Key dates, fun facts and milestone legislation: The 25th anniversary of the Scottish parliament

By John Mercury May 12, 2024

The Scottish parliament is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

The inaugural meeting took place on 12 May 1999, less than a week after Scots went to the polls to vote in the first Holyrood election.

First Minister John Swinney was one of the 129 MSPs elected into the new parliament all those years ago.

Holyrood has had seven first ministers since 1999: Donald Dewar (1999-2000), Henry McLeish (2000-2001), Jack McConnell (2001-2007), Alex Salmond (2007-2014), Nicola Sturgeon (2014-2023), Humza Yousaf (2023-2024) and John Swinney (2024-present).

First Minister John Swinney outside Bute House with his newly appointed cabinet. Pic: Reuters/Lesley Martin
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First Minister John Swinney outside Bute House with his newly appointed cabinet. Pic: Reuters/Lesley Martin

Alison Johnstone MSP, presiding officer of the Scottish parliament, told Sky News that reaching 25 is a “significant milestone” for Holyrood.

She added: “And it’s right that we take this opportunity to both reflect on achievements and look forward to the future.

“In its relatively short life, the parliament has become firmly established at the centre of Scottish public life. That is something we should be proud of.

“The parliament has always sought to stay true to its founding principles of openness, accessibility, sharing power and equal opportunity.

“Recognising that Scotland is a very different place to what it was in 1999, we must continue to evolve and reflect that.”

King Charles III with Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament Alison Johnstone during his visit to receive a Motion of Condolence at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Monday September 12, 2022.
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The King with Alison Johnstone, presiding officer of the Scottish parliament. Pic: PA

As presiding officer, Ms Johnstone would like to use the anniversary to “continue a conversation with the Scottish people about their hopes for their parliament for the next 25 years”.

She added: “I want to see a parliament that remains relevant and responsive and reflects the people it serves.

“I want to see a parliament for all and one in which people’s voices are represented.

“We have good foundations on which to build and I look forward to the future with optimism.”

The Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood in Edinburgh
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The Scottish parliament building in Edinburgh. Pic: PA

Key dates in the Scottish parliament’s history:

6 May 1999: The first election to the devolved Scottish parliament is held with Tom McCabe the first member elected. Labour form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, with respective leaders Donald Dewar and Jim Wallace taking up the first minister and deputy first minister positions.

Donald Dewar takes the oath and is sworn in as First Minister and keeper of the Scottish Seal at the Old High Court Building in Edinburgh. * Pull up of 274928-189
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Donald Dewar being sworn in as first minister in 1999. Pic: PA

12 May 1999: The first meeting of the Scottish parliament is held. Presiding, SNP MSP and party stalwart Winnie Ewing famously pronounces the parliament “reconvened” after the Parliament of Scotland had previously been adjourned and dissolved in 1707 following the ratification of the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England.

1 July 1999: Official opening of the Scottish parliament by Queen Elizabeth II.

13 September 1999: The Mental Health (Public Safety and Appeals) (Scotland) Act becomes the first Scottish parliament bill to receive royal assent. The new act closed a loophole used by convicted killer Noel Ruddie to be released from the State Hospital at Carstairs.

13 January 2000: The very first First Minister’s Questions (FMQs). Alex Salmond is the first to put a question to Mr Dewar.

3 May 2000: The first official state visit from overseas by president of Malawi Dr Bakili Muluzi.

11 October 2000: First minister Mr Dewar dies at the age of 63 after suffering a brain haemorrhage following a fall.

8 November 2001: First minister Henry McLeish resigns following a scandal about his expenses.

9 October 2004: Queen Elizabeth II officially opens the new Scottish parliament building, known as Holyrood. Enric Miralles, the Catalan architect who designed the building, died in July 2000 before its completion. Holyrood would go on the following year to win the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Stirling Prize for the UK’s best new building.

9TH OCTOBER 2004. HM QUEEN SPEAKING AT THE ROYAL OPENING OF THE NEW SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT AT HOLYROOD, EDINBURGH. ON RIGHT IS PRESIDING OFFICER GEORGE REID. PIC-ADAM ELDER/SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT.
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Queen Elizabeth II speaking at the royal opening of Holyrood in October 2004. Pic: Adam Elder/Scottish parliament

24 August 2009: A special sitting of the Scottish parliament takes place following the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al Megrahi, who was sent back to Libya on compassionate grounds due to his terminal prostate cancer diagnosis. A full debate on the decision is later held at Holyrood on 2 September 2009. Opposition parties unite to condemn the decision but stop short of enforcing a vote of no confidence in then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill.

18 September 2014: A referendum on Scottish independence is held. With more than two million people voting no (55.3%) and 1.6 million voting yes (44.7%), Mr Salmond later steps down as first minister following the result and is replaced by Nicola Sturgeon.

