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The Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Things to Do | Out About Scotland

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Things to Do

Author: Craig Neil

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Last updated on May 13th, 2023.

8 minutes to read.


If you’re an ardent admirer of art, a connoisseur of history, or simply inquisitive about portraits, then brace yourself for an extraordinary experience.

Nestled in the heart of Edinburgh stands a veritable treasure trove of artworks in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

This iconic institution, renowned for its world-class collection of paintings, sculptures, and photographs, offers a captivating window into the lives and legacies of illustrious Scots as well as the important events that shaped Scotland into the country it is today.

This article delves into the world of portraiture to give you an in-depth view of the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh and will hopefully inspire you to visit the attraction during your next visit to Scotland’s capital city.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Address:1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD
Opening Hours:Gallery: Open daily 10am-5pm.
Café Portrait: Open daily 10am-5pm (last orders 4.30pm).
Admission Price:NA
Parking:No on-site car park. Nearest car park is located at St. James Quarter shopping centre (postcode EH1 3BP).
Contact:email: enquiries@nationalgalleries.org
Tel: +44 (0)131 624 6200
Facilities:Information desk, Wi-Fi, wheelchair access, accessible toilets, wheelchairs available, public toilets, lockers, baby changing facilities, buggy park, seating throughout, bike rack, café.

The highlights

1: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery houses one of the finest art collections in the country. Though it’s a wee bit tricky to find, a visit is a must-do for anyone with an interest in the history of Scotland.

In addition to the historic galleries there’s also a major collection of contemporary portraits as well as other rooms that focus on themes such as the Jacobites, the Victorian era, and the Reformation.

Admittedly, the gallery might not be the most enthralling attraction in Edinburgh for children, but it’s an absolute must-visit for adults.

2: The Great Hall is the first area you walk into and it’s arguably the most impressive. Before zooming upstairs to view the galleries, look up to see a frieze running around the hall that depicts Scotland’s most notable figures from present-day politicians to a depiction of ancient Caledonia.

National Portrait Gallery

Visiting tips

1: All that walking around can work up an appetite so you might like to fill up at the on-site Portrait Cafe which has a good selection of cakes and hot drinks. An alternative option for food is to take a short walk down York Place to visit the OMNi Centre which has a number of restaurants and a pub.

2: Like all of Edinburgh’s national galleries, the National Portrait Gallery is free to enter. Visitors looking for a day of art and culture can continue their adventures into Princes Street Gardens where they’ll find the Scottish National Gallery, followed by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art on Belford Road.

3: The National Galleries of Scotland have put in a lot of work to make the artworks displayed in the National Portrait Gallery interesting for all visitors. There are lots of information panels throughout the gallery, but perhaps the best way to understand each portrait is to download the Smartify app which is available on Google Play and the Apple App Store.

Using the app to scan each painting and sculpture opens a page that displays information about the artwork and the artist that created it, and there’s also audio content for visitors with headphones.


One of the best art galleries in Edinburgh is also one that’s easily overlooked as the building is hidden away between Queen Street and North St. Andrew Lane, 5-minute’s from the tourist hotspot of Princes Street.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is home to the country’s largest collection of portraits as well as the national photographic collection, both of which feature images of Scots throughout history.

In total, the gallery boasts over 3,000 paintings and sculptures, plus 25,000 prints and drawings and an incredible 38,000 photographs.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

The paintings cover a lengthy period of Scotland’s past, with the earliest portrait of James 4th dating back to 1507 while the oldest photograph was shot in 1868, making it one of the oldest photos in existence.

The photographic collection is particularly interesting as it captures the life of working-class people in Scotland and provides a fascinating glimpse into what life would have been like in the latter part of the 19th century.

Another highlight of the National Portrait Gallery is the building itself which was designed from the ground up to be an art gallery – the first of its type in the world.

The stunning architecture of the building’s exterior features a number of statues that include famous Scotsmen such as David Hume and Adam Smith so it’s well worth having a good look around the outside of the building before entering the main doors.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Moving inside, the Great Hall displays a beautiful frieze of important Scots throughout the ages from Saint Ninian, the 5th-century Pictish missionary, to Robert Burns, the famous 18th-century Scottish poet and lyricist.

The building stretches out symmetrically on either side of the main hall with the artworks showcased over three expansive floors.

Many of the original Victorian features are still intact such as the stone facades that feature in many of the rooms, while the west side of the gallery has ornate coved ceilings on the upper floors.

There are 12 rooms in total and each one focuses on a different theme, from Scots in Italy to Heroes and Heroines, so moving through the gallery takes visitors on a whirlwind tour of Scotland across different ages.

There are several prominent figures from Scotland’s history that will be immediately recognisable such as the portraits of Mary Queen of Scots and Flora MacDonald (the Jacobite heroine), but there’s also an entire section dedicated to contemporary figures such as Billy Connolly and Tilda Swinton.

