the 'woeful
Union,' it was here that people crowded to escort their
favourite from the last of Scottish parliaments: people
flushed with nationality, as Boswell would have said,
ready for riotous acts, and fresh from throwing stones at
the author of 'Robinson Crusoe' as he looked out of
window.

One of the pious in the seventeenth century, going
to pass his TRIALS (examinations as we now say) for the
Scottish Bar, beheld the Parliament Close open and had a
vision of the mouth of Hell. This, and small wonder, was
the means of his conversion. Nor was the vision
unsuitable to the locality; for after an hospital, what
uglier piece is there in civilisation than a court of
law? Hither come envy, malice, and all uncharitableness
to wrestle it out in public tourney; crimes, broken
fortunes, severed households, the knave and his victim,
gravitate to this low building with the arcade. To how
many has not St. Giles's bell told the first hour after
ruin? I think I see them pause to count the strokes, and
wander on again into the moving High Street, stunned and
sick at heart.

A pair of swing doors gives admittance to a hall
with a carved roof, hung with legal portraits, adorned
with legal statuary, lighted by windows of painted glass,
and warmed by three vast fires. This is the SALLE DES
PAS PERDUS of the Scottish Bar. Here, by a ferocious
custom, idle youths must promenade from ten till two.
From end to end, singly or in pairs or trios, the gowns
and wigs go back and forward. Through a hum of talk and
footfalls, the piping tones of a Macer announce a fresh
cause and call upon the names of those concerned.
Intelligent men have been walking here daily for ten or
twenty years without a rag of business or a shilling of
reward. In process of time, they may perhaps be made the
Sheriff-Substitute and Fountain of Justice at Lerwick or
Tobermory. There is nothing required, you would say, but
a little patience and a taste for exercise and bad air.
To breathe dust and bombazine, to feed the mind on
cackling gossip, to hear three parts of a case and drink
a glass of sherry, to long with indescribable longings
for the hour when a man may slip out of his travesty and
devote himself to golf for the rest of the afternoon, and
to do this day by day and year after year, may seem so
small a thing to the inexperienced! But those who have
made the experiment are of a different way of thinking,
and count it the most arduous form of idleness.

More swing doors open into pigeon-holes where judges
of the First Appeal sit singly, and halls of audience
where the supreme Lords sit by three or four. Here, you
may see Scott's place within the bar, where he wrote many
a page of Waverley novels to the drone of judicial
proceeding. You will hear a good deal of shrewdness,
and, as their Lordships do not altogether disdain
pleasantry, a fair proportion of dry fun. The broadest
of broad Scotch is now banished from the bench; but the
courts still retain a certain national flavour. We have
a solemn enjoyable way of lingering on a case. We treat
law as a fine art, and relish and digest a good
distinction. There is no hurry: point after point must
be rightly examined and reduced to principle; judge after
judge must utter forth his OBITER DICTA to delighted
brethren.

Besides the courts, there are installed under the
same roof no less than three libraries: two of no mean
order; confused and semi-subterranean, full of stairs and
galleries; where you may see the most studious-looking
wigs fishing out novels by lanthorn light, in the very
place where the old Privy Council tortured Covenanters.
As the Parliament House is built upon a slope, although
it presents only one story to the north, it measures
half-a-dozen at least upon the south; and range after
range of vaults extend below the libraries. Few places
are more characteristic of this hilly capital. You
descend one stone stair after another, and wander, by the
flicker of a match, in a labyrinth of stone cellars.
Now, you pass below the Outer Hall and hear overhead,
brisk but ghostly, the interminable pattering of legal
feet. Now, you come upon a strong door with a wicket: on
the other side are the cells of the police office and the
trap-stair that gives admittance to the dock in the
Justiciary Court. Many a foot that has gone up there
lightly enough, has been dead-heavy in the descent. Many
a man's life has been argued away from him during long
hours in the court above. But just now that tragic stage
is empty and silent like a church on a week-day, with the
bench all sheeted up and nothing moving but the sunbeams
on the wall. A little farther and you strike upon a
room, not empty like the rest, but crowded with
PRODUCTIONS from bygone criminal cases: a grim lumber:
lethal weapons, poisoned organs in a jar, a door with a
shot-hole through the panel, behind which a man fell
dead. I cannot fancy why they should preserve them
unless it were against the Judgment Day. At length, as
you continue to descend, you see a peep of yellow
gaslight and hear a jostling, whispering noise ahead;
next moment you turn a corner, and there, in a
whitewashed passage, is a machinery belt industriously
turning on its wheels. You would think the engine had
grown there of its own accord, like a cellar fungus, and
would soon spin itself out and fill the vaults from end
to end with its mysterious labours. In truth, it is only
some gear of the steam ventilator; and you will find the
engineers at hand, and may step out of their door into
the sunlight. For all this while, you have not been
descending towards the earth's centre, but only to the
bottom of the hill and the foundations of the Parliament
House; low down, to be sure, but still under the open
heaven and in a field of grass. The daylight shines
garishly on the back windows of the Irish quarter; on
broken shutters, wry gables, old palsied houses on the
brink of ruin, a crumbling human pig-sty fit for human
pigs. There are few signs of life, besides a scanty
washing or a face at a window: the dwellers are abroad,
but they will return at night and stagger to their
pallets.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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