YESTERDAY, the new £39 million redevelopment of the National Gallery of Scotland’s Scottish Galleries opened to the public.

No longer cramped in a relatively inaccessible basement space – which was very difficult to move pictures into or out of – the 12 new open-plan gallery spaces place a fresh emphasis on accessibility, fluidity and the national story of our art, showing “the world’s greatest collection of Scottish art with real pride and ambition”, in the words of director-general Sir John Leighton, whose 18 years at the helm of the National Galleries have culminated in this project.

The emphasis is on accessibility elsewhere too, with the Museums Association highlighting “an accessible path in east Princes Street Gardens, new lifts, an accessible entrance, accessible toilets and a pram store”. The entrance on Princes Street Gardens becomes in effect the new main entrance to the national collection, with display space for Scottish art more than doubled and now front and central to the gallery experience.

The National: Murray Pittock.Murray Pittock

This magnificent destination has not been completed easily.

The challenge of expanding floor space over a railway cutting on a limited site was a significant one, but despite its impact on the original ambitions for the project, it has been largely overcome.

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As an honorary adviser to the gallery redevelopment, I am very conscious that the history of the Scottish art now on show only goes back to the Romantic period, but there is a magnificent display of our earlier art in the old main galleries to complement the new Scottish galleries, including the restored George Chalmers painting of Jacobite pastoral, on which I lectured at the galleries last December.

The National: 2) New Scottish galleries at the National - external - by dapple photography.

There are approaching 150 paintings in the new space, many of them almost completely fresh and new. Chronology intersects with theme, and depictions of Edinburgh are balanced against the development of Scottish landscape painting, such as James Norie and the Anglo-Dutch Jan Griffier II’s intriguing and magnificent Taymouth Castle (1733/39) which illustrates the early appearance of elements of Romantic landscape painting in Scotland as well as the influence of Dutch style on Scottish art.

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There are hints of Scottish nationality in the most apparently unlikely places. John Ballantyne’s portrait of Sir Joseph Noel Paton in his studio (1867) undercuts the lavish British establishment subgenre which showed society artists depicted in their cluttered workspaces by placing the controversial Lyon and Typhon design for the Wallace Monument immediately above the painter’s head. This design for the monument – narrowly rejected – depicted the Lyon of Scotland crushing a serpent. Given that the monument we now have was objected to by The Times when it was opened in 1869, one can only imagine what the press would have made of Paton’s design.

The National: Director of the National Galleries of Scotland Sir John Leighton at Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh..Sir John Leighton

From David Octavius Hill’s beautiful 1846-47 painting of Edinburgh Old and New, which is perhaps the best depiction of Allan Ramsay’s house – now embedded in Ramsay Garden – in art, via the MacDonald-Mackintosh design display, the Japanese influence on E A Hornel and Sir James Guthrie’s transplantation of French picnic themes to Helensburgh, the new galleries are rich both in Scotland’s story and its global relations.

Nestling right at the back is Landseer’s Monarch Of The Glen – not by a Scottish painter, but very much a Scottish painting. It is an image which sums up both the Romantic national brand and the exploitation of land for deer in the Victorian era, embodied in an icon which refers both to the current royal family’s taste for hunting and the lost royal family of the Stuarts, often depicted as deer in poetry from the 17th century on. Landseer knew all about deer hunting and the stag does not have enough points on its antlers to be a “Monarch”, but is a “Royal” stag, a nicely ambivalent rendition of the history of contestation of the crown he was celebrating.

The new galleries are a strong answer to those who did not think that our national art is made enough of by many of our national galleries, as it is in Brussels, Dublin or Oslo. It is now, and the result is magnificent.

Professor Murray Pittock is honorary adviser to the Scottish Galleries development