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The Smallest Art Gallery in Scotland

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

(No, it’s not bigger on the inside!)

This Valentine’s Day my girlfriend and I went to Edinburgh, and it was there we found (after a little searching), the smallest art gallery in Scotland. We could barely both squeeze inside but when we did we discovered a bite-sized window into Edinburgh’s exciting art scene.

Opening on the 10th of February, BirdsNest Meadows is the latest venture by the BirdsNest – a unique gallery space in Southside. Founded by Natalia (Sho) Brand and named for the still-intact birds nest she discovered fallen in the gallery’s garden, the BirdsNest has a focus as eclectic as its bohemian interior. Contemporary artists feature prominently, but their collections date to the 19th century.

The Meadows pop up is a repurposed police box, one of many littering Edinburgh. Now sporting a striking green paint job and fairy lights, the box is a fully functioning commercial art gallery (albeit a very small one). The gallery rotates exhibitions every month or so. The inaugural exhibition ‘Bright Star: Love never dies’ is themed around love (just in time for Valentine’s Day). The exhibit sticks to the galleries eclectic approach, cramming seven different British artists into the same small space.

I found Mr J’s luminous paintings of memorials from Edinburgh’s cemeteries particularly interesting. He really captured that special kind of Scottish evening light, when the sun is low in the sky. Despite this, his works had a slightly haunting quality to them, which meant they were oddly juxtaposed against the slightly twee but nonetheless charming canvases of Taiwanese children’s illustrator Trista Yen.

This is, perhaps, the downfall of such a small gallery space. While the Birds Nest doesn’t go as far as the Berlin Dadaists and literally pile the artworks on top of each other, many definitely lacked breathing space. Of course, this is precisely what Brand intended with the Birds Nest – breaking from plain, white-walled galleries to create something unique and individual. It also has precedent in the traditional art exhibitions of the 18th and 19th centuries where paintings were practically tiled to make maximum use of the available wall space.

This pop-up remains a unique reinterpretation of the gallery concept, and one arguably more appropriate to the way we as a society now consume art. Art is just one of a series of things we have in our lives, and to present small-scale works like these decontextualised on a white wall would be quite inappropriate. Here one gets a sense for how they will look in your own room, which is of course exactly what any gallerist wants you to be thinking about as they reach for the credit card machine.

The Birds Nest is just the latest of Edinburgh’s iconic police boxes to be repurposed for both public enjoyment and commercial enterprise. Noticeably bigger and squatter than London and Glasgow’s better-known boxes, the basis for Doctor Who’s iconic “TARDIS”, there were originally 142 police boxes across the city based on a 1933 design by Edinburgh’s prolific City Architect Ebenezer James MacRae. These boxes essentially served as mini-police stations – providing bobbies on the beat with telephones, desks, a place to secure criminals, and, most importantly, occasional tea-making facilities. They fell out of use when the police adopted short-range radio and landlines became obsolete. Revival plans in the 1990s to introduce “bilingual bobbies” for international tourists never seem to have got off the ground.

The boxes have since become targets for street artists and vandals alike. Many are decorated in layers of brightly coloured paint, tags, and, in various places, sea-monsters. However, more and more they are being adopted by entrepreneurs tempted by their low rent in high-footfall locations. Last year a box in Cowgate sold for £17.5k. New uses for these micro-spaces range from shelters for vulnerable people, to cafés, coffee shops, pop-up record stores, clothes shops, and, ironically enough, cannabis vape shops. The demand is so high, in fact, that the council is currently reviewing a proposal to build eight new multicoloured police boxes on Leith walk to serve as a pop-up shopping street. If it does go ahead, then I think it is fair to say that Edinburgh’s city planners really have started to think outside the box.

Illustration: Isabelle Holloway

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