The Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Scotland’s Palace of and for the People

Would you like to meet some famous people from Scotland’s past? If so, this is your lucky day, because we are making a visit to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery here in Edinburgh. So, join us as we head to Queen Street and take you on a virtual visit of one of Edinburgh’s most exquisite buildings.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is part of National Galleries Scotland (we’ve previously written about one of their other sites- The Scottish National Gallery- which introduces you to some iconic paintings). The Portrait Gallery is one of my favourite buildings in all of Edinburgh and it is also a fun way to ‘meet’ some interesting characters. On this visit, some of our regular characters here at the Wee Walking Tours blog will make an appearance. Before we head inside to greet everyone, let’s take a wee walkabout around the building exterior.


Amazing Architecture

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery features spectacular sandstone whose red hues change depending on the time of year, day, and weather. Even on a rather dreich (Scots for dull or gloomy) day, the beauty of the Portrait Gallery still shines through. The building was designed by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson in the Neo-Gothic style as evidenced by the pointed arches on the windows and doors as well as the spires on each corner. Neo-gothic or Gothic Revival architecture was embraced in Scotland during its heyday in the 1800s; the Scott Monument and the Thistle Chapel at St Giles’ Cathedral are two famous examples here in Edinburgh. The Scottish National Portrait opened its doors to the public in 1889.

As we make our way to the entrance, there are some subtle signs of the times as we can see in this picture of Mary, Queen of Scots. She kindly welcomes us back and beautifully demonstrates how we should wear a mask to make our visit safe for each other. Speaking of Mary, she just happens to be our first introduction.


Mary Queen of Scots, Family, Friends, & Foes


One of the most iconic characters in Scottish history is none other than Mary, Queen of Scots. She continues her warm welcome as we enter the gallery where her portraits reside alongside her family members. Being such an important part of the historical landscape throughout Scotland, Mary and her family visit our blog often. In fact, for some glimpses into her life, I recommend you look at our articles on Linlithgow Palace and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Close to Mary (pictured to all the way to the left) are her famous parents- James V and Marie de Guise. You can read more about them in our Stirling Castle post.


Our last immediate member of the Stuart family is Mary’s son, James VI. While the portrait may seem a bit creepy- it is due to the practice at the time which was to paint children to look like adults.


Our next guest is ‘lurking’ nearby and is one of the Stuarts’ biggest foes- John Knox. Knox had a voracious hatred for Marie de Guise and her daughter, Mary, that he vocalized without abandon. This story is discussed in our article on the John Knox House.


Mary did have ‘friends in high places’ in Scotland, and one of them was George Seton, 7th Lord Seton. You can read more about him and the Seton family here.



Of course, as many know, Mary was held by her cousin, Elizabeth I of England for nineteen years before Elizabeth had her brutally beheaded. A great deal of important history unfolds after this. However, for the purposes of this article and to be as succinct as possible, I will try to summarise. Mary’s son, James VI, eventually becomes King of Scotland and England (he was not allowed to be raised Catholic). Eventually, his grandson, James VII, becomes king and a Catholic monarch is restored to the throne.


However, the English are threatened when James VII’s son, Prince James Edward Francis Stuart, is born as they fear a Catholic dynasty will take hold. Therefore, they organise a coup d’état and invite James’ son-in-law, William of Orange, to invade. He and his wife, Mary (James VII’s daughter) are Protestant and are offered the crown. As a result, James VII is forced to flee to the European continent and goes in exile. The Jacobite cause is eventually born out of these circumstances.


Jacobite Fervour


The Jacobite cause was strong in Scotland and played an important part in European history for 100 years as there were multiple attempts to return the Stuarts back to the monarchy. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery points out that although James VII “was no longer able to rule his kingdoms, he continued to commission works of art which projected the confident face of a viable alternative regime”. Portraits were an important part of keeping the Jacobite cause alive and were “sent as gifts to actual or potential supporters. An exiled dynasty also needed to remind Britons of its appearance and importance”.


While the family spent most of their time in exile in Italy, the Jacobite cause carried on into the 1700s and eventually ended with one of its more famous individuals- ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’- Charles Edward Stuart (pictured below in paintings and sculpture). He died in Italy in 1788 and was buried at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican alongside his father, James Francis Edward Stuart.


19th & 20th Century Luminaries


Continuing our look at royalty, a very youthful Queen Victoria peeks out from the regal drapes set up in its place of prominence in the gallery. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved Scotland and the Highlands so much that they built Balmoral Castle which continues to be the summer residence of the royal family.


