The New Scottish Parliament

September 22, 2007 at 12:55 am (Scotland, To Britain and back, September '07, Travel)

My head is fairly bursting with tales and images from this recent trip. What to write about first? The story of the new Scottish Parliament is the one that keeps percolating to the surface of my mind; it is filled with drama, conflict, and tragedy.

Scotland is on record as possessing a parliamentary form of government from the early thirteenth century. In 1707, that Parliament was dissolved by the Act of Union; from that time forth, the nation was to be governed by the parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster. And so it was until the mid-twentieth century, when rising Scottish nationalism provided the impetus for the drive to re-establish a parliament in Scotland, for Scotland. Finally: “In September 1997, a referendum of the Scottish electorate secured a majority in favour of the establishment of a new devolved Scottish Parliament with tax-varying powers in Edinburgh.” (See Wikipedia’s entry on the Scottish Parliament.)

Now we come to the actual building. From a competing field of seventy architects, Enric Miralles of Barcelona emerged as the favorite. The Selection Committee, chaired by Donald Dewar, Secretary of State for Scotland and a moving force behind the entire process from its beginning, were enthralled by Miralles’s vision of “…a set of undecipherable images, a landscape of buildings, a tiny city as it were, nestling into the end of the Royal Mile. [Miralles] summarized this image with an extraordinary metaphor. A set of green leaves was connected by twigs to that extraordinary rock outcrop known as Salisbury Crag, an extinct volcano.” (from The Scottish Parliament by Charles Jencks, Scala Publishers Ltd., 2005) An extinct volcano smack in the middle of Edinburgh? Yes! This is the first I’d heard of it. It is a tremendously dramatic feature of the cityscape, as you can see. Miralles intended to build, figuratively and literally, on that drama. In 1999, he stated, “We don’t want to forget that the Scottish Parliament will be in Edinburgh, but will belong to Scotland, to the Scottish land. The Parliament should be able to reflect the land it represents. The building should arise from the sloping base of Arthur’s Seat and arrive into the city almost surging out of the rock.”

For their part, journalists and citizens – read taxpayers – reacted with skepticism, and in some cases, derision, to Miralles’s poetic conception. a reaction that was exacerbated when they got wind of the price tag. In June 1998, an estimate of 62 million pounds was offered; by year 2000, that estimate had been revised upwards to 200 million pounds. (Double that number to get the amount in U.S. dollars.) There were numerous other difficulties, too complex to go into here. At any rate, in June of that year, agreement was reached that allowed the project to go forward. Barely one month later, tragedy struck: Enric Miralles died suddenly of brain cancer. He was 45 years old.

As if that were not sufficiently shocking, Donald Dewar was lost to a brain hemorrhage (what I think we usually refer to here as an aneurysm) in October of that same year. He was 63. Dewar was greatly admired and respected; his funeral was one of the largest in recent memory in Scotland and was attended by many dignitaries, including Prince Charles and Tony Blair.

Work went ahead on the building of the new parliament. It was supposed to be completed in 2001; it actually opened in October of 2004. The final accounting was estimated at a whopping 414 million pounds. [What I have offered here is only a brief outline of an very complex story. Click on the Wikipedia link above for a more detailed recounting of the events herein described.]

My husband and I had the same reaction when we toured the parliament building this past Monday. We began by disliking it to the point of dismissing it, only to change our minds completely by the time the tour was over. The oddly configured spaces, the light pouring in at unexpected angles, the distinctive use of building materials – I particularly liked the silver granite – served to change completely our perception of this extraordinary edifice.

Christopher Wren’s eldest son and heir, Christopher Wren, Jr., wrote one of the most famous epitaphs of all time for his famous architect father:
“Lector, Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice”
[“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around”].

Standing in awe in Scotland’s astonishing new Parliament Building, I could not help thinking, here is the monument for Enric Miralles. Who knows what additional marvels we might have had from this visionary young architect had death not claimed him in such a cruel, untimely fashion.

I’d like to close this post by quoting from a speech that Donald Dewar gave in 1999. The occasion was the opening of the New Scottish Parliament, which was housed in temporary quarters at the time, pending the completion of its new home:

“This is about more than our politics and our laws,” he told the audience, which included Queen Elizabeth II. “This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves. In the quiet moments today, we might hear some echoes of the past: the shout of the welder in the din of the great Clyde shipyards; the speak of the Mearns, with its soul in the land; the discourse of the enlightenment, when Edinburgh and Glasgow were a light held to the intellectual life of Europe; the wild cry of the pipes; and back to the distant cries of the battles of Bruce and Wallace.”

[Source: Biography Resource Center Online, Gale Group, 2001]

2 Comments

  1. Pauline Cohen said,

    Roberta,

    I have just finished reading Ian Rankin’s “Exit Music” and the Scottish Parliament building is mentioned in it, its architecture discussed, and used as part of the setting in several scenes. I don’t know if you’ve read it yet–I bought it in England last week–and it isn’t available here yet. It is no secret that it deals with Rebus’s retirement. I thought it was well up to Rankin’s high standards.

    I’m so sorry about your misadventures while in the UK. BTW, I used to work at Heathrow and still can’t find my way around it! I am lucky that I now use Gatwick, which is nearer to where my mother lives. I do my changing of planes in the U.S. so that I can land at Gatwick. (That’s another sad story.) Did you ever find out about your jacket?

    Also, I hope you have recovered from you interaction with those nettles. You certainly have had an interesting time, although not what you would have wished for. I hope the other aspects of your trip worked out well and you have fully recovered from everything else. Take care of yourself.

    Pauline

  2. Irish evening, and Claire Keegan « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] How true that last bit about the painful present as opposed to the distant past. And what a marvelous evocation of that past! I reminded of what the late Donald Dewar, then Secretary of State for Scotland, said in 1999 in his speech to the newly reconstituted Scottish Parliament. […]

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