A stitch in time

Telling the story of Scotland.

A detail from the Great Tapestry of Scotland.
A detail from the Great Tapestry of Scotland.

There are many sudden enthusiasms, many sudden madcap ideas that are best slept on and then discarded. There are others that are best acted on immediately, irrespective of whether the means of putting them into practice are not obvious, the money to bring them about does not exist, and the end result is not at all clear. These ideas are often outrageous, but somehow just work, and at the end of the day prove to be worth doing. The Great Tapestry of Scotland is, I think, one of these.

It began, as these things tend to do, unexpectedly. The Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh are perhaps the most distinguished tapestry studios in Britain. They have recently celebrated their centenary – 100 years of producing tapestries designed by a rollcall of the most distinguished artists of 20thcentury Britain, including Graham Sutherland, David Hockney, Elizabeth Blackadder and Edward Bawden. Among the exhibitions held during the centenary year was one announced simply as “The Prestonpans Tapestry”. My curiosity was aroused, and my wife and I went to see it.

The tapestry was exhibited in the Dovecot’s massive upper gallery, and it wound all the way round that very large space, and then some. In form, it was very like the Bayeux Tapestry, with discrete panels about a yard long, rather like the panels of a cartoon strip, telling the story, incident by incident, of the ill-fated attempt by Charles Edward Stuart, otherwise known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, to displace the Hanoverians. As we all know, this was not the most successful of military campaigns and the Jacobites were eventually roundly defeated. But they did do rather well in the beginning, and the tale of the 1745 uprising turns sour – from the Stuart perspective – only after the victory at Prestonpans.

The Prestonpans Tapestry was not a story of failure, then; it was a vivid account of a popular campaign to restore what was seen as a wronged dynasty. The Stuarts, of course, were a rather dubious lot, but Bonnie Prince Charlie has long had a particular place in the Scottish imagination. And it is, at times, a stirring story, whatever one’s sympathies.

What struck me, though, as I walked round the tapestry’s depiction of these events, was the expression on the faces of the other members of the public who were looking at it. I saw looks of utter appreciation – of rapt enchantment. This tapestry obviously engaged people in a way in which many works of art will fail to do. The panels were beguiling; they were beautiful; and they had all been worked by volunteer stitchers throughout Scotland, who had devoted hours and hours of their time to produce a striking work of art.

By the time I reached the end of the tapestry, I was completely won over to this art form as a means of telling a story. It is something very simple – redolent of ancient cave drawings: pictures telling a story. As it happened, the artist behind the project, Andrew Crummy, was standing there at the end. I complimented him and said how struck I had been by the experience.

An inordinately modest man, he shrugged off the praise. It was, Andrew said, a group effort and he was merely the facilitator.

Something possessed me to ask for his telephone number, which he gave me, and that evening I called him and asked him whether he would be interested in doing another tapestry. He said that he would, and then asked me what I had in mind. I had barely formulated the idea, but I said to him: “The whole history of Scotland. Let’s do the whole history of Scotland. From the beginning . . .” Andrew did not hesitate. “Yes,” he said. “Let’s.” “And let’s make it the longest tapestry in the world.” Again there was no hesitation. “Yes, let’s.”

Reality set in. Obviously my wife and I could not undertake the whole project ourselves, so we approached various friends to join us as trustees. They rose to the occasion. Nobody expressed any doubt; everybody accepted, in the same rash spirit in which we had conceived of the idea.

My first call was to Alistair Moffat, an accomplished historian, a former director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the one-time boss of Scottish Television. Alistair accepted the invitation before I had finished speaking. So did James Naughtie, the co-presenter of the Today programme on Radio 4 and historian of music. Several others joined them, including the Edinburgh publisher Hugh Andrew and Lesley Kerr, a well-known Edinburgh lawyer.

We began almost immediately, ignoring the normal way of doing these things, which is to try to raise funds for a project before you start. We were able to help a bit financially, and that made it possible to commission Andrew to start the drawings, as well as Dorie Wilkie, who had been put in charge of stitching and all technicalities, to start organising the linen, the yarn and the volunteer stitchers. The tapestry would be done as crewel work – a technique of embroidering on linen that allows for the achieving of texture and contrast.

But what would the tapestry say? We decided that it should begin with the Ice Age and the forces that made the land of Scotland and end in 1999, when the Scottish Parliament, put to sleep by the Act of Union in 1707, came back into existence. We then decided that we would have slightly over 140 panels, each a metre square. In those panels we would try to tell the whole story of Scotland, not just from the point of view of those who were prominent – kings, clan chiefs and politicians – but from the point of view of ordinary people, and particularly of those who were on the receiving end of history. Alistair Moffat made the initial selection, but we took into account numerous suggestions, including a whole raft of them that we received from the public when we held an open consultation day at the Scottish Parliament.

The result is a highly eclectic selection of subjects. We have Robert Louis Stevenson, the UK General Strike of 1926, the invention of the swing plough and the disastrous Darien scheme, Scotland’s abortive attempt to found its own colony. We have Denmark ceding Orkney and Shetland to Scotland, we have the Border Reivers stealing English cattle, we have the decline of Gaelic. We have carefully sewn depictions of oil rigs, of Dolly the Sheep, and of Adam Smith writing The Wealth of Nations. Anybody with any interest in any aspect of Scottish history will probably find something in this tapestry to engage his or her interest.

The work of stitching is being done by about 600 people throughout Scotland. None of these is being paid – all have offered their time for free, though it will take over 200 hours’ labour to produce each panel. They are working in groups of six, eight and ten people, passing the panel from one to another to work on a section. This has forged numerous friendships; it has brought people together in a mutual artistic endeavour. It is, I believe, the largest community arts project ever undertaken in Scotland.

When it is finished, we shall give it to the nation. It will be displayed first in the Scottish Parliament this coming September and then it will go on tour to various parts of Scotland. We have yet to decide its final home, but we want to ensure that it will be accessible to everybody who wants to see it. It should be a major tourist attraction for whatever town or city ultimately gets it. What is most important, though, is that it has brought so many people together and will, as a finished artefact, continue to do so. It shows people who they are and where they come from in a way that few other art forms are capable of doing. There is something about thread on linen that is very arresting, very eloquent.

Financially, the times were quite wrong to be doing this sort of project: money for the arts is extremely scarce. But that, perhaps, is exactly when one should do such a thing. Colour and friendship and art are what we need when times are hard. And the other ingredient, of course, is love. All of these have been invested in this tapestry in large measure, and have worked exactly the miracle that we thought they would.

Alexander McCall Smith’s most recent book is “Trains and Lovers: the Heart’s Journey” (Polygon, £9.99)