IN driving sleet and knee-deep snow, I crawled through the heather on my stomach. Ahead of me was a stalker who, being four times my size, was as good as a windbreak. We reached the crest of the hill and looked down upon a bleak Perthshire valley, where a herd of red deer grazed, unaware of our presence. Among the animals was a stag, head raised as he scented the air and made his way delicately between his hinds. The stalker passed over his binoculars and I watched, transfixed by the sight of this powerful beast and his battle-worn antlers.

The idea that anyone would want to get him in their sights and shoot him for sport was sickening but I did not say that to my guide. He made his living from leading hunting parties to prime vantage points for an easy kill.

The so-called Monarch of the Glen was unquestionably imposing but there was nothing romantic about him. He looked scrawny and wary, anxious about his herd and finding slim pickings on the frozen hillside. Sir Edwin Landseer’s magnificent regal creature is the Hollywood version of the real thing, as true to its subject as an obsequious portrait of king or queen that airbrushes out wrinkles, squints and moles.

When Diageo, the owner of Landseer’s dewy-eyed portrait, announced it was to be sold at auction recently, the kerfuffle was in many ways gratifying. It was confirmation, for those who needed reassurance, that the public cares deeply about art even if a corporate business had lost interest. Disturbed to think that soon there would be an empty space on the wall of the National Gallery of Scotland where the oil painting hangs, voices were raised in protest. As a result, the gallery has been given a four-month reprieve in which to raise the £4 million price tag. Although it won’t be easy, I suspect, and certainly hope, that the stag’s noble expression will continue to grace the gallery’s walls for many years to come.

It was, nevertheless, a little galling to learn that The Monarch of the Glen is being described as “Scotland’s most famous painting”. Not only is Landseer not a Scottish artist, but also the holder of that distinction is without doubt Henry Raeburn’s Skating Minister, in which a playful but dignified man of the cloth glides over Duddingston Loch, one leg cocked behind him in the manner of Rudolf Nureyev.

Raeburn’s athletic minister’s image is the calling card of the National Galleries of Scotland, appearing on everything from tea towels and cuff-links to mouse pads and mugs. The Kirk must be kicking itself for not appropriating the image first and giving its reputation an injection of spirit and style. Putting aside the unedifying spat over the painting’s attribution some years ago, a wrong that took far too long to be righted, Raeburn’s charmingly witty, serene work has been slighted in other ways. In this it is not alone. All the gallery’s historic Scottish art has been snubbed in the most disgraceful fashion.

For decades, in order to view our national collection, it has been necessary to descend a winding stair into a windowless concrete basement. It was like heading into a mine. You felt the need of a headlamp as the gloom rose to greet you and the faces of Raeburn’s gimlet-eyed portraits, or William McTaggart’s surging seas emerged shadowy from the Stygian depths.

The way in which Scottish art has been treated by previous directors of the National Galleries is symbolic of the ruling class’s attitude to Scotland. Sir Timothy Clifford famously called Scottish art “inferior”, an insult some will never forgive. The current director Sir John Leighton, however, was affronted from the outset by the below-stairs relegation of this superb collection, calling it an “apology”, about which he was “deeply unhappy”. There are times when, in writing about Edinburgh, I feel I have nothing but criticism to offer, a drip feed of acid rain rather than praise; not so today. Who could possibly carp, when the impending transformation of the National Gallery on the Mound will allow three times as much Scottish art to be displayed to the public, none of it in the coal bunker?

Skirting across the irritation at losing space in Princes Street Gardens to its expansion, it is wiser to focus instead on the uplifting and long overdue message the gallery’s redesign will deliver: that Scottish art is on a par with that of many nations and the days of cultural cringe are numbered. To judge by the architect’s impression of the proposed new wing, the revamped gallery will entice viewers in with famous Scottish works, coaxing art lovers deeper into its spacious, airy rooms with artfully placed displays that will, one hopes, cast fresh light on long neglected and undervalued works.

It is not that everything Scottish ought to be lauded to the skies; nor should what is eminently good or brilliant be given less than its due. We may be a small country, given to understatement and self-deprecation, but each of our best artists is precious, and we need to learn how to laud them. Until now, though, you would not have thought any deserved it.

That second and third-rate Italian masters have dominated the upstairs gallery halls while the likes of Allan Ramsay or David Wilkie, James Guthrie or J D Fergusson have languished out of view is no oversight. As so often with cultural institutions amid this most reticent of peoples, indigenous work has been deemed below par. If you are of my generation, from the day we set foot in school we were imperceptibly fed the creed that Scots are the underdog and underling. To pass with flying colours you needed to remember that our finest artists or novelists, musicians, playwrights, sculptors, poets or architects could not and should not be compared to those from more distinguished and prosperous nations.

Sometimes that will have been true. Equally, it will often have been symptomatically ignorant, a criminal slur upon our homegrown talent. This inbred attitude of wilful disparagement is an indictment not only of our education system, or those who have run our major institutions, but also of each of us who unquestioningly allowed our minds to be brainwashed.

Now, instead of perpetuating received wisdom, Scottish art, like all the arts, needs to be assessed with a rational, unprejudiced eye. Some, like Raeburn, will be able to hold their own with their peers. Others will fall into a lower, though no less interesting, tier. All, however, deserve to be given their place within a European and world perspective, so that we can understand the artistic tides that have washed over the land, and changed its artistic face.

When the Scottish collection finally goes on view in 2019, its expanded ground-level home will stand as a metaphorical as well as a physical repositioning of our artistic heritage. Thanks to what could perhaps be called our second Scottish Renaissance, we viewers will be able to enter our own gallery and, like Landseer’s glorious Highland stag, be monarch of all we survey.