Some of The Best Things To See At The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh

Edinburgh is the home of many things. It is a cultural and historical hub; it is the capital of Scotland; it is a contemporary, vibrant community with great youth culture and emphasis on arts and music. It is also home to the National Museum of Scotland – a treasure trove of ancient artefacts and precious objects set to contain a reputed 12 million items covering everything from nature, art, design, and technology.

Given its many temporary exhibitions and a wonderful rooftop terrace from where you can see the iconic castle, it’s not only the top tourist spot in Scotland, but it’s also the most popular attraction in the UK outside of London where regularly scheduled events take place that includes an interview with an astronaut or a fashion show.

The museum was formed by combining the former Museum of Scotland and the neighbouring Royal Museum to make a single museum in 2006.

Located on Chambers Street, the 8-storey National Museum of Scotland is within easy walking distance of the major tourist attractions on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It is open daily throughout the year except for Christmas Day and the entrance to it is free, although a donation to help support the museum is encouraged.

*Our Crossings tip: Make sure you get the sitemap of the place so that you will not miss anything that interests you. It is available on the ground floor.


Dolly The Sheep

Dolly, famously named after Dolly Parton, the American singer,  was the world’s first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell and was prominently featured in countless headlines during her lifetime.

She was cloned using a cell taken from another sheep’s mammary gland and was born in July 1996 with a white face ― a clear sign she’d been cloned because if she’d been related to her surrogate mother, she’d have had a black face. Dolly had three mothers, one provided the DNA, the second the egg and the third was a surrogate.

Dolly lived to be six when she was put down after developing lung disease and during her life, she gave birth to six babies.

Read More: A Beginner’s Guide To Edinburgh – The Best Attractions In The City

Dolly’s body is on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh

City Views from the Rooftop Terrace

Edinburgh has plenty of incredible vistas, but not many are hidden right in the middle of the Old Town.

The National Museum of Scotland has been captivating visitors ever since it opened in the late 1800s, but not all visitors know about its hidden gem – the rooftop terrace. So if you happen to be in the museum, don’t forget to take the lift all the way to the 7th floor from where you can see the castle, the busy streets below and fascinating views over Auld Reekie’s rooftops.

The terrace was designed by sculptor Andy Goldsworthy in honour of Edinburgh-born James Hutton, known as the founder of modern geology.

You’ll find large sandstone blocks sitting on the decked platform and various plants along the edge of the terrace representing different aspects of the Scotlands landscape including grassland vegetation and coastal plants.

Our Crossings tip* During peak times the wait for the elevator can be quite lengthy. An alternative is to take either of the two lifts located near the Chambers Street entrance Gift Shop to the 5th floor and walk up two flights of steps.

Read more: Your Guide To Some of the Best Edinburgh’s Neighbourhoods

Close-up views from The Museum rooftop of Old Town buildings.

Arthur’s Seat Coffins

One of the must-see things in the museum is Artur’s Seat Coffins.

The mystery of the 17 super-creepy miniature coffins, discovered on Arthur’s Seat, a hill above Edinburgh, in 1836 captured the imagination of many

There are many weird theories about the tiny coffins that held wooden figurines of humans,  expertly carved and shaped, wearing custom-made clothing. Some people believed there may be a link to notorious killers Burke and Hare, and the burials were designed to represent their 17 victims. Others say that they were used as some sort of strange witchcraft ritual or ceremony.

The most recent theory, submitted by a Scottish- American writer called Jeff Nisbet suggests the figurines may be linked to the Radical war of 1820. Despite the continuous efforts of professors, academics and experts over the last 200 years, the puzzle remains unsolved.

Read More: 12 Amazing Things You Have To See and Do In Beautiful Edinburgh

Eight of the coffins survive to this day and remain on display in the National Museum of Scotland.

Moby The Whale

One of many fascinating exhibits in the museums is the skull of the 40ft sperm whale which was found beached on the banks of the River Forth in 1997.

At the time he was the first sperm whale to be stranded in the Forth in more than 200 years.

The whale, affectionately nicknamed Moby after Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, struggled to survive after becoming stranded on the mud in the upstream shallows of the estuary while rescuers, including BP tugs and the pleasure boat Maid of the Forth, battled in vain to push him back out to sea. He died.

Moby’s skeleton was later donated to National Museums Scotland’s natural science collections, and his skull which weighs 1.5 tonnes now can be seen on display in the Museum.

Read More: 8 Amazing Reasons Why You Should Visit Edinburgh At Least Once

Moby The Wale in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh

The Lewis Chessmen

Undeniably one of the most staggering archaeological finds from Scotland, the Lewis Chessmen make the mind reel and cause theories to churn. The story goes that, in 1831, a chap named Malcolm MacLeod stumbled across 78 chess pieces. These pieces, most of which were made from walrus ivory, were lurking on the Isle of Lewis in the parish of Uig. 

