The Scottish Pavilions at the Empire Exhibition 1938

Imagine you are a visitor at the Empire Exhibition at Bellahouston Park in 1938, you pass the Times building on your right and then the BBC building; now you are on Scottish Avenue and the Palace of Arts lies straight ahead. You keep walking and midway down the avenue you find yourself flanked by two large gleaming pavilions: the Scottish Pavilion North on your left and the Scottish Pavilion South on your right. Designed by the Scottish architect Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976), the pavilions were an opportunity to showcase Scotland’s contribution to the Empire. The North pavilion was dedicated to public services in Scotland and the South to the past and future of Scotland. The pavilions were almost identical in look and style, however the South was surrounded by a terraced wall, patterned after North Country ‘dykes’. Both pavilions had 120ft high glazed towers, the style quite similar to that of the Tait Tower, only on a smaller scale.

In the entrance halls of the pavilions were large outward curving windows with sculptures placed in front of them. The North housed Thomas Whalen’s 'Service', a sculpture depicting a woman holding in her right hand the Torch of Knowledge and in her left the Staff of Health. In the South stood Archibald Dawson’s 'St Andrew as a Young Man'. The sculpture was 25ft high and depicted St Andrew standing with arms outstretched at the prow of a galley, on the window behind the sculpture the more traditional depiction of St Andrew as a venerable old man was sandblasted onto the glass; the two depictions representing the old Scotland and the new. At this time in 1938, Dawson was Head of Sculpture at the Glasgow School of Art, tragically he died shortly after the artwork was completed, and so the work served as a memorial for him during the exhibition. The entrance hall of the South pavilion also housed two large tapestries woven by Scottish craftsmen in Corstorphine, Edinburgh, the larger of which was 560 square feet and took ten years to complete.

Service by Thomas Whalen

St Andrew as a Young Man by Archibald Dawson

The North Pavilion was split into three sections: the entrance hall, the Hall of Health and Planning and the Hall of Education. The Official Guide for the Exhibition describes the presentation of exhibits as so, ‘Artists, architects and craftsmen have pooled their efforts to produce a display that is at once illuminating and attractive. Each exhibit succeeds in both entertaining and educating in so subtle a fashion that it is difficult to say where amusement ends and instruction begins.’ The exhibits in the Hall of Health and Planning were focused on the statutory services available to the people of Scotland and the developments in town and country planning. The Hall of Education contained exhibits showing the work of school children of all ages, including needlework, artwork and handicrafts. The hall also contained a large mural depicting the field of educational activities. The exterior of the pavilion had sculptural figures of famous Scots including Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle, David Livingstone and James Watt.

The South Pavilion was also divided into three sections: the entrance hall, the Hall of History and the Hall of Voluntary Services. The walls of the entrance hall were textured sheeting, designed to give the impression that the building had been constructed out of large block of masonry, creating an historic feel. In the Hall of History the exhibits described Scottish history from the beginning until the beginning of the 19th century, ‘The display covers prehistoric times; heraldry; the Roman occupation; Stuart and Jacobite relics, including the Blair portrait of Mary Queen of Scots; relics of the Covenanters; domestic architecture, furniture and social life, depicted by five period rooms; the life of the burghs; Paisley shawls; sports and pastimes; early types of ships; musical instruments; clocks; Highland dress; embroideries; pewter ware; silver ware; armour and weapons; jewellery; snuff mulls; Mauchline boxes; naval and military history; witchcraft and superstitions; old stonework; pottery and glass; illuminated manuscripts; and personal relics of famous Scottish Men of Letters and of David Livingstone.’ The Hall of Voluntary Services led to the Hall of Youth which contained exhibits devoted to the social activities and craft activities of boys’ and girls’ clubs. When the Royals visited the Exhibition this particular exhibit was popular with the Princess Royal as she was associated with the Girl Guide movement at the time, while the historical exhibits were popular with the Queen Mother, ‘In the Scottish Pavilion South she proved herself an authority on Old Silver, and the time that she spent and the care which she bestowed on the Period Rooms showed where her interests lay.’


Exhibit in the Hall of History, South Pavilion

Exhibit in the Hall of History, South Pavilion


Written by Sophie Breustedt, Arts & Heritage Intern