It is 20 years since the Scottish Parliament’s first sitting on May 12, 1999

Following elections on May 6, 1999, the 129 members of the new Scottish Parliament got down to business on May 12.

By Julie Currie
Sunday, 12th May 2019, 1:00 am
The Red Arrows and Concorde flew over Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh on July 1, 1999, after the Queen officially opened the Scottish Parliament. This picture was taken by David Moir from the outlook tower and camera obscura at Castlehill.
The Red Arrows and Concorde flew over Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh on July 1, 1999, after the Queen officially opened the Scottish Parliament. This picture was taken by David Moir from the outlook tower and camera obscura at Castlehill.

Until the new Parliament building opened in 2004, staff and members set up a temporary home in The General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland.

Winnie Ewing was the first MSP to take the oath and deliver a speech but it was then temporary clerk, now chief executive, Paul Grice who presided over that very first meeting.

In the 20 years since, Paul has continued to oversee staff and help politicians.

The First Minister of Scotland Donald Dewar, the Queen and Presiding Officer Sir David Steel make their way out of the General Assembly building to greet the crowds during the celebrations to mark the opening of the Scottish Parliament on July 1, 1999.

Indeed, assisting newly-elected MSPs was the biggest task in those early days.

He recalled: “It’s my job to make sure everything works – from the heating to the lights, clerks to human resources.

“But the unique part of the job is being on hand to offer advice to the presiding officer and any member on procedure or constitution.

“In the early days, that was a big part of the job. Some members had experience of Westminster and were seasoned politicians, such as Donald Dewar and Henry McLeish.

Kenny Dalglish with presiding officer Ken Macintosh who cited Kenny as one of his heroes when he was interviewed on becoming a newbie MSP in 1999. Kenny didn't disappoint Ken and neither has Scotland, which he believes has become a far more confident country in the last 20 years.

“But many, many other members had no experience at all. A large number were starting from scratch.”

Paul also remembers the charged atmosphere at that first sitting.

He said: “There was a fantastic atmosphere, across all parties and members, both seasoned veterans and newly-elected MSPs.

“There was an incredible spirit; we all felt we were on this journey together.”

Many memorable the last 20 years have been recounted by chief executive of the Scottish Parliament Sir Paul Grice KBE. (Pic: Andrew Cowan)

And that journey was an exciting one, not least when the Queen officially opened the Scottish Parliament on July 1, 1999, and the Red Arrows and Concorde flew over the city to celebrate.

“The build-up to the day was really exciting but there was anxiety too as we wanted it to go well,” said Paul.

“But it was a joyful day; the crowds turned out in force and we had the weather to go with it.

“I was able to enjoy it once the hard work was done.

Presiding officer Alex Fergusson and deputy presiding officers Trish Godman and Alasdair Morgan are pictured with the July 1, 1999, babies who visited Parliament for its 10th birthday. It is hoped they will return for the 20th celebrations. (Pic: Adam Elder)

“I remember walking down the Royal Mile, once the crowds had dissipated. Even then, I realised it was a once in a lifetime day.”

There are many memorable occasions Paul can recall but one meeting in particular stands out.

“There was a breakfast meeting attended by Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley,” he said. “Martin helped Ian to his feet and they walked across the garden lobby of the Parliament together.

“As someone who followed Irish politics, I had to pinch myself. For that to have happened here in the Scottish Parliament – it’s a tremendous memory.

“It was so symbolic and a reminder that even the strongest adversaries can come together.”

One act of legislation is also lodged in Paul’s mind.

“When the same sex marriage act was passed, there was a sense of jubilation in all parties and across Parliament,” he said.

In his 20 years, Paul has been invited to breakfast at Bute House just once.

But that breakfast will also live long in his memory.

He added: “In 1997, I was responsible for helping to run the referendum which saw the Parliament being re-established in Scotland.

“It was a day of great anxiety but it had gone well, with only a few technical hitches – in a time when a fax machine was state of the art!

“I finished work at 4am and got invited to Bute House for breakfast with Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and Sam Galbraith.

“One of my best memories is enjoying breakfast with them, while reflecting on what had been a great night for them politically and a great night for us too.

“I’ve never been invited back for breakfast since – but you never know, it is the 20th anniversary this year!”

The Parliament’s current presiding officer Ken Macintosh was one of the newbies in 1999.

Until being elected to represent Eastwood in 1999, he was a BBC television producer, working on national news programmes.

But encouraged by his wife Claire, he sought election to the Parliament as a Labour Party candidate.

Despite claiming not to be a career politcian, he was re-elected in 2003, 2007 and 2011. And in 2016 he was elected as an MSP for West Scotland and became Presiding Officer.

The eldest of their six children, Douglas, is 20 this month so 1999 was a busy year for the Macintosh clan!

He recalled: “It was a very exciting time in my life.

“Claire and I had just got married a year before and our son was born five days before I was elected.

“So it was exciting but slightly worrying as my wife thought she’d married this sensible man, with a senior position in the BBC.

“Then suddenly I was giving it all up for politics.

“At the time, it was a little bit of a gamble from someone who is not a gambler!

“But Claire encouraged me to stand. That was all the endorsement I needed.”

Ken was more used to posing questions than being asked them but it was a relatively easy transition.

He explained: “Whether it is reporting on current events or trying to shape them, it’s a reflection of the same set of interests.

“I’d been a member of the Labour Party since I was a student but never, ever stood for an elected office.

“But I was a big supporter of devolution and it was really that that made me put myself forward.

“The whole idea of doing politics in a different way, having a diverse group of voices, that was what grabbed me.

“I used to be the person shouting questions at the Prime Minister which stood me in good stead. To become the person being shouted at was quite odd though!”

Ken recalls the early days with great pride.

“It’s difficult for people now to recall the air of excitement; it was an era of real change,” he said.

“Then there was a big backlash due to the cost of the building and politically some very difficult issues.

“Section 28 was the one I remember very vividly. It was a confrontation of the old Scotland with the new.

“The Scotland I was brought up in was not the tolerant, progressive country it is was certainly not an easy country to be gay in.

“Section 28 confronted that head on.”

Another milestone for Ken was the smoking ban.

“When I was a kid, people always talked about Scotland having the worst cancer record in Europe,” he said.

“And here we were taking control of our own health.

“We were criticised for being the nanny state but I still think of it as a statement of our self-confidence.

“When I first started, the Parliament made videos and I was asked what my ambitions for Scotland were and who my heroes were.

“My heroes were Kenny Dalglish and Elvis Presley. I’ve since met Kenny and he didn’t disappoint!

“I also wanted Scotland to be more self-confident and the smoking ban was a sign of that.”

Now, 20 years on, the Parliament has become the centre of public life.

Ken added: “At the start, so many people were openly hostile and condescending about the Parliament.

“It’s testament to the people of Scotland that they’ve since embraced it and made it their own.”

Tracing babies who share Parliament’s birthday

A new exhibition will take centre stage in the Parliament for the 20th anniversary celebrations.

It will feature many of the ordinary people who have had an impact on the Parliament during its 20-year history.

Ken said: “We are always trying to find new ways of engaging with the public and, in many ways, that’s what the exhibition and the 20th anniversary is all about.”

The community and engagement unit is also trying to track down the babies who were born on July 1, 1999.

The youngsters share their birthday with the Parliament and were a big part of the 10th anniversary.

The hope is that they can all be reunited on Saturday, June 29, for the 20th birthday party.

For more information on events, visit And if you were born on July 1, 1999, email [email protected]