It is believed that they were created in Norway sometime during the 12th century. The set then disappeared and was discovered hundreds of years later in Scotland.

It’s worth noting that the original figures probably weren’t intended to be chess pieces, but various characters from the set have been assembled into a chess set and it’s become the second most popular set after Staunton as a result.

The chessmen have been studied in great detail by historians at The British Museum and also the National Museum of Scotland. The original pieces are currently split between these two museums with eleven pieces from the same find in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland.

Read More: A Short Guide To The Best Attractions Along The Royal Mile in Edinburgh, Scotland

Lewis Chessmen figurines on display at the National Scottish Museum, Edinburgh

Natural World Gallery

If you are fascinated by animals and the natural world, then you are in for a treat.

It is said that the museum is home to approximately 50,000 mammals from the United Kingdom and across the globe which makes this gallery one of the top National Museum of Scotland highlights.

The gallery will help you to appreciate the breadth and diversity of the animal kingdom, while also helping you to understand these incredible animals. You’ll meet animals, giant crabs, and fascinating ocean creatures from every corner of the globe, including lions, elephants, and endangered species such as Ching Ching the Giant Panda and Scottish Wildcat.

One of the most amazing exhibits in the Natural World Gallery is Tyrannosaurus Rex – Over 39 feet long and 19 feet tall, the life-sized skeleton cast was taken from a discovery in Montana in 1988.

Natural Gallery at the Museum

Earth in Space

Right next to the animal gallery is located Eart In Space gallery which looks at our planet and its place in the universe. Its star attraction is the Schmidt telescope also called the Schmidt camera – a huge reflecting telescope – a groundbreaking invention that allowed bigger swathes of the sky to be photographed much quicker.

As a result, the images could be used to build up an atlas of the sky.

The camera telescope was invented in 1930 by optician Bernhard Schmidt working at the Hamburg observatory.

Before its invention, astronomers were unable to capture the vast sky in great detail. They had to stitch together smaller images which was time-consuming.

Originally, the telescope – which weighs over 3.2 tonnes – was installed in the West Dome of the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill, Edinburgh in 1951 where it was operated up until the 1970s. It was later moved from the dome at the Observatory and fitted in the Museum.

Earth in Space Gallery

World Cultures

Each society in the world has its own cultural traditions that identify its heritage and makes them uniquely different. Cultural diversity is the only thing that makes us eager to know more and to unravel the mystery of the unknown culture.

And with 195 different countries in the world and thousands of different cultures, the opportunities to lose yourself in a different culture are limitless. Some of them have captured the world’s imagination in films and books, while others are mysterious and completely isolated from the modern world.

By visiting the World Cultures gallery, you can travel the world without leaving Edinburgh, and learn about unique traditional tribes and fascinating cultural differences through decorative arts, fine arts, and archaeological finds. Here you can set your eyes on the Statue of Weituo, the Qurna burial, the only intact royal burial group outside of Egypt, the Tibetan Prayer Wheel House and the Maori war canoe, known as a waka.

There are many fascinating tribes and interesting cultures around the world

Other Attractions at The Museum

There are also many other sections of different categories that you cannot miss here, in the National Museum of Scotland like the Jewellery Collection from across the world from different periods of time. The Gold enamelled, heart-shaped locket set with an Onyx Cameo Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots are some of the must-see ones. Also, the intricate design of jewellery from the Indian collection is showcased in the Artistic Legacies collection on the 5th floor of the National Museum of Scotland which belongs to the last Sikh King, Maharaja Duleep Singh.

The Millennium clock tower is also one of the must-see exhibits of the National Museum of Scotland. This clock which stands a little over 10 metres high, echoes the form of a medieval cathedral. The clock summarises the best and the worst of the twentieth century inviting mixed feelings from the spectators. The intricate construction of this timekeeper has 4 sections, the Crypt, the Nave, The Belfry and the Spire.

Each of these sections has its own story to tell and a secret to reveal too. The clock is the brainchild of 5 master makers, the furniture maker – Tim Stead, the kinetic sculpturer – Eduard Besudsky, the glass artist – Annica Sandström, the illustrator – Maggy Lenert and the clockmaker – Jürgen Tübbecke.

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Now, over to you!

Have you been to Edinburgh? Let us know in the comments!

Let us know if you are plotting a visit to Edinburgh and have travel-related questions!

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Our Crossings follows the daily adventures of Latvian expats living in Sligo as they surf and explore the world

60 thoughts on “Some of The Best Things To See At The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh

    1. Thanks so much, Francisco. I stop by it every time I am in the city as the National Museum of Scotland is very inspiring and educational – a great must when in Edinburgh! It is clean and well spaced out although it was busy on my last visit it didn’t even seem crowded inside. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

      Liked by 1 person

  1. A great overview of a fabulous museum. This used to be one of my favourite places to spend an afternoon in Edinburgh, especially in the colder months. I’m too far away to visit now, but your post brought back some fond memories for me.

