A magical sleepover party at the National Portrait Gallery

Camp beds in the Great Hall. Picture: Andy McGregor
Camp beds in the Great Hall. Picture: Andy McGregor
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Sleeping bag, pillow and toothbrush in hand, we arrive like orphans outside the closed entrance of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. My daughter Hope and I are guests at the first family sleepover event here.

The wooden doors open at the appointed time, just like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and as we enter, I’m hoping we make it through the night, unscathed. Our accommodation, along with 38 others, is the awe-inspiring Great Hall. I can’t quite believe we will be snoozing away under the watchful gaze of the famous Scots who are depicted on the room’s mural, designed by William Hole in 1890s.

As we make ourselves at home in our designated corner, Hope quickly finds a new friend Ruby, and once their teddy bears are introduced – Suzie and Tedda Brown – they are the best of chums. Reclining on my camp bed looking up at the portrait of gallery founder, John Ritchie Findlay, with his over-the-top ornate gilt frame, I can’t help wondering what he would have made of tonight’s event.

After a quick safety briefing, we are divided into smaller groups for art activities. We head upstairs and are tasked with locating specific portraits, which allows us free rein to wander the empty galleries. Next we take a closer look at Lucinda Mackay’s painting of Peter Higgs, the theoretical physicist known for the particle named after him – the Higgs boson. Using this work as an inspiration, we quickly start drawing, while listening to different pieces of music. This is something I haven’t done since my art college days.

We move on, peering up at the starry skies depicted on the ceiling of the Great Hall, where we have to seek out specific constellations. Next we tiptoe quietly through The House of Annie Lennox exhibition in the direction of the education suite to create a glow-in-the-dark masterpiece, based on the night sky. The youngsters are each given a space projector torch at the end, which proves a great hit.

All tuckered out, we head to the café for a hot chocolate and a snack, before settling down for a bedtime story. Marion Kenny, a professional storyteller, magically weaves tales and music together, telling us all about characters who inhabit the heavenly skies from around the world, and ending with a story about the winged Pegasus and how he will watch over us as we sleep. The marble busts of Robert Louis Stevenson, Queen Victoria and Robert Burns all appeared to listen intently.

The next morning we awake to a vision of slumbering slugs, bodies cocooned in sleeping bags like in a bomb shelter during the Blitz. However, the morning light dancing on the golden mural is marvellous, and after a hearty breakfast we pack up. Neither of us will forget this magical night under the canvases.

• The next family gallery sleepover event is Saturday 20 July and costs £35 per person. For further information see www.nationalgalleries.org/education/sleepovers; Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131-624 6200.