In addition, the gallery frequently hosts temporary exhibitions that showcase a wide range of subjects and artists that highlight different aspects of art and culture in the modern era.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

History of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Prior to the construction of the portrait gallery, an immense collection of Scottish portraits had been amassed by the 11th Earl of Buchan, and it was subsequently agreed that a national gallery should be built in Edinburgh so that everyone could appreciate the artworks.

The government of the time refused to fund the gallery’s construction so the owner of the Scotsman newspaper, John Findlay, paid for it at his own expense.

The purpose-built building was designed by architect Robert Rowand Anderson and opened to the public in 1889 with the Earl of Buchan’s collection forming the main display, although the gallery has massively expanded the collection over the years through acquisitions, donations, and bequests.

Today, it holds a vast collection of portraits ranging from the 16th century to the present day, including paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other forms of portraiture.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Tourist information

The gallery publicly displays around 850 works at any one time

and thanks to a major refurbishment in 2011, facilities for visitors now include an education centre, café, and disabled access.

Visitors wishing to learn about the artworks on display have the option of downloading the previously mentioned Smartify app onto their mobile phone, or they can hire an audio guide with headphones for around £5 from the information desk.

As far as disabled access goes, it’s possible for blue badge holders to park at the rear of the gallery, but note that spaces are limited. Once inside, access to each floor is possible via a disabled lift and there are disabled toilets on the ground floor.

If you’d like to see the layout of the gallery, take a look at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery floor plan here.

Finally, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery library can be found in the Library and Print Room which has more than 50,000 works of art on paper as well as a collection of portrait miniatures.

The library is free for researchers and students as well as general members of the public who can enjoy the vast collection at their leisure. Use of the library must be booked in advance as the collection is kept in closed store rooms.

Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:

Edinburgh – 350 Explorer.

Edinburgh – 66 Landranger.

OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4cm = 1km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

Things to do nearby

The Scott Monument. East Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh EH2 2EJ. 6-minute walk.
A Gothic-style monument with a staircase and lookout platforms. The Scott Monument is the world’s largest monument dedicated to a writer. It is located in Princes Street Gardens.

Calton Hill. Edinburgh EH7 5AA. 10-minute walk.
A prominent hill in Edinburgh that offers panoramic views of the city and is the location of the city planetarium, the National Monument, and the Nelson Monument.

Edinburgh Playhouse. 18-22 Greenside Place, Edinburgh EH1 3AA. 10-minute walk.
The Edinburgh Playhouse is the second-largest theatre in the UK and features more than 3,000 seats. The theatre hosts shows throughout the year from independent dramas to internationally famous musicals.

The OMNi Centre. 1 Queen Street, Edinburgh EH2 1JD. 8-minute walk.
This entertainment centre features an indoor mall with a number of restaurants, bars, a gymnasium and a cinema. It is situated opposite the St. James Quarter and is within a short walk of Calton Hill and Princes Street. There is an underground car park accessed via Greenside Place.

Scottish National Gallery. The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL. 8-minute walk.
An art gallery housing a varied collection of the nation’s masterpieces. Seasonal exhibitions are held throughout the year. Facilities include a café and a gift shop.

Frequently asked questions

Is the Scottish Portrait Gallery free?

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh is free to enter. Visitors to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery do not have to pay an entrance charge because of the National Galleries of Scotland’s policy of providing free entry to its permanent collections. Temporary exhibitions and other events may have admission costs, however.

How long should I spend at the National Portrait Gallery?

Depending on your particular interests and how thoroughly you want to tour the gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh might take anywhere from one hour to an entire afternoon. On average, though, most visitors spend approximately 1-2 hours at the gallery to get a general overview of the collection.

What are the highlights of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery?

Some of the notable highlights of the gallery’s collection include:
1: The Scottish National Portrait Gallery building. The building is a beautiful example of neo-Gothic architecture and is considered an artwork in its own right. Designed by architect Robert Rowand Anderson, the building features ornate carvings and beautiful stained glass windows.
2: The Great Hall. The centrepiece of the gallery, the Great Hall features a soaring ceiling adorned with intricate murals while the floor is home to a collection of portraits and busts of influential figures.
3: Library and Print Room. All of the National Portrait Gallery’s books, archives, and more than 50,000 works of art on paper (including the Photography Collection) may be found in the Library and Print Room. It also has an impressive collection of miniature portraits.

What is the Scottish National Portrait Gallery famous for?

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh is famous for its extensive collection of portraits that showcase notable figures from Scottish history. Some of the key aspects that make the gallery famous include the beautiful Great Hall at the main entrance and the collection of portrait miniatures in the library. The latter is considered one of the finest collections of its type in the world.

By Craig Neil

Craig Neil is a travel writer from Edinburgh with a passion for visiting Scotland's tourist attractions from the rugged Highlands to the bustling cities. Join him as he shares personal experiences and tips & advice about touring Scotland. Follow him on Pinterest and YouTube.