Angela Grahame: Advocates Library opens its doors

This treasured building, the original library of Scotland, can be visited this month and tours taken, writes Angela Grahame

Notorious murderers Burke and Hare  portrayed here on film  by actors Simon Pegg and Andy Serkiss  were tried in what is now the Advocates Library. Picture: TSPL
Notorious murderers Burke and Hare  portrayed here on film by actors Simon Pegg and Andy Serkiss  were tried in what is now the Advocates Library. Picture: TSPL

The Advocates Library is open to members, 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. During the day it is a busy working library, bustling with Advocates researching the law and handling cases for clients from all walks of Scottish life. At night, it is a magical place.

Stepping into the Library is like stepping back in time. You can almost hear the evidence being led in the trial of Burke and Hare in the Law Room (a former court room); see the ghosts of long-dead Advocates in wig and gown; and take down the same volumes of Session Cases from the shelves that they did, all those many years ago.

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Advocates treasure the Library and value not just the 24-hour access it provides them to the law of Scotland, but they are proud of the surroundings and its place in Scottish history as the “original” national library. For members of the public, it is a place they may glimpse through an open doorway, but to which they will rarely be allowed access.

Nowadays, the public can share this wonderful library and immerse themselves in its history during Doors Open Day, which takes place this year on Saturdays in September. A tour of the Library on 24 September is part of the events being staged in Parliament House. Those attending will be awed as they enter the majestic Parliament Hall, where the original Scottish Parliament sat until the Treaty of Union in 1707. They can debate their preference for this building as opposed to the new Scottish Parliament a short walk away at the bottom of the Royal Mile.

Timed tours of the Library for small groups will take place between 10:15am to 3:30pm and will allow the public access to the Library’s main corridor designed by William Playfair, as well as the Law Room mentioned above. The Advocates Library today continues to serve over 450 members of the Faculty and with over 150,000 volumes, is widely regarded as the finest working law library in the UK.

Tours will also take the public to the Laigh Hall, immediately below Parliament Hall, where the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment met and stabled their horses; criminals were hanged by the neck; the Library was housed during the 18th Century; and where current members of Faculty work by day and occasionally enjoy candlelit celebrations by night.

Visitors are advised to book a place on a Library tour as they arrive in Parliament House, as these are extremely popular.

“Working on a daily basis in the Advocates Library is a privilege” said Gordon Jackson, QC, Dean of Faculty. “The reaction of people seeing it for the first time reminds you of this, and I hope that those who come along on Doors Open Day will enjoy their visit very much.”

Amongst the Doors Open Day events in Parliament House being staged by the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service will be a re-enactment of the infamous 19th century Madeleine Smith murder trial.

Members of the public of a more artistic bent can admire the paintings and sculptures within Parliament Hall itself, including one of the Faculty’s famous son, Sir Walter Scott, who became an advocate on 11 July 1792. His love and respect for the Faculty was demonstrated when on his death he bequeathed the contents of his precious library in his home at Abbotsford to the Faculty of Advocates. The contents continue to be protected and preserved by the Faculty of Advocates Abbotsford Collection Trust.

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Another famous member of Faculty was Robert Louis Stevenson and visitors may wonder a while whether the Library and its spine-tingling atmosphere was an inspiration to the author when writing his world famous and enduring story “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde”.

Visitors will find out about the history of the legal deposit status of the Library. This gave the Keeper of the Library (a position held by such as David Hume, whose statue stands outside the High Court) a right to claim a copy of every book published in the British Isles. It amassed an extensive collection, and was, in effect, the nation’s library, but they will also hear that in 1925 the Faculty gifted to the nation 750,000 books, leading to the establishment of the National Library of Scotland.

We look forward to extending a warm welcome to any member of the public who wishes to visit us and enjoy this amazing building. Learn more about the Library at

• Angela Grahame is vice-dean of the Faculty of Advocates