The National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh cares for, researches and displays the national collection of modern art. The gallery also stages art exhibitions and offers visitors the chance to explore artworks in its large grounds as well as indoors in the two 19th-century buildings.
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Review of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The National Galleries of Scotland control three galleries housing great Scottish artworks, all of which are based in Edinburgh.
While the Scottish National Gallery and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery are easily accessible from the city centre, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is located slightly further afield to the west of Dean Village, so it’s a little bit inaccessible to unfamiliar visitors (see the map further down the page).
The journey to the gallery is well worth it though as not only is it spread out across two beautiful early 19th-century buildings but the landscaped grounds are full of artworks that can be enjoyed in addition to the ones housed indoors.
The primary purpose of the gallery is to showcase the Scottish national collection of contemporary art dating from the early 20th-century to the present day, and the vast collection covers all forms of media across 6,000 unique works, from sound and video to paintings and sculpture.
The collection is a total feast for the senses and many thought-inspiring artworks are guaranteed to give you cause for quiet contemplation, while the combination of elaborate gardens and the maze of gallery rooms spread across the two buildings will no doubt keep you entertained for a good hour or two.
The National Galleries of Scotland provide a bus service to transport visitors from the Scottish National Gallery in the city centre to the Modern Art Gallery and back again, while cafés can be found in both the Modern One and Modern Two buildings alongside souvenir shops, an art library and a book archive.
Although admission is free for the static collections and the sculpture park there are charges for some of the exhibitions so you might want to check the National Galleries Scotland website before you leave home to see what’s currently on, especially as most paid exhibitions cost over £10 per ticket.
That being said they’re not bad value if you really like modern art, but if you’ve only got a passing interest I’d advise you to stick to the static collections as there’s more than enough going on to keep you occupied for most of an afternoon.
Just bear in mind the majority of young children won’t ‘get’ a lot of the artworks so they’re going to get bored quite quickly.
Luckily though, the gallery is opposite the Water of Leith which offers a lovely walk along picturesque waterside paths with ample bird feeding and puddle splashing opportunities.
To get there, cross the bridge from the Modern One into the Life Tribute Memorial Park and follow the river towards Dean Bridge on Queensferry Road.
By the way, if you want to visit another modern art gallery you’ll find one of the best in Scotland at Jupiter Artland. Read my Guide to Jupiter Artland for a full overview.
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Things to do at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
Modern One is highly regarded for its rotating collection of exhibits and the permanent collection includes dramatic pieces from renowned artists like Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Andy Warhol.
Across the road Modern Two houses selected pieces from the permanent collection as well as a continually updated catalogue of exhibits, and any interested member of the public can view the history of modern art media in the comprehensive archive library.
Externally, a sculpture park created by the landscape designer Charles Jencks dominates the lawn of Modern One where a huge serpentine mound surrounds a crescent-shaped pool of water.
It’s certainly impressive and it reminded me of my last visit to Jupiter Artland near Edinburgh which features an even bigger Jencks artwork.
While walking around the grounds you’ll be able to get up close and personal with artworks such as the bronze sculpture ‘Master of the Universe’ by Eduardo Paolozzi which is based on a drawing of Sir Isaac Newton, and the installation on the façade of Modern One by the artist and musician Martin Creed.
It’s all very interesting but I’ll be the first to admit that this gallery isn’t for everyone, and by its very nature modern art is going to divide opinions so bear that in mind if you find yourself rolling your eyes whenever you see arty types on TV enthusing over some emerging artist’s display of their manky old bed.
But if you’d like to see a Scottish attraction that’s just a bit different to the standard tourist traps you’ll find on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile I reckon the National Gallery of Modern Art is well worth a visit.
The history of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
The galleries are divided into the Modern One and the Modern Two, and both have equally interesting histories.
While the very first gallery of modern art was located at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, it soon became apparent that larger premises would be needed to house the growing collection, so in 1984 the gallery moved to its first location (Modern One) on Belford Road and then expanded into another building (Modern Two) across the road in 1999.
Modern One was formerly the John Watson School, an institute for fatherless children that had been designed by William Burn in 1825 before being taken over by the gallery.
Modern Two was created by Thomas Hamilton in 1831 as a hospital for orphans and was subsequently used as an education centre before being converted into its present use as a home for a collection of modern surrealist artworks.
- Though sometimes controversial, the artworks are totally fascinating – especially the ones outside in the landscaped grounds.
- The landscaped gardens are great. I love the fact you can get so hands-on with the art like the enormous Jencks land works.
- As with most Scottish national galleries, this one is free to enter.
- Use the bus to visit the gallery. It’s a bit of a trek from the city centre if you don’t know where you’re going.
- Cross the road from the Modern One into the Life Tribute park to join the Water of Leith walkway.
- The on-site café is ok but you’ll find cheaper places to eat in the city centre.
75 Belford Road,
The gallery shuttle bus transports visitors between Edinburgh’s three gallery sites, starting and stopping at the Modern Art Gallery Two. There’s a £1 voluntary donation for the service. See the National Galleries Scotland website for details.
Click the map for directions
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art
- The Water of Leith Walkway. Damside, Edinburgh EH4 3BE. 9-minute walk. The Water of Leith is a river that starts in the Colzium Hills outside of Edinburgh and flows all the way to Leith. The majority of the section inside the city has paved pathways alongside it that are suitable for use by all ages and abilities.
- The Georgian House. 7 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh EH2 4DR. 19-minute walk. An 18th-century luxury townhouse designed by the architect Adam Smith. Today it is managed by the National Trust for Scotland who have installed period furniture, costumes and artworks.
- St. Bernards Well. MacKenzie Pl, Edinburgh EH3 6TS. 17-minute walk. Famous Edinburgh landmark set alongside the Water of Leith that lies midway between Stockbridge and Dean Village.
- The Ross Fountain. Princes St, Edinburgh EH1 2EU. 22-minute walk. A cast-iron fountain set in the western end of Princes Street Gardens. The fountain was created in 1872 and represents Edinburgh’s associations with science, the arts, poetry and industry. The fountain is a popular location for tourists as it offers superb photo opportunities of Edinburgh Castle.
- The Parish Church of St. Cuthbert. 5 Lothian Rd, Edinburgh EH1 2EP. 21-minute walk. St. Cuthbert’s is the oldest Christian site in Edinburgh and is believed to have been founded in 670 AD. The church is located in the west end of Princes Street Gardens where it is overlooked by Edinburgh Castle.
More places to visit in Edinburgh
- Cramond Island – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideSituated just over 3/4 of a mile into the Firth of Forth, Cramond Island is a tidal landmass located close the village of Cramond near Edinburgh.
- Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World: Complete Visitor GuideEdinburgh Butterfly World is a fascinating tourist attraction on the southern outskirts of Edinburgh that showcases some rather incredible, beautiful, and very creepy-crawly insects and reptiles from across the globe.
- The Scotch Whisky Experience – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideIf you’re embarking on a visit to Edinburgh then your trip won’t be complete without a visit to The Scotch Whisky Experience, located just a short walk from Edinburgh Castle Esplanade on the Royal Mile.
- The Royal Yacht Britannia – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideThe Royal Yacht Britannia is the former royal yacht of HM Queen Elizabeth II which now takes pride of place at the Ocean Terminal shopping centre at Leith in Edinburgh. Over the course of her working life Britannia was the official residence of the Royal Family and sailed over one million miles around the world.