He was born the son of a poor cobbler in Edinburgh in 1796, had little formal schooling and began his working life apprenticed to a house painter before entering the disreputable world of the theatre as a set designer and occasional actor.

But by the time of his death in 1864, David Roberts had befriended Charles Dickens, JMW Turner and William Makepeace Thackeray, made a sizeable amount of money and travelled widely, winning himself a reputation as a noted Orientalist along the way.

The reasons for his fame, wealth and reputation were his skills with pen, pencil and paintbrush. More specifically, it was the way he used these skills to capture the majesty of his home patch, both its buildings and its landscapes, and the exotic spirit and architectural grandeur of the countries he visited and painted throughout the 1830s, among them France, Spain, Egypt and the Holy Land.

In Alexandria, he painted Cleopatra's Needle. In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In Seville, in 1833, he visited the city's massive Gothic cathedral during the festival of Corpus Christi and painted there too, even if the Presbyterian in him bristled at the colour, smells and theatricality of the event (in later life he would campaign for the preservation of John Knox's house in Edinburgh). One of the resulting works, Interior Of Seville Cathedral, sold for £300 a year later and is still considered one of his best paintings. He only left the Andalucian capital when cholera broke out.

Roberts had a Scottish flair for business too. On his return from his travels he had his sketches turned into engravings and coloured lithographs which proved very popular - and highly lucrative.

Roberts clearly led an eventful and adventurous life, then, and on Saturday the Scottish National Gallery recognises him by mounting a rare retrospective of his work, his first solo show since a 1986 exhibition at the Barbican in London. Interior Of Seville Cathedral is among the paintings on display. Others include interiors of Rosslyn Chapel, Dunfermline Abbey and Caen's 14th-century St Sauveur Church, views of Edinburgh's Craigmillar castle outside Edinburgh and Donaldson's Hospital (painted from around the where the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art stands today) and a grand panorama of the capital looking east from castle ramparts. There's also a photograph of Roberts by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson and a painting of him by his friend Robert Scott Lauder. Vividly coloured and titled David Roberts Esq In The Dress He Wore In Palestine, it shows the painter in the garb of a Middle Eastern potentate, complete with sword.

"He was the first independent British artist who travelled really widely in the Middle East," says exhibition curator Charlotte Topsfield. "Other artists had been there, but he embarked on this epic journey. And he was very prolific. He produced a great number of sketches which for the rest of his life he used as the source for oil paintings and in particular big, lavish print publications. It was these views of Spain and the Middle East that made him very famous and very successful."

But although Roberts's work has always remained popular with collectors, his fame dissipated in the decades after his death and his reputation with it. That, though, began to change when artist and textile designer Helen Guiterman entered the story in 1961. She bought two drawings by Roberts, paying £3 for the pair, and spent most of the next four decades seeking out other works by him and following the trail of documents that could shed light on his life, such as the many letters he wrote to friends and colleagues. It's from her bequest that most of work in this new exhibition is drawn - and thanks to her efforts that this accomplished Scottish artist is emerging into the daylight once more.

David Roberts: Drawings From The Helen Guiterman Bequest opens on Saturday at the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh (until June 14), www.nationalgalleries.org