Decorative painting became popular in houses and public buildings in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Most of this painting was the work of local artisans, who used bright colors to produce designs of fruit and flowers, scenes and quotations from the Bible, and other conventional patterns. Tempera painting on ceilings and paneling can still be seen in such places as Gladstone's Land in Edinburgh and Provost Skene's House in Aberdeen. The tempera painting eventually was replaced by ornamental plasterwork. George Jamesone, who worked as an apprentice to one of the craftsmen in decorative design, was Scotland's first known portrait painter.

A school of portraitists developed in Scotland in the early 18th century, following a rich tradition in England. Allan Ramsay (1718-84), son of the poet and wig maker of the same name, was Scotland's first fine artist and is believed to have been an influence on England's Sir Joshua Reynolds. His best work, a picture of his wife, hangs in the National Gallery in Edinburgh. Ramsay eventually moved to London, but his major successor in the field, Sir Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), son of a yarn boiler, did most of his work in Edinburgh. Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841), Scottish genre painter and portraitist, is well represented in the National Gallery of Scotland and in other galleries.

After the end of the 19th century, dominant in the Scottish art world until World War I were landscape painter William MacTaggart and the painters of the Glasgow school.

The Singing Butler Did It

The most popular Scottish painting of all time is not a misty Highlands landscape or a romantic portrait of a fiery, tartan-wearing freedom fighter. No, it’s a 1992 canvas, The Singing Butler, by onetime coalminer Jack Vettriano. A well-dressed couple, he in a tuxedo, she in a red ball gown and barefoot but wearing opera-length gloves, dance on a beach of smooth wet sand against a background of clouds and fog. A maid and a butler stand nearby, umbrellas at the ready. Art critics have had a field day deriding this work by a man, humphs one, who’s “not even an artist”—the lighting is all wrong, and the wind is coming from the wrong direction! The painting has been derided as brainless, dimly erotic, even plagiaristic. Little matter, it seems. The Singing Butler has been compared to Grant Woods’ American Gothic and the much beloved image has appeared on postcards, jigsaw puzzles, cocktail napkins, calendars, and more than 12 million posters, making it the best-selling art print in the United Kingdom. The original, now in a private collection, sold at auction in 2004 for £744,800—then a record for a Scottish painting and, for that matter, any painting ever sold in Scotland. Other top contenders include Waltzers and Road to Nowhere, both also by Vettriano.


Brochs of stone, from about the beginning of the Christian era, were the vertical defense forerunners of Scottish castles. The Norman motte and bailey fortifications came next, and early stone castles had stone curtain walls. In the early Middle Ages, curtain walls and towers were combined, and, in many castles, the strong keeps were supplanted by gatehouses. By the 14th century, heavily fortified castles strengthened the power of feudal lords. At Linlithgow, Falkland, and Stirling are castles in the European Renaissance style, a trend royal builders then followed.

Examples of ecclesiastical architecture can be seen through the country, although the Vikings left very little of Celtic church structures intact. The influence of Anglo-Norman colonization can be seen in the ecclesiastical edifices from the 11th and 12th centuries. Parish churches at Dalmeny and Leuchars, and the church of David I in Dunfermline, are examples of Norman design.

A turn to Gothic style came with the monasteries and cathedrals of the early Middle Ages. In Glasgow, Elgin, and Dunblane, you can see pointed Gothic arches, vaulting, and lancet windows. On St. Giles in Edinburgh is one of the few remaining crown spires used in late Gothic ecclesiastical construction. However, when the barons built churches other than cathedrals, they continued to use a Scottish design with stepped buttresses, crenellated towers, and roofs of stone slab. The ornamentation of churches was removed after the Reformation, but their structural function was retained. In Aberdeen, pre-Reformation woodwork is in existence at King's College and St. Machar's.

Baronial mansions from the late 16th and early 17th centuries show a Scottish architectural influence, with gables, garrets, turrets, towers, and facade adornments. Sir William Bruce (1630-1710) and James Smith (1644-1731) were early architects of note. Bruce's classical style can be seen at Kinross House and the courtyard at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Smith's preference was Palladian.

The Palladian neoclassical style was further developed by William Adam, father of famous architects Robert Adam (1728-92) and James Adam (1730-94). The so-called Adam style of design is known for light, decorative reworking of Greek and Roman classical motifs. Robert Adam's work can be seen at Mellerstain. Handsome examples of the later design of this fine artist can best be viewed at Culzean Castle.

The influence of the 19th-century revival of Gothic architecture is evident at Abbotsford, while the baronial style was brought back in the construction of Balmoral Castle. By the end of that century, a more pleasing revival was carried out by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), who used the Scottish vernacular method even in his Art Nouveau designs, a path also followed by Sir Robert Lorimer in restored old castles. The restoration idea has caught hold, and many old houses, manors, and castles are now being refurbished instead of being demolished. Of interest are the dovecotes or pigeon houses seen in many places throughout the country. Their style varies from the tall beehive look to cylinders to rectangular, freestanding boxes, some with stepped roofs, sundials, and even moats and turrets.

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