National Artistic Treasures in Edinburgh

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The Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland

Every great capital city needs a great art gallery and so it makes sense that Edinburgh, which is a great city, has a great art gallery.  There is a formidable mix of Scottish and international paintings and sculptures, in a nicely ‘old-fashioned’ setting, and the quality and range of what’s on display can probably only be appreciated in more than one visit.

Because I have no ability to guess how long museum visits are going to take me anymore (I seem to dawdle a lot more than when I was younger), I severely underestimated the time we needed for the Scottish National Gallery and therefore had to scurry through the last few rooms before we got chucked out by the guards.

The facade of Scottish National Gallery, designed by William Henry Playfair, Edinburgh, Scotland (on a rainy day)

The facade of Scottish National Gallery, designed by William Henry Playfair, Edinburgh, Scotland (on a rainy day)

The Scottish National Gallery was, until the 2012 rebranding, called the National Gallery of Scotland (which, personally, strikes me as being a much better name that they will probably return to one day when they feel the need to rebrand themselves again) and is run by the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS), who also run the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  The NGS has a board of Trustees made up of members selected by the Scottish government.  Interesting.

The grandly named Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland was founded in 1819 with the intention of acquiring paintings and in 1828 it opened a gallery on The Mound.  An off-shoot of this organisation, the Scottish Academy (later the Royal Scottish Academy – the RSA) was founded by a group of artists in 1826, who wanted to create a national collection and they too acquired works which they put on display in a rented exhibition space in the Royal Institution building from 1835.

In the 1840s, new plans were set out to house the RSA’s collection: the Scottish architect, William Henry Playfair, designed a neat neo-classical building and in 1850, Prince Albert laid the foundation stone for the new gallery.  It opened to the public in 1859.  Though the gallery and the RSA originally had two separate buildings facing each other, since 2004 the two have been joined by an underground passage.  Due to being kicked out at closing time, I didn’t get to see that.  This is therefore an overview of the old National Gallery of Scotland building.

Upper Level

A very small but fine collection of early Renaissance and Flemish art is upstairs – be sure not to miss it.

I’d like to draw your attention to rather unusual Holbein the Younger.  It’s basically a painted sermon, with little inscriptions (like a comic’s speech bubbles) explaining what’s being said/going on.  It is a product of the Reformation, with the themes of the Old and New Testaments being used to promote the triumph of the new ideology of Protestantism, showing the Old Testament as a time of sin and punishment, and the New Testament as a new era of mercy and salvation.   On the left is Adam and Eve, and Moses – and death.  Notice the skeleton with the helpfully inscribed ‘Mors’.  On the right is Jesus bringing salvation.  There he is, standing on another skeleton, and squashing its little goblin-gremlin friend, bringing the promise of life after death.

Lower Level

This is the main gallery, where the stars of the collection are.  They are displayed in a more ‘old-fashioned’, layered/cluttered manner, so some paintings are harder to see than others.  However, this is obviously the way they have to do the display in order to have more pictures on show, and personally, it doesn’t bother me too much – unless the one I really want to see is the one hanging 10 feet above the ground.

Anyway, there are some fantastic paintings in the gallery – an interesting mixture of famous and not-so famous pictures by a wide range of Scottish and European painters.  These were some of the highlights for me:

So In Summary

Almost all of the great masters of painting are represented in the Scottish National Gallery – quite a feat, considering how small the museum actually is.  You really do get to go on an artistic journey with examples from all the major European schools up to the 20th century.  If you like paintings, a visit to the gallery is a no-brainer.  Go and enjoy!

Further Information

The museum is free to visit, though exhibitions are charged.

If you want further information about opening hours, then please visit their website – it’s not exciting but it does the job:

How To Get There

The Scottish National Gallery is centrally located but information about the public transport can be found here:




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