The Best Museums in Scotland – My Top Picks
While I tend to focus almost obsessively on the outdoors, history and whisky in my travel blogging adventures, I have spent much of early winter consumed in the world of culture. One of the most fantastic places on the planet for this stuff, Scotland not only punches above its weight in the museums department but we have artwork, displays and exhibits that can leave visitors with lifelong memories. I’m going to ambitiously try and pick out those that have had the biggest impact on me over the course of my more recent travels.
I’m taking a fairly broad definition of ‘museum’ upon me with this list and have decided to include galleries, visitor centres et al within my considerations. This is Scotland after all, where the likes of the National Museum can be aligned with such as the open-air Highland Folk Museum or the specialist museums for golf in St Andrews or Burns in Alloway. There’s much culture to celebrate and why should it be limited to dictionary definition? On that note, here are my favourites….
‘Museum’ probably isn’t the word that springs to mind when you think on the site of one of Europe’s most infamous battlefields. Culloden Moor was the end-point for the long-running Jacobite saga that consumed Scotland during much of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s wearied soldiers lined up to face the British Government forces on this dreary moor just outside Inverness in 1746 unaware that total and utter defeat was imminent. 1200, mainly Highland, soldiers were slaughtered in a brutal hour-long bloodbath as the claim of the Stuart monarchs to the British throne died with them. The grim moor remains much as it was – but with an atmosphere and sense of dread that makes it amongst the most emotional places in Scotland.
In addition to a melancholic wander around the site, the battlefield’s adjoining Visitor Centre is outstanding and I’d put it up there with Waterloo as the best of its type I’ve seen. Comprehensively informative, you can follow every stage of the build up to the battle – the last major land battle fought on British soil – as well as the gory details and military tactics involved in the rout itself. While Outlander has undoubtedly sparked renewed (and slightly romanticised) interest in the conflict, enormous credit must go to the layout, presentation and sensitivity of the museum itself. The highlight is the 360 degree video of the different stages of the battle as you’ll find yourself surrounded on all sides by desperate men fighting for their perceived king, as well as their lives, clans and livelihoods.
Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow
A cultural compilation such as this requires a nod to the varied and subjective world of modern art. With 600, 000 visitors a year, GoMA is Scotland’s most popular in this field and my clear favourite. Even those that have an instant scepticism in this field, this place has a bit of something for everyone and historians, architecture connoisseurs and perpetual creatives alike will find something to suit you within.
Bang in the centre of Glasgow, just off George Square, a more advantageous spot it could not have. And the building’s location and appreciation of its origins are where any tour of the Gallery should begin. In 1778, the structure was built as a townhouse for William Cunninghame, a Glasgow tobacco tycoon who had made much of his wealth on the back of the slave trade. An uncomfortable subject for us all but GoMA chooses not to shy away from its controversial past – like most ancient civilisations, British history is full of things we shouldn’t be proud of after all – and the full story of the building’s journey over the centuries is thoughtfully documented on one of its two elliptical balcony spaces.
The artwork on display is predictably varied and is unapologetic about making a statement or two. ‘Polygraphs’ in Gallery 4 looks at truth, fiction and evidence while displaying pieces that make points on WW1’s tank warfare and early military propaganda, the recent Iraq War and, once again, the slave trade. Gallery 2 is more visual and ‘Taste’ looks at exploring how collections are built and exhibitions are organised and presented. It all encourages questions. Therein lies my favourite element of appreciating modern art.
Any visitor will be awed by the ground floor gallery (gallery 1). It’s a stunning space, with a giant window perimeter and giant Greek-style pillars holding with the Neoclassical building design. Currently housing the work of artist Aaron Angell, there’s everything from inflatable furniture to Roman-style ceramic urns intended for use as a resting place for the combined ashes of married couples. Most memorable of all for me is an intricate miniature glass house (or Wardian Case) that has been internally consumed by plant life. Whether all of this leaves you staggeringly bemused or in absolute awe (somewhere in between I suspect), a reaction of some kind is guaranteed.
If you can only visit one place in Glasgow, let it be here. A Victorian icon of the city, it holds a special place in the hearts and minds of locals who have enormous pride in its dynamic ability to captivate and impress. I’ve been coming here all of my life – often I just wander in for a nosey and to kill some time – and the atmosphere and scale make this one of my favourite buildings in the world. Glowing red sandstone, so ubiquitous in the west of Scotland, decorates the magnificent exterior, and with Glasgow University next door, gives you an architecture overdose before you’ve even set foot inside.
The seemingly endless exhibits, galleries and artefacts offer a riot of themes, timeframes and genres that will appeal to absolutely everybody in some form or another. I love the ‘Scottish Identity in Art’ displays that show off the ferocious passion embodied by Robert the Bruce and the desperate misery and heartbreak of the Highland Clearances. Equally though, I’m drawn to the likes of the ‘Creatures of the Past’ including a look at the ever-interesting dinosaurs and some of the Ice Age animals that existed in Scotland.
