A slightly shortened version of this arrticle appeared in the Herald magazine on Saturday, August 24,2013. Photos are available to view on the website
In September 2013, the world’s biggest tapestry, the Great Tapestry of Scotland will be revealed to the public when it goes on show at the Scottish Parliament.
This immense artwork tells the story of 420 million years of Scottish history from a panel entitled “The Ceaseless Sea” to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 163 panels.
The tapestry is over four times the area of the Bayeux Tapestry; it used 300 miles of yarn and it has been worked by more than 1,000 stitchers from the Northern Isles to the Borders.
Weavers from East Lothian depicted the first human settlements; the Glasgow Society of Women Artists has reworked the Glasgow emblem; a group from Inverness has embroidered a depiction of the Highland Clearances; one from Orkney has sewed a panel on the creation of Dolly the sheep.
More than forty of the overwhelmingly female stitchers are called ‘Margaret’, they are aged from four to 94 and they include politicians, folk musicians, teachers, doctors and farmers.
The stitchers were recruited mainly by word of mouth and by adverts in craft magazines and at events. The task of co-ordinating them into dozens of groups across the country, handing out thread, advice, encouragement, shortbread and a shoulder to cry on when tempers frayed was undertaken by Dori Wilkie from a small office in an industrial estate in Midlothian.
She is passionate about the project. “I think it will stun people when they see it. The work that has gone into it, the skill, the visual way of telling Scotland’s history, the ownership everyone feels towards their own panel and this legacy that is being given to the nation.”
She is also impressed by the sheer artistry on display. The tapestry is done, like the Bayeux, in crewel work, embroidered pictures on linen panels, each initially drawn by community artist Andrew Crummy. These depict scenes from history selected by historian Alistair Moffat, but every group was encouraged to take part in the design process.
“They are using traditional stitches but they are using them imaginatively. There is no limit, they can use any stitch they like and they have to make decisions. A lot of gaps were left for the groups to incorporate their own ideas and research. Some groups loved that, others are found it daunting.”
Traditional embroidery is a new skill for most of the participants. “We don’t have hand embroidery on our clothes now and it is seen as old-fashioned to have it on your walls so it really is a forgotten art. It is not part of our modern way of life. But the tapestry has reignited people’s interest in it as a creative art form”.
On the history front, researchers and critics are engaging with the content. “Most of the groups have done a lot of research for their particular panel and we have all filled our minds with so much history we never knew. But we can’t include everything and people are constantly questioning what is and isn’t there and that has started a dialogue about our history.”
The phone rings incessantly at ‘the hub’ and women are constantly coming in and out of the office, bringing panels, collecting materials or looking for advice. There are a few male participants - “a man in the Borders has got the Black Death” someone memorably remarks.
But men were more prominent in the project’s conception than they have been in its execution. The initial funding was provided by the writer Alexander McCall Smith. He had the idea for the tapestry after seeing a previous community art tapestry depicting the Battle of Prestonpans and he provided the financial backing which allowed Andrew Crummy and Dori Wilkie to get the Great Tapestry of Scotland underway, though others have come on board since.
McCall Smith said: “We have all learned a lot from this. Many of us have learned a bit of history; many of us have learned about the desire that people have to engage in joint creative activity with others. Everyone, I think, has learned that what might seem a ridiculously ambitious project can succeed if there is enough love and enthusiasm and courage about. And there is.”
“I salute the visionary artist, Andrew Crummy, and his team of hundreds, led by Dori Wilkie. I salute their magnificent artistry. I salute their generosity. I salute their good humour. This tapestry is their creation, given to the people of Scotland and to those who will come to Scotland to see it.”
Andrew Crummy recalls meeting McCall Smith at an exhibition of the Prestonpans tapestry. “He really enjoyed it and he noticed people were staying a long time, half an hour or an hour looking at it and reading all the captions.”
For Crummy:“When you are a community artist you know when you have the right project and this has been taken on so enthusiastically by so many people and it is tapping into this huge reserve of capability and creativity which is really under recognised.”
The Prestonpans tapestry, the first one Crummy created, was commissioned and funded by a fellow resident of the Prestonpans area in the bar of the Prestoungrange Gothenburg, a community owned bar known known as “the Goth”, one of the last survivors of a model once common in Scotland.
Baron Prestoungrange, the grandson of a local miner who purchased his title and its policies (an entry in Burke’s Peerage on his demesne records that “much of it is under water at high spring tide”) funded the work.
Crummy recalls: “Gordon had been to see the Bayeux Tapestry on holiday and he said, we should really do a tapestry on the Battle of Prestonpans. He said: ‘There is only one stipulation. It has to be longer than the Bayeux Tapestry so that it can be the longest tapestry in the world.”
