History & Architecture


Designed by the architect William Henry Playfair (1790-1857), the Royal Scottish Academy and the National Gallery of Scotland stand in the heart of Edinburgh. Although originally built as separate structures, their histories have long been intertwined, and since the completion of the Playfair Project in 2004, they have been physically joined by the underground Gardens Entrance.

In 1819, the Royal Institution for the Encouragement of the Fine Arts in Scotland (RI) was founded to promote artistic enlightenment through exhibitions. It also acquired some paintings by Old Masters and works by contemporary Scottish artists. The RI did not, however, have its own premises, and by 1822 it was decided that a permanent home was required. Playfair was commissioned to design a new building for The Mound. It opened in 1828, but the structure was block-like and austere. Furthermore, the RI was forced to share these premises with other learned societies, and the building rapidly became too small for its purpose. By 1832, Playfair was drawing up plans to extend the structure and transform its exterior, creating a much more classical, elegant building.

The solution for the RI was short-lived, as further demands for space were placed upon the new building, particularly by the Scottish Academy. This organisation had been founded in 1826 by a group of artists who felt alienated by the perceived elitism and bad management of the RI. They also held an abiding conviction that Scotland should have its own National Gallery. In 1835, the Scottish Academy was granted permission to lease some gallery space from the RI in order to mount its annual exhibition. By 1838, it had been granted a royal charter and became the Royal Scottish Academy (RSA). Its presence in the RI, although initially welcome, began to cause significant upheaval. Both the RI and the RSA were acquiring works of art, which placed even further demands on space. By the mid-1840s it was clear that another building was required to house the RSA and its collection.

The Royal Scottish Academicians’ long-held desire for a National Gallery of Scotland was finally realised in 1859, when Playfair’s second building on The Mound was opened to the public. The new building housed both the RSA and the National Gallery of Scotland, whose founding collection was formed by transferring the RI’s collection of Old Master paintings. The RI remained in its original building. This situation persisted until the early twentieth century, when a parliamentary order removed the RSA from the National Gallery building. It granted the RSA permanent tenancy of office space in the RI building, and the right to hold its annual exhibition there. The original RI building was thereafter known as ‘The Royal Scottish Academy’.


Playfair was Scotland’s leading architect of his era and was responsible for a number of Edinburgh buildings, although his two galleries on The Mound are generally regarded as his finest. For the Royal Scottish Academy building (originally the RI), Playfair had chosen the Doric order, and designed a programme of sculptural decoration to reflect its inhabitant’s interest in ornament and design.  For scenic effect, he made a deliberate contrast in his designs for the National Gallery building and opted for the graceful Ionic order. His two classical temples to the arts achieved a picturesque harmony with the dramatic backdrop of Edinburgh Castle.

The latest phase in The Mound’s history saw the completion of a link between the Royal Scottish Academy Building and the National Gallery of Scotland. Award-winning architects John Miller and Partners rose to the challenge of developing the two grand architectural pedigrees for modern use. The newly refurbished RSA is now a world-class exhibition space, while the underground Gardens Entrance houses a range of new visitor facilities, including the Clore Education Centre, a 200-seat lecture theatre and cinema, an IT Gallery and a 120-seat restaurant.