I shall help to move the wounded from the battlefields

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Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Before I tell you about the gallery — can we take a second to admire this marvel of an entrance hall?

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With that out of the way — once the National Portrait Gallery, London opened in the 19th century, there were some calling for the creation of its Scottish equivalent, among them the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. Once the government in the English capital declared that they would not fund its construction, John Ritchie Findlay, owner of The Scotsman newspaper, stepped in and paid for the entire building.

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Built between 1885 and 1890, the structure was designed by Robert Rowand Anderson in the Gothic Revival style, with influences from both the Arts and Crafts movement and the 13th-century Gothic style.

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The large processional frieze shows over 150 important figures from Scottish history,  ranging from Saint Ninian to Robert Burns. William Hole, the author of the frieze, added figures over the years after the gallery opened.

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Much like the Scottish National Gallery, this building was originally divided into two sections, holding two separate collections — the Portrait Gallery occupied the east side while the National Museum of Antiquities (now the Museum of Scotland) occupied the west.

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In 2009, the National Museum of Antiquities moved to a new site, thus allowing the Portrait Gallery to run a refurbishment of the whole building which would last until 2011 when it reopened on December 1st.

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This temporary exhibition was on-show when I visited – it explores the importance of the ordinary individual in shaping history, a theory presented by Thomas Carlyle on his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. The exhibition explores major figures in Scottish history, including military officers, scientists, inventors, writers, and suffragists, and even Queen Victoria.

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Below is Mary Garden, a Scottish operatic soprano who was at the height of her career as principal soprano with the Chicago Opera Company when WWI broke out. What can be the expected reaction of a woman who trained for her role in Strauss’s Salome by climbing Mont Blanc to train her lungs? Well, as she had enjoyed great success while in Paris and greatly loved the country of France, she decided to dress as a man and attempt to enlist in the French armed forces. She wrote: “Why not? I owe France more than I can ever repay, even by giving her my life, and I am sure that I could fight as well as any man if they would only let me … I may never sing again, but I don’t care. I shall help to move the wounded from the battlefields. I am not afraid.”

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She joined the Red Cross nurses at the American Hospital at Versailles, a service for which she was awarded the Médaille de la Reconaissance by the French Government.

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