Entering Cockenzie House in East Lothian not knowing what to expect from the Great Scottish Tapestry, brainchild of writer Alexander Mcall-Smith, I was struck by the vibrant colours, artistic effects, and textures. The delicate needlework suggests a painterly rendition which may easily be mistaken for brushstroke.
Beginning with the ice age, and telling the history of Scotland dating from 420 million years ago to the present through 160 events, it presents a comprehensive and beautiful survey of its history, culture and people. At an impressive 143 metres, it is the longest tapestry ever made.
Organisation has come from a team which includes the artist Andrew Crummy, the historian Alistair Moffat and the ‘stitch co-ordinator’ Dorie Wilkie.
The work was executed by a team of 1,000 talented stitchers, over two years. Smith said: “It has been stitched by volunteers as a gift to the nation” and that “this was the biggest community arts project ever to take place in Scotland”.
The work is a part of the stitchers as individuals as much as it is part of Scotland. In relation to representation of the multicultural life of the country, Smith said: “Everyone who lives in Scotland is an incomer. The land was without people at the time of the last ice age and we have represented many stages of settlement from that point until the reopening of the Scottish Parliament”.
He continued that all aspects of Scottish life and history are covered […] and it is very much a people’s history”. He added that requests made for additional panels in various areas are being considered.
Invigilating the exhibition was Joan Lesley, a retired schoolteacher, who said the artist created the main outlines as conceptual, not exact representations. The borders pictures were chosen by the stitchers themselves. Each panel had its own team, placed throughout the country, and Lesley discussed the panel she worked on, over a year in a team of ten called the Edinburgh Tenners. This piece is entitled: The Ice Melts, Scotland Emerges, The First Pioneers Come the Wildwood and its Fauna c8,500 BC.
This depicts the country over 10,000 years ago, showing hunter gatherers and animals such as the tusked Onyx, now extinct and also the polar bear. The barely there transparent depiction of the bear indicates how it was disappearing from Scotland at the time.
Stitching on linen fabric, in wool, with a little cotton and shiny thread for effects, the volunteers would each spend days at a time on it, over the course of the year. Leslie said they would often stitch through the night with fingers getting “raw and sore”. It could be difficult at nightime, due to “lighting getting bad”, but she said that during the stitching of the Bayeux tapestry from c11, they would have had to work by candlelight.
Over 400 hours of work went into each panel. Prior to starting, the volunteers spent weeks practising and perfecting and debating the techniques on sample linen. When it finally came to working on the panel itself, Lesley said “we were scared stiff”. The pressure to get it right was immense.
The participants had the freedom to contribute ideas, research and aspects of Scottish life. Lesley depicted a squirrel in her border section, as “we thought they might become extinct”. Its fascinating fluffy tail Lesley said, was a stitch a girl on the team from Pakistan had taught her.
She said: “it was an exciting thing to be working on, and that after all the hard work when the panels were finally show together “it felt special”.
It is indeed special, for Smith said: “We hope the tapestry would last for hundreds of years, a great deal of research went into finding the right linen and wools that would stand the test of time. Much now depends on the conditions in which it is exhibited and the care it receives”.
The funding he said came from Charitable Trusts and individuals. This was used to cover materials, co-ordination and premises. The artist and small team of stitcher co-ordinators were paid. Additional funding is being sought for the next stage of touring, educational work, and a permanent home.
Jim Brown, director of Cockenzie House, said: “I think it’s marvellous” He pointed out Sam the seagull who made history by stealing 20 packets of Doritos at an Aberdeen newsagent, which made headline news in 2007.
The tapestry will be at Cockenzie House until December 3, a permanent home is still being sought. A donation for entry is suggested at £3.50. Summerhall is to be believed next on the tour list and future dates are to be announced