Shifting gears, we next look at some individuals who played an important role at the turn of and into the beginning of the 20th century. First is a man who many of our readers in North America might not realise was born in Scotland- Andrew Carnegie. I particularly enjoy this painting of him and think that it highlights his kind eyes. To learn more about Andrew Carnegie, be sure to read our article on the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum.



I would like to now introduce you to someone who holds an especially important position in Scottish history as she was a pioneer of medical education for women- Dr. Elsie Maud Inglis. Located on the ground floor, there is a quiet elegance and determination that seems to emanate from her bronze sculpture.



The Portrait Gallery discusses how she became a qualified doctor and surgeon in 1892. She then held a general practice and established a maternity ward in Edinburgh. However, she is also famous for her work during WWI. She “formed the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service which set up field hospitals in France, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, Russia, Corsica, Malta, and Romania. She personally ran hospitals in Serbia and Russia. The all-women hospital staff cared for sick and wounded soldiers, as well as civilians, prisoners and refugees”. This incredible woman deserves an article of her own- so keep an eye out for that soon.


Scottish Literary Giants


One of our most celebrated guests that we feature on this blog is one of the most famous Scottish writers of all time- Robert Louis Stevenson. We’ve previously written about his childhood haunts in Colinton and the Pentlands as well as his place of honour at the Writers’ Museum. Therefore, I am happy to say that RLS is proudly showcased in a few different mediums at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Within the same gallery, you can find a rather haunting painting of him as well as a lovely etching. In the Main Hall is a lovely marble sculpture.



Next to his etching is an albumen print of his American wife, Frances Matilda Vandergrift. They were married in San Francisco and famously travelled together throughout the Pacific before settling down in Western Samoa.



Of course, we can’t mention famous Scottish writers without highlighting another one of our regular blog visitors- Sir Walter Scott. Scott’s impact on Scottish history is legendary for a reason. I highly recommend you check out our articles on his Monument, home at Abbotsford, and his final resting place at Dryburgh Abbey. Scott’s painting at the Portrait Gallery is aptly described by them as, “perhaps the most sensitive and humane of all contemporary depictions of the great author”.



Finally, as Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns is featured in painting and has a sculpture that holds pride of place in the Main Hall (sit tight we’ll return to that in just a bit).



The Main Hall


While the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s exterior architecture is quite grand, the interior is simply stunning. The Main Hall continues the Gothic Revival design we viewed outside. In fact, for me, it reminds me of Sir Walter Scott’s home, Abbotsford, with its rich, baronial gothic style.



The Portrait Gallery’s Main Hall features a frieze that draws the eye up to the first-floor balustrade and dominates the space. The Portrait Gallery describes it as a ‘visual encyclopaedia’ and features famous historical figures such as Robert the Bruce, the Stuart monarchs, and Robert Burns.


For this visit, we were fortunate to enjoy the beautiful Christmas decorations that make the space even more special this time of year. As mentioned above, there is a lovely sculpture of Robert Burns here in the Main Hall that is especially enchanting next to the Christmas tree.



There are also some fun hints of the Portrait Gallery building’s past life. For example, just above one of the doorways, is a carving that says, ‘National Museum of Antiquities’. They had their collections in the building from 1851 to 1995 and was just one of the learned societies that were housed in the building during its first one hundred years.



Once you are done exploring the galleries and Main Hall, stop by Café Portrait for a delicious bite to eat. They serve a variety of lunch options as well as fantastic coffee and a nice selection of desserts.


Visiting the Scottish National Portrait Gallery


The subtitle for this article, “Scotland’s Palace of and for the People”, is done for a simple reason. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a place where the people of Scotland and those visiting can ‘meet’ some incredible individuals that are part of Scotland’s history. Further, the Portrait Gallery offers free admission- making it truly a place for the people (although we encourage those who have the means to consider donating).


If you visit Edinburgh, we highly recommend a visit to this iconic landmark. We have only featured a few highlights, and merely provided an introduction. However, there is so much more to see and do including special exhibitions such as The Mackinnon Collection (which was on show at the beginning of the year). Therefore, be sure to check the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s website for the most current information on how best to plan your visit. Please note that booking in advance is required as of this writing.


While you are in town, we hope that you will join us for one of our Edinburgh walking tours. Sami (our human tour guide) and Sawyer (our Golden Retriever tour guide) would love to share more stories about some of the people you met today in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.


Until next time- Explore & Discover!