The work was undertaken by volunteers mainly from the Prestonpans area and others – such as the Bonnie Price Charlie impersonator who is also a regular at the Goth – helped with the design details. Prestonpans' very own Poet Laureate John Lindsay created a poem and a play for the occasion.
Not to be outdone by McCall Smith, Gordon Prestoungrange has now commissioned Crummy to start work on a new tapestry, on the Scottish diaspora, which is now underway, involving panels stitched by Scots and their descendants from 25 countries. When completed, it will be even larger than the Great Tapestry of Scotland.
Stitchers: The Miners’ Strike 1984
In Tranent, East Lothian, skilled needlewoman Agnes Greig and her daughter Pauline O’Brien have put in hours of patient stitching on their panel, about the 1984 miners’ strike.
As they work, memories flow of much-loved husband and father William Greig, a miner who died in 2008 and of a long, bitter year when they saw hope flow out of their community.
Pauline was 17 at the time. “It was the era that shaped who I am as a person. My dad was a principled man and a fair man. He just wanted to go to work, get paid a decent wage and look after his family.
“I was proud that he was involved in the strike, I was proud that my family took a stand. Even now 30 years later I feel very emotional about it. I could still cry when I think about it. I still remember how I hated Margaret Thatcher.”
Agnes, widow, daughter and daughter-in-law of miners remembers a “miserable “ year. “We didn’t have much to smile about. The men wanted to save their jobs. They had no other skills. They came out of school one day and they were down the mine the next. They would say. Where will we get jobs if they close the pits? The women wanted to save their homes and their communities.”
With little money coming in and the allowances of coal to heat their homes stopped, they recall how the men would walk out to where the foundations of the Edinburgh bypass were being dug and bring back loose coal. They would harrow the fields after the crops had been gathered in and bring back the potatoes and turnips that had been missed by the harvesters.
. “We had the news on night after night and it was always depressing. I felt Arthur Scargill was encouraging the violence. I felt he was enjoying the soap box. The government was stronger than the miners and it held out.
“William just wanted to go to his work. A lot of men hated going down the mine but he didn’t.”
Pauline interjects. “He loved the camaraderie. The men were like brothers. They put their lives in each others hands on a daily basis and there was a real bond.”
The pair recall a now-vanished way of life: strong friendships among the neat homes; William and the other men outside tending their gardens every afternoon and evening; the men setting off together each morning with their pieces and juice.
“A lot of the men wouldn’t eat the corner where they held the bread because it was dirty from their fingers. People sometimes think they came up halfway through and had lunch in the canteen but they didn’t. They were down there for eight hours.”
Soon after the ending of the strike in ignominious failure, the pits in the area all closed and all that remains of them is Prestongrange Mining Museum.
When Agnes, who is in her 70s, was a child, before the pits were nationalised, her father hewed coal in the mines with a pick axe. “Sometimes they had to lie on their stomachs because there was a only a small space where they had to crawl in and break the rock. There was a lot of dust. There were no masks and there was not much health and safety in those days.”
Her father died in his early 60s after a lifetime of chest problems. Agnes remembers the sound of his painful coughing. “When the mines went, in a way I wasn’t sorry. I had three brothers and my mother was determined they were not going down the mines and none of them did.”
1960s: Cumbernauld New Town
In the evenings when theatrical costumier Elizabeth Boulton pushes the sparkly stage dresses she makes aside, she get on with her voluntary work – embroidery.
“It’s meditative - as long as I can keep the cat off my lap,” she says.
For her day work, she machines almost everything, working as fast as she can. In the evenings however, looking out of the window of her Cumbernauld flat on to the gardens below, she spends hours meticulously hand stitching the panel that she and her sister Helen Connelly are working on which represents Scotland’s 1960s effort to improve working class housing in the form of the New Towns.
Thanks to Boulton’s input, the panel that depicts Cumbernauld has morphed from a monument to failed political ambition into the record of a happy childhood.
The artist Andrew Crummy’s initial drawings for the panel show a gigantic architect with a theodolite and papers in hand dwarfing the tower blocks rising behind him.
But Crummy, whose mother Helen Crummy was the founder of Craigmillar Art Festival, a similar area, was sensitive to her feelings. When Boulton indicated her concerns about the design Crummy went to visit her and they spent the day touring Cumbernauld.
The subsequent panel called Cumbernauld New Town shows local landmarks, parks and gardens wound around a central figure of a woman with an old fashioned pram and child in the centre.
Elizabeth was born in Whitley Bay and brought to Cumbernauld in the late 60s as baby after her father got a job as a ceramicist at the local brick works. She is fond of the place which is often the butt of jokes about its ugliness.