First Minister Alex Salmond with First Minister-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon, as he chairs his final cabinet meeting as First Minister at Bute House in Edinburgh, ahead of resigning in a statement to Holyrood later on today.
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Alex Salmond chairing his final cabinet meeting as first minister in 2014. Pic: PA

9 April 2020: FMQs take place virtually for the first time due to the COVID pandemic and lockdown.

16 January 2023: The controversial Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill becomes a constitutional dispute after Westminster takes the unprecedented step of using a Section 35 order to stop it from receiving royal assent and becoming law. The Scottish government has since dropped a legal battle against the decision.

15 February 2023: Ms Sturgeon announces she is stepping down as SNP leader and first minister.

28 March 2023: Humza Yousaf is elected as first minister. He is the youngest to hold the job and the first Muslim leader of a Western nation.

Humza Yousaf speaks during a press conference at Bute House.
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Humza Yousaf resigning in 2024. Pic: PA

29 April 2024: Mr Yousaf announces he is stepping down as SNP leader and first minister amid two votes of no confidence following the ending of the Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens.

8 May 2024: John Swinney is legally sworn in as Scotland’s seventh first minister.

John Swinney stands with the Seals of Scotland as he is sworn in as First Minister of Scotland and Keeper of the Scottish Seal,
Pic PA
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John Swinney stands with the Seals of Scotland as he is sworn in as first minister and Keeper of the Scottish Seal. Pic: PA

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Visitors:

• Since the Scottish parliament building opened in 2004, there have been almost 5.5 million visitors passing through its doors – including around 170,000 school pupils.

• Notable visitors to Holyrood have included Queen Elizabeth II, the Dalai Lama, former US president Donald Trump, legendary James Bond star Sir Sean Connery, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

28th August 2003..Sir Sean Connery pictured today receiving a guided tour of the new Scottish Parliament building from the Presiding Officer George Reid...This afternoon's two hour tour began at the bottom of Holyrood Road in the Parliament Building Information Centre. Later, on site, Sir Sean's tour took in views of the Parliament's dramatic glazed public foyer area, the new Debating Chamber, the Committee Rooms and a 5th floor MSP's office...The idea for the tour was suggested to Sir Sean by his friend, film-maker Murray Grigor. Mr Grigor's film on the work and aspiration of Catalan architect, Enric Miralles can be viewed at the new Parliament Information Centre...Photograph-Craig Westwood..(c) Scottish Parliament Media Affairs Office..Tel: 0131 348 5000..PHOTOGRAPH(C)2003 SCOTTISH PARLIAMENTARY CORPORATE BODY.
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Sir Sean Connery during a guided tour of Holyrood in August 2003. Pic Craig Westwood/Scottish parliament

His Holiness the Dalai Lama, accompanied by Presiding Officer George Reid MSP delivers Time for Reflection to the Scottish Parliament in it's temporary home on the Mound, Edinburgh 2 June 2004. Pic - Adam Elder/Scottish Parliament
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The Dalai Lama delivering the Time for Reflection in June 2004. Pic: Adam Elder/Scottish parliament

• The parliament’s cafe has sold around 570,700 cups of tea and coffee, and around 123,360 slices of homemade shortbread have been served up via the cafe and hospitality service, including at VIP events.

Petitions:

• To date, 2,019 petitions have been considered by MSPs.

• The youngest petitioner has been Callum Isted, who in 2021 at the age of just seven, called on Holyrood to urge the Scottish government to provide every primary school child in Scotland with a reusable water bottle. The petition is currently under consideration and can still be signed.

• Other petitions over the years have led to a life-prolonging bowel cancer drug being made available on the NHS, as well as the introduction of legislation to allow women affected by painful transvaginal mesh procedures to seek reimbursement for private surgery undertaken to remove the mesh.

• A total of 356 bills have been passed to make new laws or change existing laws – 290 Scottish government bills, 32 members’ bills, 22 private bills, 10 committee bills and two emergency bills. A total of 53 bills have fallen or been withdrawn.

The Scottish parliament chamber. Pic: Katielee Arrowsmith/Scottish parliament
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The Scottish parliament chamber. Pic: Katielee Arrowsmith/Scottish parliament

Milestone legislation:

• MSPs voted in 2000 to abolish clause 28 of the Local Government Act, the law that banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools.

• In 2002, the Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act introduced free personal care for over-65s, regardless of income or whether they live at home or in residential care. In 2013, Amanda Kopel brought forward a petition to extend the free care to those under 65 after her husband, footballer Frank Kopel, was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 59. Legislation to enable this was passed by the parliament in 2018 and came into force in 2019.

• The Smoking, Health and Social Care (Scotland) Act – which was passed in 2005 and came into effect in 2006 – prohibits smoking in virtually all enclosed public places.

• The Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act was passed in 2012, with Scotland in 2018 becoming the first country in the world to ban retailers from selling alcohol below 50p per unit. MSPs recently voted to increase the minimum unit price (MUP) to 65p in a bid to tackle deaths and hospital admissions linked to alcohol harm. The increase will come into force on 30 September.

• In 2014, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act allowed same-sex couples to marry.

• The Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Act – which was passed in 2019 and came into force in 2020 – protects children from all forms of physical punishment, including smacking.

