The History of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

History & Architecture




The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is home to Scotland’s national collection of portraits and currently also houses the National Photography Collection. Its origins can be traced to one enthusiastic collector, the mildly eccentric David, 11th Earl of Buchan. His collection of portraits of famous Scots, assembled in the late eighteenth century, formed the foundation of the national portrait collection in its first conception.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the idea of a National Portrait Gallery for Scotland was championed by many, including the historian Thomas Carlyle. A believer in heroes, Carlyle wrote that ”Historical Portrait Galleries far transcend in worth all other kinds of National Collections of Pictures whatever”. Despite widespread enthusiasm, however, the government of the day was reluctant to commit funds to the project. Instead, it was the philanthropy of a local newspaper owner that allowed the present Gallery to open its doors to the public in 1889.

John Ritchie Findlay, the chief proprietor of The Scotsman, not only paid for the construction and an endowment, but he also masterminded the building that was to house the collection. He employed the architect Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, who had previously won the competition for designing the Edinburgh Medical Schools and who later earned a wide reputation for the restoration of ecclesiastical buildings in Scotland. Rowand Anderson created a modern purpose-designed art gallery to rival the most advanced at the time in Europe and America. At the same time, he wanted his building to be a shrine for Scotland’s heroes. The extensive decoration scheme, both external and internal, was designed with this idea in mind and is now an essential part of the visitor’s experience.

To this day, the Gallery continues to collect works that are portraits of Scots, though not necessarily made by Scots. It aims to add portraits of those missing in the collection, as well as to bring the collection up to date. Since 1982 there has been a policy of commissioning portraits of living Scots by contemporary artists.

Our renovation of the Gallery in 2011 provided the opportunity for a new approach to how we show our collection and what we include in our displays. Portraits are most simply defined as recognisable representations of individuals but we have extended our understanding of this to include depictions of specific places and events, allowing us to include the landscapes of Scotland to enrich the overall picture. A dramatic increase in space (an additional 250 linear metres) has also allowed us to increase the number of works on show to a massive 850.


A distinctive landmark on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a grand, neo-gothic building in red sandstone. The north- and east-facing sides feature an elaborate scheme of decorative sculptures. Poets, monarchs and statesmen watch over Queen Street and North St Andrew Street, while William Wallace and Robert the Bruce guard the entrance.

Once inside the building, the Main Hall proves a breathtaking introduction to Scottish history. Along the first-floor balustrade runs a processional or pageant frieze that depicts many famous Scots in reverse chronological order. Starting with Thomas Carlyle, it was designed as a ‘visual encyclopaedia’ and includes figures such as David Livingstone, James Watt, Robert Burns, Adam Smith, David Hume, the Stuart monarchs, Robert the Bruce and Saint Ninian. The artist, William Hole, also painted a series of large-scale murals on the first floor. Like the frieze, these paintings of scenes from Scottish history are as much a part of the fabric of the building as the memorial to its founder, John Ritchie Findlay, on the ground floor. His was the first contemporary portrait to be commissioned for the Gallery.


The building stretches out symmetrically on either side of the Main Hall, and its three floors are used for a mixture of permanent and temporary displays. For the first hundred years of its existence, the Gallery shared its space with a number of learned societies. After the last of these had left, the Gallery went through a major overhaul from 2009-2011.

The renovation of the building by architects PagePark had two purposes. The first was to restore the building to how Anderson originally intended it to look and function. This was done by removing false walls and lowered ceilings, opening up windows and revealing hidden Victorian details, like the elegant stone arcade in the Ramsay Room. Most dramatic of all has been the restoration of the great coved ceilings on the upper floors on the west side of the Gallery. The other key objective was to introduce services that the Gallery has hitherto lacked. A great glass lift now rises through the building providing an enticing way of access to each of the three principal floors. Spaces for education have been provided, a new gallery specially earmarked for photography has been created and the site now boasts a decent size café – all these look both contemporary and totally at home within the Victorian building.