Taking a Guided Tour of the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The Victorian atrium of Scotland’s National Museum

Standing at the information desk in the yawning, vaulted depths of Edinburgh’s newly-refurbished National Museum of Scotland, I’m waiting for the 2 o’clock tour. I’m alone, though it’s bank holiday Monday and pouring with rain and the place is heaving with harassed families trying to keep tabs on small children. Just as the hands of my watch nudge the hour a kilted figure appears through the crowds. “Are you my tour?” he asks. I am.

If he looks a little disappointed I’m sure it’s not personal: he assures me that the tours are usually better patronised than this. We hang on for another five minutes while Sandy tells me about himself (he’s a volunteer and has been leading tours in the museum for over a decade) and eventually, just as we decide to set off, another taker comes rushing across the concourse. “Am I too late?” It turns out that she, like me, is a local.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You can wander round Scotland’s National Museum for hours and there’s too much to take in. A themed tour will help you make some sense of it.
  • If you want to understand Scotland and the Scots, start here – there’s a lot more to it that Robert Burns and Walter Scott
  • Good for a rainy day

There are lots of different tours and I swithered between morning (taking in the museum’s new galleries) and afternoon (a Scottish taster tour) but I’ve chosen the lunchtime one, the theme of which changes from day to day. Today it’s titled Keep Right on to the End of the Road and I’m a little concerned that I’m going to end up on a whistle-stop trip through the history of Scottish music hall singers, but no. Somewhat felicitously, this one’s all about travel.

Taking the Museum Tour

We start at the bottom of the museum, with the Romans. “Look,” says Sandy, “flip-flops.” He shows us how the Romans arrived shod in the 2000 year-old equivalent of the summer sandal and explains how military quartermasters finally clocked that conditions up in Caledonia were perhaps not so benign as these southern softies were used to (we nod at this, with feeling). Within a century and a half the flip-flops had become boots. Who’d have thought some bits of old leather could be so interesting?

Taking the train: a stream train at the Industry and Empire gallery

That’s the pattern of the tour. It’s very cleverly designed – one item selected for close study on each floor, giving us a quick look at most of the Scottish section of the museum as we pass through. Scots have always travelled: kings and queens made their pilgrimages; drovers walked their cattle hundreds of miles from the Highlands to market; the turbulent period of the Jacobite rebellions was marked by the construction of military roads.

Used to visitors to whom Scottish history is largely a closed book, Sandy rises to the occasion with us and his commentary is rapidly adapted to cope with a local clientele: he answers all our questions about the expansion of the railways as we pass through the Industry and Empire gallery. And then, to my delight, the tour concludes with my favourite exhibit in the whole museum.

Girder from the ill-fated first Tay Bridge

He’s picked a good story to end on. Leading us around a corner he stops and describes how, on a dark and stormy night in 1879, the first Tay bridge, rapidly, cheaply and shoddily built, tumbled into the gale-lashed waters, taking a train full of passengers with it. As he tells the story a few passers-by stop and edge a little nearer, listening as the tale of the tragedy unfolds.

The exhibit on which this awful story hangs is a long iron girder from the bridge. Unlike the Forth rail bridge (which, he assures us, was so massively over-engineered in the wake of the Tay disaster that it’ll last for a very long time) it’s cast iron rather than steel, giving it a reddish tint. It’s twisted, its rivet holes torn: and you can touch it, run your fingers over the ravaged metal at the very point where the bridge gave way. History, under your hands.

Sandy fields a few final questions, then leaves us to make our own way back to whichever place we like best. Me, I can’t resist it. I go back to Industry and Empire to look at the model trains in their glass cases. I love hands-on history and I’m a big kid at heart, so I’m not going to pass up the chance to spend a sly five minutes, pressing the buttons and watching the wheels go round.…

Practicalities

  • Admission to the museum is free, as are the tours, though there may be a charge for special exhibitions. Tours run three times a day, morning, lunchtime and afternoon – check to see what the day’s themes are
  • It can get very, very busy in the summer, especially when it’s wet, but there are always some quieter corners
  • The museum cafes can get very crowded – but there are plenty of places to get a bite to eat nearby.
  • The layout of the museum can be confusing. The ‘Scottish’ part is the end nearest the castle: the rest of it is pretty much general. Do pick up a (free) map.

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