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    1. I am glad to hear it used to be one of your favourite places, Helen. When I lived in Edinburgh, I often used it as a meeting point with friends for a chat on a rainy day and we always found something new and exciting to see and do. You can spend hours at this museum and still have one return to see everything! Well worth a visit. Thanks for stopping by. I very much love your blog, especially all the posts about Edinburgh and the Orkney Islands, can’t wait to catch up on all of them. Take care xx Aiva

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    1. Hi, Marion 🙂 Given that you can explore the diversity of the natural world, world cultures, science and technology, art, design and fashion, and Scottish history, all under one roof, it makes for one fantastic museum to visit. Plus, it’s a great place to hide from the rain! Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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  2. We really enjoyed our visit here in 2008. It is a great museum, especially with the Scottish inventions. We were surprised to see that the Scots were given credit for inventing a new race of people in Canada….the Métis. Thanks for the memories Aiva. Have a great week. Allan

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Allan. It is one of the top spots to visit while in Scotland. The interior is spacious, clean, well-lit, and nicely laid out, making it easy for visitors to explore its awesome collections hassle-free. I particularly enjoyed the animal section and found some really cool creatures on display. Very pleased to see the famous sheep, Dolly! Have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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  3. Wow, you could spend all day here and not see everything. That’s an enormous museum! And how cool that they have a dinosaur replica from Montana! I wonder if the original is in the museum in my hometown?

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    1. Thanks so much, Diana! It is an exquisite building that houses the rich history of Scotland and the Scottish people and a variety of other interesting things. As admission is free so you can split up your time into two or even three different days. It is very cool that they have a T. rex at the museum which was found in Hell Creek, Montana, by researcher Kathy Wankel in 1988. Apparently, it is the second largest and most complete T.rex skeleton ever found and the original can be seen in the Museum of the Rockies. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. I spent several hours at the museum which was not anywhere close to sufficient. And, yes, the view of the city from the roof was outstanding. Highly recommend. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. It’s a majestic city that offers something for everyone and is known as one of Europe’s most beautiful destinations for good reason. Whether you’re looking for a culture fix, buzzing nightlife, rolling hills or delicious food, this city has it all. I hope you get to explore it one day. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. I am glad to hear you enjoyed your time at the museum, Jo. It is yet another of the Capital’s great free attractions where a great range of galleries is linked by open atria covering a wide range of subjects, many mindful of the current changes threatening our climate and planet. Something there for all ages and interests – well worth a visit. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. Thanks so much, Maggie 🙂 The museum is definitely a perfect place to acquire a range of knowledge as well as a nice place for parents to educate their children.
      The museum is so large it took me several attempts to see everything. What impressed me on my last visit, was the collection of items from Tibet and everything related to First Nations. Just recently, the National Museum of Scotland was urged to return the First Nations totem pole which was apparently stolen by a Canadian anthropologist in 1929. If returned, it would be only the second totem pole to be repatriated to a First Nation by a European institution. We’ll see what happens! Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. Thanks so much, Glenys! It is a fantastic museum with tons of stuff – especially if you ever wanted to gain knowledge about Scotland’s history. Plus, admission to the museum is free. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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  4. I’ve been to Edinburgh, but I didn’t visit the city extensively, as I was only there for two nights and unfortunately was during the Christmas holidays, so many places were shut. I’d love to check out the National Museum of Scotland and just get lost in all of its galleries– it appears you could spend a day (or two) just seeing everything it has to offer!

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    1. Hi, Rebecca! Very little is free these days and this is one. It is a lovely museum with a gift shop attached to it as well as a wonderful rooftop terrace from where you can see the whole city. I hope you get to explore it one day, you’ll be astounded at the range of exhibits – this museum is a little gem! Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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  5. Amazing post! I remember visiting briefly the museum during a weekend in Edinburgh and there was so much to see – we obviously had to skip some parts. It is definitely a beautiful museum and I really want to go back to check out the things that I didn’t see! Thanks for sharing 🙂

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    1. Hi, Juliette and thanks so much. I am glad to hear you’ve been to the museum, too. This is a great place located right across the street from the Greyfriars Kirkyard with its famous Greyfriars Boby, offering a vast and varied collection, all well presented, and all inside a beautiful building. I would say it’s a must-visit if in Edinburgh. Thanks for stopping by and have a lovely day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. I am glad to see that besides travelling, exploring the world and blogging, we have something in common! I am a big fan of the Lewis Chessmen, too, both the figurines themselves and the story behind them. I like the queen figurines and how they are all portrayed as seemingly bored, leaning their chins on their hands.

