The National Museum of Scotland is a massive building with huge collections; it’s impossible to see everything. The highlights are obvious and some of them are also favourites of mine, like the Queen Mary harp and the Lewis chessmen.
But some of the less well-known exhibits – including some quite recent ones – are great fun. Here are my top ten.
1. The Hunterston brooch is tiny – just twelve centimetres across – but it’s an incredibly complex and ambitious work of Celtic art. Interlaced animal bodies decorate the gilded panels, which shine out against the silver background. Originally, amber would have gleamed warmly all over the brooch, but most of the amber has been lost over the years.
This is, in its way, as incredible as the Book of Kells – but you have to look very, very closely.
2. The Bute mazer is a medieval feasting cup made in maplewood, and dates from about 1320; that makes it the oldest surviving mazer in Scotland. It’s a lovely piece of work, with a silver rim that was added later, but that’s not the only reason it’s here. A King of Scotland might have drunk from it seven centuries ago – Robert the Bruce is said to have used it; what an amazing link with the past!
3. A Mercedes-Benz coffin from Ghana. In Ghana, funerals celebrate the life of the deceased and the coffin might relate to, say, a person’s hobby or their job. In this case, the Mercedes – complete, of course, with its badge – is the ultimate symbol of the dead man’s wealth. They say you can’t take it with you – but what a way to go!
4. Victor Gama’s musical instruments were made for the museum in 2008, and unlike the Highland Bagpipes that hang tarantula-like in one of the glass cases, they’re intended to be played by visitors. They borrow from world music instruments, but look almost like science fiction aliens – one seems ready to run off on its little legs.
5. How could I miss out Dolly the Sheep? The first ever cloned sheep, now stuffed and on display.
6. You can’t miss the Millennium clock, but it’s worth spending some time to take a closer look at this odd creation. Some of the subjects seem depressing – there’s a little figure of Death sitting on the pendulum (straight out of Terry Pratchett!), there’s a pietà on top and twelve little figures showing man’s inhumanity to man. Yet the music by Bach that the clock plays, and the orderliness of its dial, and the very fact that can make a work like this, suggest that we can still make something worthwhile out of our world. On a less elevated conceptual level, there’s a cute little Egyptian Monkey at the bottom who has become deservedly popular with children (of all ages).
7. The Queen Mary Harp was made in about 1450 and is probably, in fact, nothing to do with Mary Queen of Scots, but it’s a beautiful instrument with its decorative carving and the wonderful patina of its wood. And it’s one of only three medieval Gaelic harps in the world. One of the others, the larger but plainer Lamont harp, stands nearby.
8. Something I didn’t expect to see in a Scottish museum is a Tibetan prayer wheel house, but it does have an authentic Scottish connection; the framework was made in the Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Eskdalemuir. As with Victor Gama’s musical instruments, one of the great things about this exhibit is that it’s truly interactive – you can turn the prayer wheels, as long as the place isn’t being monopolised by a school trip.
They were probably made in Norway, and came to the Outer Hebrides with the Vikings who then ruled the islands. They are dumpy and heavy but make an undeniable impact with their huge staring eyes, sharp-edged spade-like beards, and the berserkers biting the edge of their shields in battle rage.
10. And finally… I find it incredible that someone once thought a nuclear power station would make a good toy, but here it is, alongside the Lego and Meccano and Spirograph! In fact, it’s a steam engine – no radioactivity involved – and to make the steam, you have to plug it into the mains, so it’s really an electrical powered steam powered fake nuclear power station.
Planning your visit to the National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland is located on Chambers Street in the heart of Edinburgh. Learn how to get there on the museum’s official website. It is open every day of the year except Christmas Day.
For a cheap place to stay consider Tune Hotel Edinburgh opposite Tune Haymarket train station.