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Arts and culture in Edinburgh

Culturally, Edinburgh has played a significant role not only in shaping Scottish society, but in fact much of the Western world. Since it was founded in 1582, the University of Edinburgh has been a driving force in cultural and social development, with alumni including Charles Darwin, Adam Smith, David Hume and William Wordsworth. It’s been joined in recent times by noteworthy contributions in their own specialities from the city’s other universities, Edinburgh Napier, Heriot-Watt and Queen Margaret University.

Architectural beauty

During the enlightenment especially, the city and its people were responsible for advancements in the fields of politics, economics, sociology, engineering, agriculture, medicine, law, archaeology, geology, philosophy and architecture. Indeed, it was a combination of the latter two that earned Edinburgh the nickname ‘the Athens of the North’. As well as being the base for many of the pre-eminent philosophers and social thinkers of the day, it was also the location for scores of neoclassical buildings and structures like the National Gallery, Register House, the City Observatory and the National Monument.

The architecture of Edinburgh is one of the reasons that the city is so unique and so admired. It’s the juxtaposition between its two distinct areas – the chaotic sprawl of the medieval Old Town and the pomp and splendour of the New Town, with its mix of neoclassical, Victorian and Georgian designs – that sets it apart.

Edinburgh is a living, breathing, working museum, where the built environment serves as a continual, unparalleled backdrop to day-to-day life, and it is there that the city derives its inimitable character. Here you can appreciate architecture and urban-planning on a peerless scale – it’s the only place in the world where it’s possible to walk for a mile in either direction and only ever see listed buildings. There are numerous walks and trails, guided or otherwise, that you can follow or take part in which reveal the wonders and hidden secrets of the city’s buildings and monuments. Edinburgh is littered with historically-significant structures, and even an aimless stroll around the town will uncover some delightful features.

Two monuments – out of many – stand out. Described by Bill Bryson as a ‘Gothic rocket ship’, the Scott Monument which dominates Princes Street is the largest in the world commemorating a writer, while the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill contains a time ball which is still dropped daily at 1pm.

Edinburgh is a living, breathing, working museum, where the built environment serves as a continual, unparalleled backdrop to day-to-day life

At the art of the matter

Even today, Edinburgh is the cultural seat of the nation. Scotland is home to four internationally-important National Collections, the National Galleries (NGS); the National Library (NLS); the National Museums (NMS) and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) and the buildings which comprise each are based almost exclusively in Edinburgh. Five galleries, on three sites across Edinburgh, encompass the NGS and together they house one of the finest art collections in the world. Open daily from 10am until 5pm, admission to each is free, although there is sometimes a charge for special exhibitions. Individually or collectively, they shouldn’t be missed. If you’re an art enthusiast, the archive and study facilities at the galleries are second-to-none, with almost 150,000 pieces, dating back to 1300, available for reference.

The National Gallery itself is situated on The Mound, adjacent to the Royal Scottish Academy and the two galleries are linked by an underground tunnel, The Weston Link, which also houses a stunning glass-fronted restaurant overlooking Princes Street Gardens. Both buildings – huge neoclassical structures designed by William Henry Playfair – can be considered impressive works of art in their own right. Here you’ll find works by greats like Rembrandt, Cezanne, Gaugin, El Greco and Van Gogh, as well as Constable, Vermeer, Monet, Raphael, Degas, Botticelli, Raeburn and many more. This is also where a number of paintings by the Italian master Titian hang, including the glorious Diana and Actaeon (displayed in rotation between here and the National Gallery in London), which made headlines when it was saved for the nation for the princely sum of £50 million.

The Scottish National Gallery is free to visit

The Scottish National Gallery is free to visit

At its picturesque setting in the West End, the National Gallery of Modern Art, split between two neighbouring buildings, displays works by many luminaries of the modern art world. Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Piet Mondrian, Henry Moore and Tracey Emin are some of the highlights in Modern One, while Modern Two is the permanent home of the Paolozzi Gift, a collection of works gifted by the Edinburgh-born artist Eduardo Paolozzi. From here, you can also enjoy a walk along the delightful Water of Leith and follow a series of installations by Turner Prize winner, Antony Gormley, which you can follow right down to the sea.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street houses depictions of some of Scotland’s most notable citizens such as Robert Burns, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Mary, Queen of Scots. First opened to the public in 1889, Robert Rowand Anderson’s stunning neo-Gothic red sandstone structure has undergone huge internal and external renovations in recent years, with the multi-million pound facelifts transforming the gallery spaces inside and restoring the outside to it’s former glory.

At its picturesque setting in the West End, the National Gallery of Modern Art, split between two neighbouring buildings, displays works by many luminaries of the modern art world

National and local artists

In addition to the NGS there are a multitude of other public, private and commercial art galleries in Edinburgh which are open to the public, too, many without charge. Originally home to the study of astronomy and timekeeping in Edinburgh, the site of the City Observatory on Calton Hill has, over the last decade, been reimagined and repurposed by Collective, an Edinburgh-based art charity, into a multi-use, multi-space venue that straddles the divide between history and modernity.

