Please send me SCA's fortnightly briefing:

September 21, 2011

A call to the nation’s stitchers

Some months ago we covered the story of the Prestonpans Tapestry – an amazing artistic achievement involving hundreds of volunteers across Scotland in the stitching of what became the world’s longest tapestry – depicting the route Bonnie Prince Charlie made from France, through the Scottish Highlands and onto victory at Prestonpans.  Seems that this just served to whet the appetite for an even more ambitious project

Emma Cowing, The Scotsman,19 June 2011

ONE COLD day last December the author Alexander McCall Smith, creator of the world famous No?1 Ladies Detective Agency, took a stroll down to Edinburgh’s Dovecot, a tapestry studio in the heart of the city. 

There, he stumbled upon artist Andrew Crummy’s Battle of Prestopans Tapestry, which commemorates the famous skirmish and at 104-metres (341ft) in length, is the longest tapestry in the world. It was, says, McCall Smith, “an extraordinary moment”.

“I was watching the expressions on the faces of people looking at it and they were just bowled over. It’s a wonderful way of telling a story and Andrew has got this marvellous ability to encapsulate a narrative. It’s a beautiful art form. So I said to him, ‘how about doing the whole history of Scotland?’ and he happened to say yes.”

Six months on and the Great Tapestry of Scotland project is gathering steam. Yesterday at the Borders Book Festival, McCall Smith, along with Crummy and writer and historian Alistair Moffat, officially launched their list of 107 historical events that will tell the story of Scotland. They will be illustrated in separate tapestry panels, each a metre in length, and will be stitched by volunteers from across the country. On completion – in about two years’ time – it will be gifted to the nation, and put on public display. There are also plans to tour it round the country. It will be something, McCall Smith hopes, that is “going to give an awful lot of people an awful lot of pleasure”.

But it might not be quite so easy as that. For this is Scotland, where all discussions about history and identity seem destined for controversy and lengthy, late-night arguments fuelled by whisky. Moffat, who took on the task of compiling the 107 events, admits that when it comes to what he’s chosen – and left out – “it’s bound to be the case that people won’t agree”.

“I fully expect it,” he says cheerfully. “By its nature it must be controversial because it is selective. And if people are critical then I think that’s great. It shows they care.”

The events – which start at the prehistoric glaciers over Ben Lomond and move through history all the way to the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 with nods to everything from Bannockburn to the Black Death to Dolly the Sheep – are already raising eyebrows.

Historian Michael Fry describes the list as “a bit parochial”, and points to a number of major events which are missing.

“I see there’s a reference to ‘Scotland and the drive for empire’, but I would have thought you could be more graphic than that,” he says

“Major medical achievements are also missing, such as Sir James Young Simpson and anaesthesia, Sir Alexander Fleming and penicillin. Two religious events also strike me as gaps: the martydrom of St Magnus on Orkney and the Disruption of the Kirk in 1843. There is also no mention of David Livingstone exploring Africa. A big black mark for missing that.”

Historian Tom Devine, author of The Scottish Nation: 1700-2007, is kinder. “Scotland is an argumentative nation, sometimes verging on the truculent,” he says. “My main impression is that they’ve done a good job. I like that a quarter of the panels deal with the early, often forgotten history of Scotland, and there is a good mix of varied historical events and elements of popular culture like Scottish comedy.”

Devine acknowledges compiling such a list is difficult. “It’s an impossible task, particularly in Scotland, where there are so many people with diversity of view. I’m certain elements on this list will create controversy. I also suspect that this is no bad thing because it gets people talking.”

Some of the panels seem almost designed to court controversy, such as the one that will depict “Cumbernauld new town” – one-time winner of the infamous “Carbuncle” award for the most dismal urban space in Scotland. Devine however, says he can see the point of that entry – as well as its wry humour.

He says: “There is a strength in the fact that it can’t be an entirely positive story. The past is chequered, there’s a lot of blackness as well as light, and I think that’s a nice wee cheeky reference there in including something like that.”

Moffat too, agrees that any comprehensive history of a nation must include the bad as well as the good.

“There are plenty of disastrous things in there – the Black Death, the Glencoe Massacre, the Darien scheme. It is a mixed story and we haven’t shirked that because I think we’re big enough to take it.”

Devine does have concerns over some of the panels, however. He says the date – 1780s – for the Highland and Lowland Clearances is wrong, and also takes issue with the panel depicting the invention of the modern kilt in 1723 in Lochaber.

Although the theory that the kilt was invented by an Englishman in that year – perpetuated by the historian Sir Hugh Trevor Roper – has found favour, many Scots historians believe it to be a false and almost defamatory statement.

“I don’t think many serious historians believe the Scottish kilt was invented then,” Devine says drily.

Devine also worries about the implications of lumping the Irish famine and immigration into the same panel as the creation of the Old Firm football clubs.

“The two football clubs were founded almost half a century after the famine and are obviously not directly related to that. I think that’s a bit iffy, not least because Irish immigration to Scotland was actually well advanced before the famine. I think a panel on Irish immigration would have been sufficient, or put Rangers and Celtic elsewhere.”

He would also have liked to see more reference to what he calls ‘greater Scotland’. “Scotland’s impact on the globe is extraordinary. Going abroad puts a Scottish stamp on parts of the world and the longevity of that huge migration is amazing. It also had an amazing effect on Scotland itself.”

But these are, in some ways, minor quibbles. Perhaps what is of greater significance is that the tapestry will get Scots talking about their history.

McCall Smith for one, feels passionately that Scotland’s history is of huge importance to its people.

“We need to remind ourselves of our history, because of what history teaches us about ourselves. If one is not aware of one’s history, one is not aware of who one is, really.”

And what of the tapestry’s future? Will its story be added to by the next generation? Moffat says: “If Scotland wins the World Cup, we’ll definitely add a panel.”

Want to know what the 107 events that shaped Scotland are? Click here