Ten things you might not know about the Scottish National Gallery

Ahead of the reopening of the Scottish National Gallery on Monday 17 August, we bring you ten facts about the Galleries that you might not know.

William Donaldson Clark The National Gallery and Royal Institution, with Edinburgh Castle in the background, seen from Princes Street Gardens Unknown

1. The original aim of the Galleries was to make art accessible to all

When the Royal Scottish Academy building was first opened on the Mound in 1828, and originally known as the Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland, the aim was to make art available for study and for the public to view. When the Scottish National Gallery was first opened to the public in 1859 it had later opening hours on Saturday and Wednesday evenings so that working people could have the chance to view the national art collection.

The original founders of the Royal Institution and the Scottish National Gallery seemed to agree with what we know now - that art can transform lives by supporting health and wellbeing, self-expression and social skills.

2. An early plan for the Mound featured underground baths

You might be right in thinking that the condensation from swimming baths would not work well in an art gallery, but an 1850 plan for the Mound incorporated underground baths and plunge pools beneath the National Gallery buildings.

You can see the plans here. The drawing notes that the 'Plan of Baths immediately below the National Gallery & Terrace' and is signed: 'Rob. F. Gourlay, Sunnyside Cottage, Montrose, March 28, 1850'.

David Roberts View of Edinburgh from the Ramparts of the Castle, Looking East About 1846

3. The Gallery was built on the site of the city’s funfair, which featured an animal menagerie and a ‘moving panorama’

The Edinburgh-born artist David Roberts wrote that the ‘panoramas and collections of wild beasts’ exhibited on ‘the Earthen Mound’…‘were sources of great attraction to me…’. At the panorama, the residents of Edinburgh could, for the price of a cheap ticket, be entertained and informed by large-scale painted, moving images (complete with dramatic lighting and live music) of historic events like the Battle of Bannockburn or Waterloo, or be transported to distant places like Jerusalem and Thebes, or the Polar regions. The circular building of the panorama can just be glimpsed in the centre of Roberts’s view of Edinburgh, left, painted before the Gallery was built.

William Henry Playfair Edinburgh Castle and the Proposed National Gallery Unknown

4. When the Scottish National Gallery opened in March 1859 it occupied only half the new building

The Scottish National Gallery building originally hosted two different organisations, each of which had its own separate entrance. The east side was occupied by the Royal Scottish Academy from 1855 until 1910. The Scottish National Gallery itself had the west side. After the Royal Scottish Academy moved next door, into the former Royal Institution Building, the National Gallery was remodelled as a single Gallery, reopening in 1912.

5. The earliest Head Curators at the Scottish National Gallery were contemporary artists

Although the Gallery did not acquire paintings by living artists, it did initially show some modern works on loan from the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts. Victorian artist James Drummond (1816-1877) not only had paintings on display in the Scottish National Gallery, he also worked there, from 1868 to 1877. James Drummond’s dramatic painting The Porteous Mob of 1855 was on display when the Gallery first opened in 1859. Drummond was also appointed the Gallery’s second ever Principal Curator in 1868.

H.E.M. Wilkie The Interior of the National Gallery of Scotland 1890

6. The current Gallery colour-scheme reflects the original design

In the 1930s, Orcadian-born artist Stanley Cursiter, who was then the director of the Galleries, redesigned the interior of the Scottish National Gallery to fit with the aesthetics of the day. However, the original jewel-toned décor of the National Gallery was restored at the end of the 1980s to evoke how it originally looked.

7. We're transforming the Gallery

Our ambitious plans to create an internationally significant new setting for the world’s greatest collection of Scottish art have been publicised, and construction work on our exciting transformation of the Scottish National Gallery is underway.

This major project will completely transform the way Scottish art is shown at the Gallery. The scheme will create a new suite of exhibition spaces that will be directly accessible from the adjoining Princes Street Gardens, and provide a light-filled, new home for the our unrivalled collection of Scottish art, raising its profile for visitors from all over the world.

Diego Velázquez An Old Woman Cooking Eggs 1618, Sir Edwin Landseer The Monarch of the Glen about 1851, Paul Gauguin Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) 1888.

8. The Scottish National Gallery’s most searched for work of art on the website is…

An Old Woman Cooking Eggs by Diego Velázquez (1618)! This hugely popular painting, which earlier this year was digitised by a team from Factum Foundation, is the most searched-for artwork of those currently on display in the Scottish National Gallery.

People are also visiting our site to find out more about our second most popular work, The Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edward Landseer (about 1851), followed by Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), by Paul Gauguin (1888), Sir Henry Raeburn’s The Skating Minister (about 1795), and in fifth place, The Honourable Mrs Graham (1757 - 1792) by Thomas Gainsborough.

9. During the Edinburgh Festival, in 1964 and 1965, John Bellany (1942-2013) and Alexander (Sandy) Moffat (born 1943) exhibited their paintings on the railings outside the Scottish National Gallery and Royal Scottish Academy

Emboldened by the success of a previous joint, open-air exhibition at Castle Terrace in Edinburgh, the young contemporary artists Bellany and Moffat acquired a street trader’s licence to sell their paintings on The Mound. During the busy three weeks of the Festival, they displayed their works at the heart of the city, right on the doorstep of both the Royal Scottish Academy and Scottish National Gallery.

10. Uncovering secrets with an infrared camera

The National Galleries of Scotland’s conservation department has a state-of-the art infrared camera which allows them to delve underneath the layers of a painting, so they can see if the artist made any initial pencil-work and outlines. Infrared radiation is often used to ‘see through’ paint layers that are impenetrable to the human eye.

The conservation team are busy preparing fantastic works of art from the Scottish collection which will be displayed in the new galleries, such as Sir James Guthrie’s Oban, and this infrared technology allows them to discover new stories and secrets within some of these works.  


The Scottish National Gallery reopens on Monday 17 August. Those visiting will have their very own special experiences with the much-loved artworks of the nation’s exceptional art collection, as initially, we will be limiting the number of visitors in each gallery at any one time. To manage this we've instituted a free, timed ticketing system. Admission is free, but tickets must be booked here in advance. Booking is now open. Everything you need to know about your visit can be found on this page, or in our Frequently Asked Questions