A MASSIVE McTaggart masterpiece is to go on public display for the first time in nearly three decades when the new Scottish galleries open at the end of this month.

At 177cms by 2.5m, the painting is so big it couldn’t be manoeuvred through the old gallery doors but The Coming Of Saint Columba will now take its rightful place in a gallery devoted entirely to the works of Sir William McTaggart, widely regarded as one of Scotland’s greatest landscape artists.

He is the only painter who will have an entire gallery for his works in the new Scottish galleries at the National on Edinburgh’s Mound.

“McTaggart is such an important figure in Scottish art because he had a really long career spanning all the developments in art in the 19th century,” said curator Charlotte Topsfield.

“His early work is influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and you can see influences of Whistler and his response to Turner and Constable as well as an awareness of Impressionism, so he is a really interesting artist from that point of view.”

The National:

Long before the £38.62 million revamp of the building, large paintings were lowered into place by a pulley system through the floor but this was phased out and The Coming Of Saint Columba has not been displayed since 1997.

The redevelopment means there will be double the physical display space which will showcase Scotland’s historic art in twelve new spaces. Large windows will offer spectacular views over Edinburgh, enticing visitors to come in and discover the work of pioneering Scottish artists such as McTaggart, Anne Redpath, Phoebe Anna Traquair, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow Boys.

The fully accessible galleries will be entered directly from East Princes Street Gardens and are free for all to explore the world’s most important collection of Scottish art.

“The new galleries feel very light and fresh and McTaggart’s paintings really seem to sing in the new spaces, which have natural light coming through,” said Topsfield (below).

The National: Curator Charlotte Topsfield with work by JMW Turner's Heidelberg from 1846,  part of the annual 'Turner in January' exhbition at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh from 1st to 31st January 2017..Pic Gordon Terris/The Herald.15/12/16.

“The Coming Of Saint Columba is an interesting painting because it was painted in 1895 and looks to the past by depicting the arrival of Columba in 563, but it depicts it in a really modern language.

“Saint Columba’s arrival was traditionally regarded as a great event in Scottish history. In a history of Scottish art written in 1889, the arrival of Saint Columba is described as the dawn of a new age, so that was how it was seen at the time McTaggart painted this picture. But his style is so modern, so fresh and so vibrant – the painting looks to the past but it is speaking to its audience in a language of modernity.”

She added: “Fundamentally, it is a very optimistic picture – it is morning light, it is brisk spring weather, the boat is about to make landfall and it really has this feeling of hope and anticipation of wonderful things to come.”

Topsfield said the painting fitted into a group of works McTaggart completed in the 1890s which include The Storm, showing a fishing community struggling to bring in a boat from a great storm and a series of paintings on the subject of Highland emigration.

“I think he is thinking about the birth and decline of a culture because in a way, the arrival of Saint Columba was the birth of Celtic civilisation and a particular kind of Gaelic culture and, similarly, the effect of Highland emigration and the Clearances in the 19th century was destroying a particular kind of way of life and culture,” she said.

Interestingly, the painting was extended when McTaggart was working on it.

“On the right-hand side of the painting, there is a family group and the father is watching the boat arriving and the mother is playing with her child,” said Topsfield.

Then McTaggart restretched the canvas and painted another quite substantial section on each side, effectively putting more emphasis on the family watching Columba arrive.

“The father is seeing Columba arrive and witnessing this great moment in history but the mother is completely absorbed in her child and it gives that feeling that you don’t necessarily know history is happening,” said Topsfield. “It is just a little sailing boat arriving so the family don’t know that this is this great moment in Scottish history. I like that sense of ordinary people going about their day as history happens.”

The construction of the new galleries, which began in 2018, was one of the most complex engineering projects undertaken in a heritage building in Scotland. Situated within a World Heritage Site, the galleries are part of an iconic A-listed 19th-century building, with several major modern additions from the late 1960s onwards.

The creation of new gallery spaces has entailed extensive excavation underneath the existing building and its setting on the Mound. The National is also sited above three of the busiest rail tunnels in Scotland.

“This project has been driven by an ambition to transform the experience of visiting the National and to show the extraordinary collections of Scottish art with pride in beautiful, new, light-filled spaces,” said Sir John Leighton, director-general of the National Galleries of Scotland.

“We believe that we have created a National Gallery that is more open, engaging and inviting than ever before. Whether immersing themselves in the highly Romantic paintings of the Scottish Highlands, taking part in a family day or just enjoying the views, all are welcome to come and discover.

"We are incredibly grateful to all our funders including the Scottish Government, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, key trusts and foundations, our patrons, American patrons and friends as well as the many private individuals and donors who have been so generous in supporting this project.”

Culture Minister Christina McKelvie added: “The National Galleries of Scotland has the world’s finest collection of Scottish art and I’m delighted that the new galleries will now have space to show this off to a wide national and international public. We have supported this redevelopment project from the start with a significant contribution of £15.25m and it’s wonderful to see this will open soon so the public can enjoy these new galleries.”