Although the star artwork of the show, the famous Dali, is on tour at the moment, there’s enough of the Glasgow Boys, Rembrandt and, of course, Mackintosh to compensate. Kelvingrove hosts the world’s only daily organ recital so time your visits around 1pm to coincide with this impressive performance. I’ll be talking more about Kelvingrove in my upcoming post on life in the west end of Glasgow.
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
It would be something of a tragedy not to include this diversely massive treasure on the list. A regular winner of Scotland’s most visited attraction, it’s very easy to find your day slipping away as you wander through the ins and outs of this bright and spacious culture hub. Music, photography, technology, exploration and world cultures are all covered in this most holistic of attractions. Great for kids with interactive areas and a thoughtful layout, I defy you not to feel significantly smarter on exiting. The atmospheric Natural World galleries (think Night at the Museum), the stunningly intricate Pictish Stones and the belter of a view of Edinburgh Castle from the roof are clear highlights.
The scale and range of the National Museum leads to unavoidable comparisons with Kelvingrove of course. Any excuse for Edinbuggers and Weegies to get into it eh. Although I don’t have space to cover them all here, the capital boasts no shortage of culture hotspots and the likes of the Royal Yacht Britannia, the excellent Writer’s Museum and the Surgeons’ Hall Museum offer additional incentives to keep exploring.
Riverside Museum, Glasgow
Much like Kelvingrove, The Riverside throws up all sorts of personal nostalgic memories for me. In what was previously the Transport Museum in Kelvin Hall, this is an outstanding tribute to generations’ worth of how we got about. Over 3000 objects literally stretch to the rafters and kids and adults alike will be awed. As a little person I’d get whisked around the museum in my pram, taking in the classic trains, trams, buses and cars and marvelling at the authenticity of it all. A re-created Glasgow street underlines the desired effect. The ever-so-slightly musty smell remains eternally ingrained in my memory and, regardless of its location or layout, this will always be one of my favourite collections.
Touch screens galore and Zaha Hadid’s design has given the museum a futuristic feel by the Clyde and, although the focus is primarily on Glasgow’s journey, the wider world is catered to as well.
Berthed directly outside the museum is the Glenlee, a magnificent tall ship that’s well worth adding on to your visit. With the warmest compliments of Glasgow, The Riverside, GoMA and Kelvingrove are free to enter and open year-round.
Shetland Museum, Lerwick
2017 marked my first visit to Shetland and its Museum remains vividly prominent in my memory. Shiny new and astonishingly comprehensive in its recordings of every stage of Shetland’s fascinating history, this is not the kind of cultural giant that you’d typically find on the Scottish islands. To the extreme north of Scotland, they have a distinct culture of their own, with Nordic influences creeping in, a fascinatingly pivotal fishing industry and a modern-day wealth thanks to nearby oil reserves.
Immediately on my arrival on a truly vile day, I stumbled into the lobby wind beaten and drenched babbling and gesticulating wildly about the conditions and sure that agreement and sympathy would be immediately forthcoming from my wonderful tour guide. A slightly confused look and a wry smile told me, the mainlander, that I’d better get used to it quickly. Yes, Shetland is a tough place with a tough past. Up Helly Aa will underline the impact of Viking invasions and their role within the museum is definitely my highlight but expect a close look at the geology, industry, 20th Century war efforts and the wide-ranging role of the sea in the islands’ lifespan. Those interested in their ancestral routes can also delve into the museum’s impressive archive.
In a touch that I think underlines the authenticity of this gem, the main desk in the reception area (used for staff computers and the like now) is from part of the recycled hull of the sunken 19th century Elenore Von Flotow. That is brilliant.
Verdant Works, Dundee
Dundee has been gathering speed in the culture stakes for some time now. The V&A Museum of Design is set to further propel the city into the spotlight in summer 2018 but several other highlights have already found their way onto the map. While I get a buzz from the pioneering sense of adventure that emanates out of Discovery Point, there’s something powerfully endearing about the historical industry at Verdant Works that’s even stronger. A touching tribute to the long-departed power of the jute industry (of which Dundee was a powerhouse) the palpable grit and grind of the place will whisky you back to the 19th Century when the working hours were long and the rewards were minimal.
The industrial museum here is a restored jute mill and looks closely at the role of jute in worldwide society. A rough and durable material, jute was second only to cotton in its prominence. While the raw materials came from India, it was in Dundee that they turned into practical products such as rope, clothing and sacks. The museum pays tribute to the camaraderie and all-consuming nature of life in a jute mill, and the demanding nature of the work (even for children) is both saddening and impressive at the same time. Fast forward that a couple of hundred years….
“Switch off the Playstation, you’ve got a 19-hour shift in the mill to do first“.
So there you have it! The full spectrum of culture that stems from all over Scotland is best shown with the tasteful and thoughtful efforts of these giants of the industry, my picks for the best museums in Scotland. 2018 will hopefully be the year when I get to visit the new Museum of the Isles in Lewis. A new and detailed look at the history of life in the Outer Hebrides, I expect I’ll be making additions to this list before long.
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