An understanding of the embryology of the adrenal glands is necessary to appreciate the location of adrenal ectopic, or rest, tissue which can occur anywhere along the course of gonadal descent. This tissue usually has no clinical significance, but may become hyperplastic in patients with primary or secondary adrenal pathology. In congenital adrenal hyperplasia, hyperplastic rest tissue may present as a soft-tissue mass, particularly in the gonads and retroperitoneum, and may be mistaken for tumour. The adrenal in the neonate is proportionately much larger than in the adult; in renal ectopy or agenesis the ipsilateral adrenal is normally sited and may be mistaken for a kidney because of its size. This review article illustrates the embryology of the adrenal with particular emphasis on the relevance of embryology to pathology.