Making a difference: stitching The Great Tapestry of Scotland

Making a difference: stitching The Great Tapestry of Scotland

26 Oct 2021

Anna McNay reveals how Arts Society volunteers helped create this immense work of art

One of the world’s longest tapestries, and certainly the largest-ever community arts project, has now, following a two-year tour around Scotland, arrived in its purpose-built, permanent new home in Galashiels in the heartland of the Scottish Borders. The project, known as The Great Tapestry of Scotland, was the brainchild of writer Alexander McCall Smith, who was inspired by a visit to the Prestonpans Tapestry in East Lothian.

Designed by the same artist, Andrew Crummy, this new feat is the work of more than 1,000 stitchers from communities across the country and comprises 160 linen panels and more than 300 miles of wool (enough to lay the entire length of Scotland, from its border with England to the tip of Shetland). At 143 metres long and one metre high, it required an incredible 50,000 hours of stitching to complete.

As its title suggests, the tapestry forms a timeline of the country, featuring many key historical events from prehistory to modern times, following a narrative written by Scottish Borders-based award-winning writer and historian Alistair Moffat. Using this as his foundation, Crummy then drew out each panel, designed in such a way that it could be split into 10cm-square sections to be sent out to the volunteer stitchers. 

While the tapestry, of course, covers major episodes including the Battle of Bannockburn (which, on 23 and 24 June 1314, saw the victory of the army of King of Scots Robert the Bruce over that of King Edward II of England in the First War of Scottish Independence), the Act of Union and the Jacobite Rising, and people such as King Macbeth, Mary, Queen of Scots, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, Moffat was keen to also tell the everyday stories of Scotland’s ‘ordinary’ people, such as millworkers, washerwomen and herring girls. 

There are also panels dedicated to the world wars, women’s suffrage, the NHS, Scots in the movies, various sports, music, comedy, whisky, the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the resurgence of Gaelic culture, and much more. With a strong focus on Scotland’s natural landscape, visual storytelling is paramount to the finished work, making the country’s heritage and culture accessible to all.

The stitchers – many of whom were Members of Scotland’s 13 Arts Societies – were recruited by ‘chief stitcher’ Dorie Wilkie. She also oversaw the process of tracing Crummy’s design onto linen, sourcing the wool and preparing stitching packs to send out to the volunteers. For many, it became a personal journey, as panels were transferred between stitchers through snowstorms and over rough seas. Other panels travelled with their stitchers on holiday. Some volunteers even met with living ancestors of the individuals whose stories they were depicting – for example, a stitcher working on the D-Day panel became friends with John Millin, the son of D-Day bagpiper Bill Millin, ensuring she correctly reflected his story in her work. 

In addition, there are many personal touches that stitchers added into their scenes. For example, one lady added a trompe l’oeil face in a grassy mound over a well, in memory of her mother. Another added a tiny helicopter in the Fair Isle panel, to celebrate the fact that her husband survived a crash in that area. Notably, Arts Society Trustee Jennifer Harding-Edgar, who is a dentist, embroidered a tooth underneath the beard of Alexander ‘Prophet’ Peden. He was one of the leading figures in the 17th-century Covenanter movement in Scotland. Harding-Edgar added further teeth to his mask, the original of which is in the National Museum of Scotland and has hens’ feather quills for teeth. 

‘Having seen the panels in so many different stages, I was blown away when it all came together.’ 

Of her involvement in the project, Harding-Edgar says: ‘I loved being part of it. I learned about a period of Scotland’s history I knew very little about, I made new friends and I learned new techniques.’ As to how she feels about having been part of the largest community project ever? Quite simply, ‘proud’. Dunblane-based Arts Society Member and stitcher Maud Crawford said: ‘Having seen the panels in so many different stages, I was blown away when it all came together. I had time to concentrate on the imaginative way people had interpreted shapes, and their clever use of stitches.’

With so many stories to tell about the stitchers and their experience, alongside those visually depicted in the tapestry itself, Wilkie has recently published a book of the volunteers’ diaries. Furthermore, an additional staircase artwork designed by Crummy incorporates threads with the names of all those who contributed. 

The permanent home for the tapestry, fittingly just three miles from that of Sir Walter Scott, is in a building designed by one of Scotland’s leading architectural practices, Page\Park, which also houses a workshop space, a café, a shop and a touring exhibition space. With 2022 set to be Scotland’s Year of Stories, the country’s culture minister, Jenny Gilruth, described the opening as ‘an inspiring moment’. 


The Great Tapestry of Scotland


About the Author

Anna McNay

Anna McNay is an art writer, editor and curator


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