“When you drive through Cumbernauld, you don’t see it. Because it was built to keep the traffic away from the residential areas, and because the houses look onto the gardens rather than onto the roads, from the road all the houses look the same with these little windows. Then there are all these roundabouts and the megastructure in the middle which is, I must admit, unlovely.
“But from the houses, people look out on greenery. I look out onto the garden and the woodland behind. There is lots of green space and flowers, there are dog roses and cherry blossom and fields full of flowers.”
That sense of green space and child friendliness is captured in the redesigned panel which has personal elements. A tanktop a child is wearing is a homage to the one Elizabeth knitted in primary four when she learnt to sew at school. Her father appears in a side panel.
“I found a photo of Helen and myself playing on a see saw in our garden as children. I am wearing an orange dress and she has a purple patterned dress, so 1970s. They are going in.”
“Cumbernauld is a good place to live; it’s a good place to bring up children.”
1593 The Border Reivers: Rescue of Kinmont Willie
A silversmith, a historical novelist, a professional embroiderer, a farmer and a descendant of the Border Reivers are amongst the team of a dozen volunteers around the village of Smailholm who are stitching the panel on the Border Reivers.
These legendary robber families who for centuries roamed the “debateable lands” between Scotland and England left their mark on the English language – the words ‘bereaved’ and ‘blackmail’ and also on the landscape.
The panel shows Hermitage Tower - which appears on the internet as the top answer to the question “What is the world’s most sinister castle?’ Smailholm itself boasts the best remaining example of a fortified Peel tower, tall and inaccessible with narrow windows. Standing in its shadow it is easy to imagine a gang of marauding reivers galloping over the horizon with the protective padded jackets and jagged spears shown in the panel.
It also includes the moon – the reivers mainly did their raiding at night in the winter, but this is also a subtle reference to their famous descendant the astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Jeweller and keen horsewoman Robyn Kinsman-Blake is at 24 one of the youngest stitchers in the whole tapestry. Her sturdy white horse Pip gave her the idea of enlivening the bottom third of the panel by giving the mens’ mounts flowing manes studded with raindrops. “I’m really enjoying being part of the project. I love making things,” she said.
Denise Armstrong from Hawick, who is also a member of the group, is a descendant of the powerful tribe who controlled much of the area. The main picture features the freeing of Kinmont Willie Armstrong from Carlisle Castle, a tale that inspired a famous ballad. What does she think of her ancestors’ activities? “I suppose they were just doing what they had to do to survive in those times and to feed their families.”
For Veronica Ross, who assembled the group after hearing about it at the Borders Festival this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity “to be involved in a major art work. If I knew an ancestor of mine had helped to make the Bayeux Tapestry I would be very excited. I hope that in a thousand years time, someone might say, ‘Oh my ancestor did part of the Great Tapestry of Scotland.”
The First Edinburgh Festival 1947
My own involvement came through friends. I am on the periphery of a group which includes traditional musicians, Clarsach player Patsy Seddon and fiddler and singer Mairi Campbell, as well as teachers and even a consultant eye surgeon.
We were given a panel depicting the first Edinburgh Festival of 1947. The first draft was rather plain, two figures playing the cello against an empty backdrop. One of our members, teacher Heather Swinson, found a postcard of the floral clock from that era on Ebay and that became the centrepiece above a reference to the aspiration of that first festival to provide: “A platform for the flowering of the human spirit’.
It seemed a lucky coincidence to me that we got this particular one – my grandfather, playwright Robert Kemp was very involved in the early Festivals and his adaptations – of Sir David Lindsay’s The Three Estates and Moliere’s School for Wives which became ‘Let Wives Tak Tent’ brought Scots’ theatre and performers to an international audience.
I quote his writing on this in my book: “Confusion to our Enemies: Selected Journalism of Arnold Kemp”. Robert described the early Festivals as a “huge adventure” after the exhaustion of the Second World War – “a period which deserved the adjective soul-destroying”. “Twice in my life I have seen Europe go dark and watched the doves of peace having their necks wring,” he wrote. “The Edinburgh Festival is the creation of peace and the symbol of it. The old city will be floodlit, in her streets strange tongues will be heard. Great artists will weave their spells and we will gladly submit to their enchantment.”
We have tried to create something of that feeling of joy and colour in the form of music and drama returning to a war-weary world. In the corner of our panel we include a child’s drawing of a dove to symbolise the return of peace and at the side a line from the European anthem, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in German: “Alle Menschen werden Brüder”; which could be translated as : ‘Man to man the world o’er shall brothers be, for a that.”