      I would very much love to travel to the Isle of Lewis to see where the chess figurines were found and I would love to visit the British Museum to see the rest of the chess pieces. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. Fashion, geology, literature, engineering, global culture; everything is pretty much covered at the National Museum of Scotland, offering so many interesting things to see – and it’s free! I was delighted to see Dolly the Sheep, after all, she was the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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  6. Great piece, Aiva. We spent two lovely, action-packed weeks in Edinburgh back in May but you can never see everything and we had to leave The National Museum for the folder marked “next time”. Therefore, your article does much to fuel our appetite for a return visit (probably in a year or two). What a riot that Dolly the Sheep is on display, that’s gotta be worth the entrance fee alone. The Lewis Chessmen figures are fascinating.

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    1. Hi, Leighton. I’ve been revisiting Edinburgh for the past decade and, believe it or not, there are still things on my to-do list that I haven’t had a chance to see. On my last solo trip to Edinburgh in late July, I had planned to see as many museums and exhibitions as possible, but given that, there are more than 35+ of them, I had no choice but to leave most of them for the next time.

      I am glad to hear you find the Lewis Chessmen figures fascinating! Just a few days ago, I started watching the Queen’s Gambit, you know, the Netflix drama that made the world chess mad. It made me realize – isn’t quite amazing how medieval Europe was ahead of the game by about eight hundred years with what later became the world’s most famous chess pieces, the Lewis Chessmen? Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. Thanks so much. We visited the museum as the second excursion of the day. There was so much to see & do it should have been a whole day’s visit! The place is beautiful! You would never guess this from the outside, but the inside was light, airy and beautiful. We ran out of time to cover everything! A definite must-see! Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. Thanks so much! We had such a wonderful and sunny summer that – as much as I desired to – I just couldn’t justify spending my days indoors by the computer screen. Instead, we went on endless camping, hiking, biking and surfing trips around Ireland and had the best time ever.

      The National Museum of Scotland is one of my favourite places to stop by in Edinburgh. The older building is full of interactive things for kids and adults and the newer stunning building has a roof terrace with spectacular views. We went twice and could have done another 2 days in there, it’s so big. And FREE… superb. Thanks for stopping by and have a lovely day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. Thanks, Bernie. You have to leave yourself plenty of time to visit the museum as there are plenty of things to see. As you would expect from a National Museum this is a big building, split over 5 to 6 levels with exhibitions ranging from technology to earth, clothes to pottery and animals to industry. There is a map you can pick up at the start to help guide you. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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  7. The National Museum of Scotland seems like such a neat museum to explore with such a unique collection of different exhibits. I’m intrigued with the Artur’s Seat Coffins and all the different theories. The Natural World Gallery looks educational and fun! Thanks for sharing. Hope all is well. Linda

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    1. Thanks so much, Linda. I very much enjoyed all the stories and myths behind Edinburgh’s mysterious miniature coffins. If only the little wooden boxes were discovered by a trained archaeologist, who could make an examination before moving a single piece of wood, not by a group of boys who appear to have thoroughly mixed up the coffins by hurling them at each other, we would have more useful information about the surviving coffins. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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  8. Hey! I’m new (ish) to blogging and had a blog which I deleted as I wanted a clean start. I’m hoping to get back to it and create a new one soon 🙂 enjoyed your post😊 I went to the national museum in July but we were pushed for time so didn’t see it all 😦 x

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    1. Thanks so much, Jessie. The National Museum of Scotland is sprawling, highly informative, very easy to access and with collections ranging from artefacts from ancient Egypt and local archaeological finds, to the remains of the first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep; art by Scottish artists like Andy Goldsworthy, and clothing that dates back centuries. Best of luck with blogging, let me know when your new blog is set up, I would love to check it out. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. Thanks so much. It’s actually amazing how much there is to see and do under one roof. There are also frequently changing exhibitions, many of which focus on Scottish issues rather than international ones—which is what you want, really, when you’re visiting the national museum of any country. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. I love visiting museums too! They provide a wealth of information and when exploring rainy cities like Edinburgh – they are a fantastic place to hide from the neverending drizzle. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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    1. Times are tight in this economic climate, and it’s often easy to use a museum admission price as an excuse to stay at home. But I am much happier when I spend money on experiences rather than material purchases. Not to mention that museums make you smarter and provide you with an effective way of learning. Thanks for stopping by and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

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  9. My last visit to the museum predates Dolly’s birth! Much of this was new to me including the miniature coffins which are wonderful creepy for Halloween. My husband’s great grandfather was a whaler in Peterhead, Scotland. It’s a very informative post, Aiva, and I hope you have a wonderful Samhain.

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