Places to Visit in Scotland
- Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Historical Background
The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is an art museum at No1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, a short walk from Princes Street and Waverley Station. It holds a national collection of portraits and a number of sculptures. The subjects all relate to Scotland but are not necessarily by Scottish artists. In addition, the gallery also holds the Scottish National Photography Collection.

The founder of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1780), David Erskine, 11th Earl of Buchan, formed a collection of Scottish portraits in the late 18th century. Much of his collection is now in the museum.

Then, in the 19th century, the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (that's his portrait here) was among those calling for a Scottish equivalent of a very successful National Portrait Gallery in London, which was established in 1856. But the government in London refused to provide any finance for the venture (some things never change). Eventually, John Ritchie Findlay, at that time the owner of The Scotsman newspaper and a well-known philanthropist, stepped in and paid for the entire building - at a cost of around £70,000.

The museum was established in 1882, before its new building was completed. The London National Portrait Gallery was the first such separate museum in the world. However it did not move into its current purpose-built building until 1896, making the Edinburgh gallery the first in the world to be specially built as a portrait gallery. Such purpose built national portrait galleries open to the public are still a rarity, exceptions being in Washington DC (1968), Canberra, Australia (1998), and Ottawa, Canada (2001).

The building in Queen Street, Edinburgh, opened in 1889, seven years after it had first opened in temporary premises. Since understandably there was a lack of contemporary portraits of medieval Scots, in the 1890s several statues were placed on the exterior, and in the main entrance hall a large mural processional frieze of notable Scots, from the St Ninian to Thomas Carlyle (the last entry on the frieze) was added in 1898 by the artist William Hole. See graphic below. He later added a further large mural of narrative, historical scenes on the walls on the 1st floor.

The exterior of the building is in red sandstone and its architectural style is combination of Arts and Crafts and 13th-century Gothic influences, influenced by the Doges Palace in Venice, with all the embellishments you would expect from a Victorian architect.

Part of the frieze on the on the first floor balustrade of the Great Hall

Modernisation for 21st Century
The National Portrait Gallery building was shared for most of its life with the National Museum of Antiquities (now the Museum of Scotland), until they moved to a new building. When it opened in 1889, the gallery did not have enough paintings to fill the whole building. Long before the end of the 20th century, there was not enough space for the collection and much of it had to be stored away, unseen, in the basement. When a new director general of the gallery was appointed in 2006, he described the building as "shabby" and lacked focus on Scottish art and history. But the refurbishment of the Portrait Gallery was in the pipeline for a number of years, with the usual funding problems having to be overcome. Eventually finance came from the Scottish Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund, amongst others.

The gallery closed in April 2009 to allow the work on the first refurbishment in its history to proceed and it re-opened on December 1 2011. The work generally restored the gallery spaces to their original layout, with areas set aside for education, a shop and a café. A new glass-sided lift greatly improved access for disabled visitors - a statutory requirement these days. Overall, the Portrait Gallery has 60% more gallery space after the changes. At the re-opening it displayed 849 works, of which 480 were by Scots. The cost of the refurbishment was £17.6 million. The entire building comprises around 5,500 Sq. metres (61,000 square feet). The gallery expects that the renovation work will see visitor numbers double from before the 2009 closure to around 300,000 each year. As with many of Edinburgh's museums and galleries, access is free to the public.

A new elevator is the most visible change to improve disabled access to the gallery. A lift was previously available within the gallery, but was only large enough for two people; when used for a wheelchair, it was so cramped that any disabled person's helper had to go up or down separately from them.

The graphic on the right depicts the arrival of Queen (later Saint) Margaret near North Queensferry in 1068, seeking the protection of King Malcolm III (whom she later married).

The Galleries
The Grand Hall on the ground floor gives the space a cathedral-like feel, with numerous busts – predominantly of Scottish figures – looking in on the tiled floor. Above is the famous frieze on the first floor balustrade. (For more on the frieze, see Portrait of a Nation in the Famous Scots section of this site).

The top (2nd) floor of the building is now divided into ten galleries. Exhibitions in the galleries will be regularly changed. Initially, the displays included "Reformation to Revolution" which was an exhibition covering the transition from an absolute Catholic monarchy through to the 1688 revolution. Items on-display include some of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery's most famous items – including Mary Queen of Scots (pictured here) and The Execution of Charles I.

"Imagining Power" a Jacobite-themed exhibition, looks at the sometimes romanticised Stuart dynasty. The Gallery owns the most extensive collection of such material in the world; the portraiture includes Flora MacDonald and Prince Charles Edward Stuart and is complemented by glassware from the period which is on-loan from the Drambuie Liqueur Company and used for toasting "The King over the Water" in appropriately engraved glasses. The graphic on the right is of a picture of an elderly "Bonnie Prince" Charlie. Certainly not romanticised...

"The Age of Improvement" looked at social changes through the 18th and 19th centuries, including Nasmyth's 1787 portrait of the young Robert Burns and Raeburn's 1822 depiction of Sir Walter Scott (see graphic).

"Playing for Scotland" looks at the development of modern sports in the 19th century as migration from countryside to cities dramatically increased participation in sporting activities. The exhibition covers four of Scotland's national sports – curling, shinty, golf, and bowls – and includes some interesting photographic images, showing how more leisure time increased people's involvement in sporting activities.

The National Portrait Gallery collection also contains works by great English, European and American masters such as Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Copley, Hals (see graphic) Thorvaldsen, Rodin and Kokoschka, as well as works by Ramsay, Raeburn and many other Scottish artists. The Gallery also pursues a policy of acquiring and commissioning portraits of celebrated living Scots. These include John Bellany's Sean Connery, David Mach's Alex Ferguson and Calum Colvin's constructed portrait photograph of James MacMillan. In addition to paintings, the Gallery displays sculptures, miniatures, coins, medallions, drawings and watercolours.


The Scottish National Photography Collection was established in 1984 to collect and research photography, with a particular interest in Scottish work and a remit to collect and exhibit international photography. The collection has grown to around 30,000 works ranging from the 1840s to the present day. It includes a key collection of pioneering, early photographs by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson. The graphic on the left is of an early biplane flying over Edinburgh.

The renovation of the Portrait Gallery redefined what a portrait gallery should contain since amongst the displays are photographs of the Scottish landscape — portraits of the country itself. The opening exhibition of the new Photography Gallery highlighted some of the greatest works in the National Galleries of Scotland photography collection. It explored questions of identity, specifically the close relationship between romanticism and photography in Scotland. Over 60 works are included, ranging from iconic images by early photographers Adamson and Hill to new acquisitions being shown for the first time.

A "Hot Scots" photographic portrait gallery is intended to show well-known Scottish faces, and will change over time. Initially, a substantial number of the people being highlighted were current, and recent, cast members from the BBC's "Doctor Who" series.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is located at #1 Queen Street, EH2 1JD. The building is at the corner with North St Andrew Street, just down from St Andrew Square. See also the Location Map (you can enlarge the scale of this map, if required).

Opening hours are daily from 10am to 5pm (7pm on Thursdays). Admission free.

Note that photography is only allowed in the Grand Hall and not in the galleries themselves. As a result, all the graphics in this page of paintings and photos on show in the Portrait Gallery have been sourced from Wikimedia

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