On The Mound, a minister in a top hat and tails skates gracefully over a frozen loch for an audience of rapt gallery goers. On Belford Road, a towering metal deity swings his hammer across the Great Hall. And on Queen Street, a former monarch looks sternly at whoever might threaten her realm.
These are just three of the famous art works on show at the National Galleries of Scotland, which make for a compelling journey through the country’s history and creativity. There are three galleries, all free to enter: the National; the Portrait and the Modern, which is split between Modern One and Modern Two.
Our Head Concierge David Musk recommends that you spend time at The National and then The Portrait first, as both are located very near The Balmoral. Visit them over the course of a morning and leave the afternoon free for a stroll through some of Edinburgh’s most engaging neighbourhoods towards Modern One and Two, taking in the city’s history and landscapes along the way.
A quick stroll down Prince’s Street leads you to the National. It’s housed in a grand neoclassical building designed by Scottish architect William Playfair and set on The Mound, and it first opened its doors in 1859.
The National is home to one of Scotland’s finest collections of classical art and serves as a reminder of the long history of connection between Edinburgh and Europe, which has contributed to the city's distinct continental flair.
The National houses a vast collection of European paintings and sculptures from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century, with pieces by Vermeer, Van Gogh, Botticelli, Rembrandt and Turner. Scottish artist Sir Henry Raeburn’s The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (often referred to as ‘The Skating Minister’) is a particular local favourite.
From the end of September 2023, twelve new gallery spaces will display much more Scottish art, from trailblazing Scottish artists including William McTaggart, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Boys. There will also be a high-tech aspect to these galleries, with new ways to interact with the pieces through audio guides and trails.
Over in New Town, the Portrait pitches itself as a “love letter to Scotland”. Portraits of modern Scottish celebrities including Billy Connolly and Tilda Swinton are set against paintings of iconic Scottish historical figures such as Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Burns and Charles Edward Stuart.
Arguably the true star is the building itself. Designed by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson in Gothic Revival style, it was inspired by the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Architectural highlights include a frieze of famous Scots, a decorative scheme by William Hole that narrates the country's history and the Zodiac ceiling in the Great Hall which depicts 2000 stars and 47 constellations.
Edinburgh’s New Town is the capital’s main shopping district, full of coffee shops and independent boutiques as well as Queen Street Gardens. Wander it and you’ll soon see how different its neoclassical architecture is to the winding streets of Old Town: it’s the neighbourhoods’ contrasting aesthetics coupled with a symbiotic historical relationship that’s behind Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage status.
Modern One and Two
The Modern is about 45 minutes’ walk from The Balmoral in the West End of the city, but luckily there’s a scenic and interesting route to get you there. First make for the hip neighbourhood of Stockbridge, to wander past its coffee shops and fashion outlets.
Head up the Water of Leith and you’ll pass Dean Village, which forms part of Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site. This perfectly preserved worker’s village from the 19th century is still inhabited today and it’s loved by locals and tourists alike. About ten minutes further on, you’ll find Modern One, set in a sculpture park which plays host to works by artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore.
Once inside the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, you’ll appreciate why it’s worth the walk. Split across two buildings, the gallery tells the story of contemporary art in Scotland from the 20th century to the present day.
Of particular interest are the works by Eduardo Paolozzi, thought to be the creator of the first Pop-Art painting. Modern Two houses Paolozzi’s reconstructed studio and showcases his life and work, though many of his pieces are also found in Modern One including the enormous Vulcan sculpture. Current exhibitions include Alberta Whittle: create dangerously, and Decades: The Art of Change (1900-1980), which both run until January 2024.
If you would like to enjoy Scottish art and heritage, there is no better place to stay than The Balmoral, a turn-of-the-century landmark set in the heart of Edinburgh.