Stirling’s Hidden Gem
Sited in the shadow of Stirling Castle and the historic sites of the Old Town, the Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Dumbarton Road is regularly (and quite literally) overlooked by visitors to Scotland’s newest City. This ‘Secular Cathedral’ is well worthy of much closer inspection.
Built with bricks hewn from the nearby Raploch Quarry, on land specially provided by the Burgh of Stirling, The Smith still operates under the terms of a Trust Deed established by its founder, painter and philanthropist Thomas Stuart Smith, in 1869. Sadly, the artist – most famous, today, for his canvas ‘The Pipe of Freedom’, celebrating the abolition of slavery in the United States – died in Avignon shortly after the details of this Trust were finalised.
His bequest, and the co-operation and support of Stirling’s Provost and people, ensured his legacy. The Smith Institute, as it was originally known, opened its doors on 11 August 1874. Interrupted only by brief periods of occupation as army barracks, during both World Wars, it has been dedicated to the promotion of cultural and historical heritage, local and international, ever since. An early and enduring example of Public-Private partnership!
Originally provided ‘for the benefit of the inhabitants of Stirling, Dunblane and Kinbuck’, the early Smith comprised of a gallery of largely contemporary art – much of it drawn from Thomas’s own collection – a small museum of local artefacts, and a library and reading room, commended by the Art Journal of 1896 for its ‘quiet, unostentatious usefulness’.
The scope and variety of its collections, today, have extended far beyond that envisaged by its founder.
Still a cultural hub for the Stirling area, its permanent ‘Stirling’s Story’ exhibition provides an excellent introduction to the Burgh’s history for visitors and locals alike. Relics of Iron Age occupation on the banks of the Forth, the Stuart Kings, Trades and Guildry, local battles, heroes and villains – all vital to our understanding of Stirling’s history and heritage – sit alongside captivating oddities such as the ‘Oldest Football In The World’, said to have been kicked into the Castle’s Palace rafters by the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, and rediscovered during recent renovations. This exhibition justifiably represents what Museum Director Dr Elspeth King calls ‘the things which make Stirling Stirling… its collective memory box.’
To this can be added artefacts from all corners of the globe, reflecting the travel, business and cultural interests of the people of Stirlingshire over the past millennium, Recent additions have included the Neish Collection of British Pewter (currently housed at the. old District Court in Spittal Street), a café and a picturesque biodiversity garden.
Community groups, literary, art and faith societies meet regularly in its lecture theatres and its rooms are regularly used for book launches, entertainments and events ranging from the Off The Page and Bloody Scotland literary festivals to the Scottish Paranormal Festival.
The Smith Art Gallery and Museum and its patrons, the Friends of the Smith, daily fulfil its founders aim – treasuring, sustaining and promoting the cultural, historical and artistic interests and aspirations of Stirling’s people, and of those travellers whose good fortune brings them to its door.