The City Art Centre, operated by the city council, has a real focus on national and local artists, as well as a fantastic collection of Scottish pieces right through to the modern day. Directly across the street, the not-for-profit Fruitmarket Gallery specialises in contemporary art, staging exhibitions by celebrated artists from Britain and beyond.

The Fine Art Society on Dundas Street plays an integral part in the city’s Art scene history, not only for its range of works dating from the 1700s to the modern day, but also because is it one of the oldest existing arts dealerships in the world, and spearheaded the concept of solo exhibitions. Another pioneering gallery, Stills, is never afraid to challenge convention, with a keen social conscience running through the themes of many of its exhibitions, with an emphasis on championing of the talents of up-and-coming photographers.

The Queen’s Gallery, part of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, displays works drawn from the Royal Collection on rotation, while the Ingleby Gallery is one of most-respected private galleries operating in the UK. Just outside the city, in the estate of Bonnington House, Jupiter Artland is a seasonal sculpture park, open from May to September that host indoor and outdoor exhibitions and includes works from Anish Kapoor and Nathan Coley.

Created by amalgamating the 19th-century Royal Museum building with a new custom-built structure in the 1990s, the jewel in the crown of the NMS is the National Museum on Chamber Street. Its collections include everything from prehistoric fossils to significant cultural artefacts from all four corners of the globe. Most notably, though, it traces Scotland’s history right back to the dawn of time, interweaving various threads to tell the complete story of the land, its people, and the nation they created. There are exhibitions, interactive displays and live action recreations, and you could easily spend the whole day here.

Just outside the city, in the estate of Bonnington House, Jupiter Artland is a seasonal sculpture park that hosts indoor and outdoor exhibitions and includes works from Anish Kapoor and Nathan Coley

Scottish history

The city is also the setting for the National War Museum, located in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, which presents the history of Scotland’s military experience, examining great battles, glorious victories and crushing defeats, and the impact these had on shaping our society over hundreds of years.

No matter where you’re from, with more than 20 million items in almost 500 languages, you should be able to find something you want to read at the National Library on George IV Bridge. With ancient maps, musical masterpieces and manuscripts from some of Scotland’s greatest authors, it’s a terrific way to explore the history of the nation’s culture through first-hand evidence. The city was also a huge inspiration in the domain of literature, influencing great writers like Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, and continues to do so to the present day, with celebrated authors such as JK Rowling, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and Irvine Welsh all drawing inspiration from the capital and its people.

Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Edinburgh Castle is not only home to National War Museum, but also The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

The RCAHMS looks after all the information about Scotland’s built environment – everything from buildings, sites and ancient monuments, whether they are of architectural, archaeological or historical interest, so for those that want to delve deeper into these areas, you needn’t look any further. If you’re here tracing your Scottish ancestry, it’s a superb tool for adding some flavour to your research; what was your family’s home like, or the area that they lived in? Edinburgh is also the home of the National Archives of Scotland, undoubtedly the best starting point for any amateur genealogists.

Other notable museums include the Museum of Childhood and the Museum of Edinburgh, where you can learn about every detail of the city’s past. The Writers’ Museum pays testament to the city’s rich literary heritage, with the ever-evolving Makar’s Court project outside, where some of the country’s finest authors have examples of their prose inscribed on the flagstones of Lady Stair’s Close.

Edinburgh is the setting for the National War Museum, located in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, which presents the history of Scotland’s military experience

Theatrical arts

With half a dozen major venues, and scores of smaller ones, theatrical arts thrive in Edinburgh year-round, not just in August during the festival. The marvellous Usher Hall, for instance, stages everything from classical music to rock concerts, the Festival Theatre presents a broad range including ballet, opera, dance and drama, whereas the King’s specialises in comedy, drama and musicals.

The Playhouse (the UK’s largest theatre, with a capacity of more than 3,000) hosts large touring companies and hit shows, while the Traverse and the Lyceum tend to showcase new writing and produce contemporary shows of their own respectively.

The Bedlam is the oldest student-run theatre in the UK, staging around 40 performances a year, and the Brunton and the Church Hill theatres both frequently stage an assortment of pieces too. Amateur theatre flourishes as well, although the standard does, of course, tend to fluctuate.

Edinburgh has a strong creative industry which continues to influence, and be influenced by, contemporary art and culture. Many of the city’s arts venues, especially the smaller ones, collaborate with all kinds of artists to continue to develop ideas and challenge conceptions. In the last few years, there have been some interesting collectives emerging that seek to combine different media in new ways and tend to spring up around multi-purpose venues. If you like your culture to be cutting-edge, scratch the surface a little – you’ll find an abundance of innovative, challenging and provocative art lurking beneath Edinburgh’s grandiose veneer.


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Image credits: ©Anna Kunst Photography/Jupiter Artland; David Monteith Hodge/photographise.com/Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society; Festival City Theatres; National Museums Scotland; Scottish National Galleries; VisitBritain/Andrew Pickett/Simon Jarratt

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