• In 2020, Scotland became the first country in the world to pass legislation making period products freely available to all. The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Act – which came into force in 2022 – was unanimously backed by MSPs and puts a legal duty on local authorities to ensure that free products are available in their facilities, including schools.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross arrives for the debate on a motion of no confidence in the Scottish Government, at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Wednesday May 1, 2024.
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Douglas Ross, leader of the Scottish Tories. Pic: PA

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross was at the official opening of the parliament in 1999.

He was a Forres Academy pupil at the time and was one of a group of students from Moray chosen to take part in the procession.

He wore a kilt for the event and walked the route alongside several senior politicians, including then chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown.

Mr Ross told Sky News: “We also lined up on The Mound as the late Queen walked in to officially open the parliament.

“I’d never seen a member of the Royal Family before, so it was a real honour to see the Queen and be part of such a special occasion.”

Mr Ross noted that although his party didn’t support the smoking ban at the time, he stated that legislation like that has made a difference to people’s lives.

He said: “It’s easy to forget what it was like before this became law, but you would leave a restaurant or pub with your clothes reeking of smoke.

“There have been a few transformative pieces of legislation like that, which have delivered a massive change to our lives.”

Mr Ross said winning a bet against rival Ms Sturgeon has been one of his highlights in parliament.

He said: “I don’t often gamble, but I was delighted Children’s Hospices Across Scotland were the recipients of my successful £100 bet with Nicola Sturgeon on which one of us would step down first as our party leader.

“Since then, I have seen off another first minister, Humza Yousaf, though he was not quite as confident at outlasting me as his predecessor was when she agreed to the wager in 2021.”

Mr Ross said it’s “hard to believe” Holyrood is now 25.

Thinking ahead to the next 25 years, he said: “As my own children grow up, I want them to see a Scottish parliament that fulfils its potential and uses the extensive powers at its disposal.

“All too often since I have been a member, debates have been dominated by the constitution, rather than the real priorities of Scotland.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar arrives for First Minster's Questions at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday May 4, 2023.
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Anas Sarwar, leader of Scottish Labour. Pic: PA

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar highlighted how devolution was delivered all those years ago by a Labour government.

He told Sky News: “The Labour-led campaign for a Scottish parliament united the country and now two-and-a-half decades on the parliament is at the heart of modern Scottish society.

“In that time the Scottish parliament has delivered many progressive reforms that have modernised Scotland – from same-sex marriage to the smoking ban.

“But after 25 years it is clear that the politicians in power are now holding Holyrood back from fulfilling its true potential.

“For too long, the Scottish parliament has been an economics-free zone – meaning that there is less and less money to support our public services.

“And at the same time, there has been less transparency and more sleaze – damaging the precious link of trust with the Scottish people.

“It falls to Scottish Labour – the party that delivered devolution – to reset and restore devolution to its guiding principles and make it work for Scots.”

Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for the Edinburgh Western, who has called for stronger protections for women at abortion clinics, including the ability for local authorities to set up buffer zones. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 6, 2019. Power to protect women attending abortion clinics should be given to local councils, the Scottish Government has been told. Under current rules, Scottish councils have to appeal to the Government for permission to restrict anti-abortion protests outside clinics. See PA story SCOTLAND Abortion. Photo credit should read: Tom Eden/PA Wire
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Alex Cole-Hamilton, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. Pic: PA

Alex Cole-Hamilton, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, said he is “proud” to have played a part in the successes delivered by the Scottish parliament.

He told Sky News: “In government, the Scottish Liberal Democrats delivered pioneering legislation like the abolition of upfront tuition fees, the introduction of free personal care and the smoking ban.

“We also legislated for the building of the Borders Railway, gave communities the right to buy land, made dental and eye tests free, introduced free bus passes, and opened up the business of government to proper scrutiny through freedom of information law.”

As a youth worker, Mr Cole-Hamilton helped to shape an amendment to Scottish parliamentary legislation that changed the age of leaving care in Scotland from 16 to 21.

He said: “Since I became a parliamentarian in 2016, Scottish Liberal Democrats have secured £120m extra for mental health in budget negotiations, and pushed parliament to declare a mental health emergency.

“We won the argument on the importance of funded childcare and ensured that the SNP eventually delivered a pupil premium, learning from the success of the policy elsewhere in the UK.

“We also successfully forced a government U-turn on their proposals to abolish jury trials during the coronavirus pandemic.

“As party leader I am proud to have been ahead of the curve, raising issues like long COVID, dodgy concrete in the roofs of our schools and hospitals, sewage in rivers and the rise of synthetic opioids long before these became mainstream concerns.”

In the future, Mr Cole-Hamilton hopes the Scottish parliament will back colleague Liam McArthur’s assisted dying bill.

He also wishes for a government that will take action to “boost local health services” and “recognise the importance of accessible, high-quality care for all, close to home”.

Mr Cole-Hamilton added: “I also want to see more devolution within Scotland, with councils given longer-term funding deals and more powers over economic development.”

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