National Museum Scotland

National Museum Scotland boasts one of the largest and most diverse collections of any museum in Scotland. Located on Chambers Street in Edinburgh, it is open five days a week and can be visited for free, making it one of the most exciting places for fans of museums and heritage in the city!

The oldest elements of the museum’s collection were originally brought together by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which still has offices in the modern building. In 1858, the Society’s collection was put on display in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, in a building on Queen’s Street currently occupied by the Scottish Portrait Gallery. Around the same time (1861), construction began on Chambers Street of the core of the building that now houses the National Museum of Scotland. This was to be known as the Industrial Museum of Scotland, although five years later it was renamed the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art and in 1904 became known as the Royal Scottish Museum. In 1985, the two museums were merged; although the collections were not brought together on Chambers Street until 1998. At first, the collections were displayed in two separate buildings, but in 2004 an ambitious project was launched to re-model both into a single building. The museum in its current form reopened in July 2011.

PHOTOGRAPH BY Dr. Callum Watson

As noted above, the collection at the museum is incredibly diverse. There are galleries covering natural history, physics, engineering – they even have a cast of a T-Rex skeleton! Personally, I find the historical items to be the most fascinating, and the National Museum of Scotland has one of the most remarkable collections relating to Scottish history anywhere in the world. When Pixar was developing the film Brave, the animators took a tour of the Early Peoples Gallery to generate ideas. Thus, fans of the film will no doubt recognise several objects from the exhibition that appear in that movie. One of the more unusual items in this gallery is the Torr’s Pony Cap, a decorative Iron Age object designed for use by only the fanciest of ponies. Despite its curious design, with long curved horns that were added after the cap itself was first constructed, it appears to have seen a great deal of use in its time. There is even evidence of it being repeatedly damaged and repaired over the years. In the Kingdom of Scots Gallery, eleven of the eighty-two Lewis chessmen are on permanent display (the remainder belong to the British Museum in London). These twelfth-century chess pieces were found in Lewis on the Outer Hebrides but were probably made in Norway, to which the Outer Hebrides belonged at that time. They are made from walrus ivory that may have originated in Iceland, demonstrating the astonishing trade and cultural connections that existed across the North Atlantic and North Sea in this period.

Lewis chessmen made of walrus ivory
PHOTOGRAPH BY Dr. Callum Watson

But for me, the most exciting object on display at the National Museum of Scotland is sometimes known as the Bute Mazer, after the Isle of Bute where it was found, or sometimes known as the Bannatyne Mazer after the family to whom it belongs. It is a small wooden drinking bowl, designed for use at feasts, with a gilded metal boss in the centre and a later silver rim around the edge. This may not sound especially remarkable, but what makes it so fascinating is that it may well have once been held (perhaps even used) by Robert the Bruce. In the middle of the gilded boss can be seen a lion, which almost certainly represents the King of Scots. Around the lion are six coats of arms displaying the heraldry of prominent families from Renfrewshire and Ayrshire in south-west Scotland, their ‘chiefs’ – i.e. the top edge of the shield – facing towards the lion to demonstrate their subservience to the king. Between the lion’s paws are the arms of the Stewart family, probably representing Walter Stewart who became Bruce’s son-in-law in 1315/16. Beside the lion’s right paw are the arms of the Douglas family, which are missing the ‘bludy hart’ of Bruce – added to commemorate the fact that one of their members had died carrying Bruce’s embalmed heart on crusade in 1330. We can therefore be reasonably confident that this represents Sir James Douglas, one of Bruce’s closest allies. Next, we find two coats of arms belonging to members of the Fitz Gilbert family, which suggests that the mazer can have been made no earlier than 1314 (when Sir Walter Fitz Gilbert left English allegiance and submitted to Bruce). Beside these two arms are the arms of Susannah Crawford – the only woman to be represented on the mazer. Susannah’s presence suggests that the mazer can have been made no later than 1318, when she married Donald Campbell (at which point, we would expect his arms to appear rather than hers). The final coat of arms on the boss is that of Sir John Menteith, a relative of Walter Stewart and a close councillor of the king. We can thus confidently date the creation of the Bute Mazer to the period 1314-18, and it has been suggested that it may have been made for the marriage of Stewart to Bruce’s daughter Marjory. It represents a rare, tangible connection to one of the most celebrated figures in Scotland’s history, and is on display alongside fragments from what is believed to have been Bruce’s tomb and some of the fabric he may have been wrapped in for burial.

The displays at the museum are constantly changing, developing and improving. As recently as February 2019, three brand new galleries dedicated to the history of Ancient Egypt, East Asia and ceramics have opened on the top floor of the building. Furthermore, the museum hosts regular special exhibitions. The current exhibition – which runs until 5 May – is looking at robots; exploring the history of robotics as well as asking thought provoking questions about their future. Although entry to the museum is free, tickets for the exhibition cost £10 for an adult, £8 for over sixties, students, the unemployed, and disabled visitors. Under sixteens and carers do receive free entry to the Robots exhibition. The museum is open seven days a week from 10am until 5pm. There is level access to the building both through the main entrance on Chambers Street and the entrance at the corner of Chambers Street and George IV Bridge, and there are lifts that provide access to every floor of the building to ensure that visitors will limited mobility can still explore the museum’s fascinating, diverse collection comfortably.

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Dr. Callum Watson