Jan 11, 2024Alexandra Borthwick


If you want something good to do in Scotland in January, I have just the thing for you. It’s an event that's free, beautiful and it goes on all month.

Turner in January, at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh is an exhibition of 38 watercolours, all displayed in one room. The paintings are free to see and the best part? This exhibition isn't just this January, it's every January and has been for the last 100 years.

It's a bit of an Edinburgh institution, though lots of locals still don't know about it. But once you know, you know. And if you're in Edinburgh, you'll probably go back next year, as it becomes a nice thing to do, to mark each passing year. 

So what’s the story behind Turner in January? The watercolours were bequeathed to the National Gallery of Scotland in 1900 by Henry Vaughan, a rich Victorian man whose father had made his fortune making hats. Vaughan liked buying art. He knew Turner personally and bought directly from him, building up a collection of 200 of his works.

There were stipulations to Vaughan’s bequest, namely that the paintings be shown all together and free of charge, but only during the month of January. I used to think that this was because he understood how grim January could be and he wanted to cheer us up. But his intentions were a bit more scientific. Vaughan understood the fragility of watercolours and how they're so sensitive to light. In the month of January, daylight is at its weakest, hence his caveat.

Because the paintings only appear for one month of the year they're in top condition. They range from the towering Alps to bucolic scenes around Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott's home in the Scottish Borders. 

Situated in the Royal Scottish Academy on Princes Street at the Mound, the exhibition is perfect for a quick 10 minute escape from the weather or if you're more invested, this year there's a new addition, a free Smartify audio guide which will give you a good commentary on the works.

And if you've time, pop into the William Gillies exhibition which is only a few feet away in the next room, a really interesting Scottish painter worth seeing.

Royal Scottish Academy

More articles