The Great Tapestry of Scotland gives us a stunning view of how far we’ve come and leaves you wondering where we’ll go next. It’s like looking down on a well-know landscape from the air. It gives you a strange feeling of perspective, a giddy experience.
For the past year, a thousand stitchers from all over Scotland have been beavering away embroidering 160 panels, most of them one metre square, which tell the story of our stony country from its formation 420 million years ago to the present day. It’s been one of the most ambitious community arts projects ever undertaken in Scotland and it has produced one of the world’s longest tapestries.
The inspiration has come from master story-teller Alexander McCall Smith who recruited the artist Andrew Crummy, the historian Alistair Moffatt and the lead stitcher Dorie Wilkie to create what will probably turn out to be one of the treasures of our time. It’s just gone on show at the Scottish Parliament (till 21st September).
The 160 snapshots of history have a wonderful simplicity about them and a feeling of timelessness, like ancient Egyptian drawings or the Bayeau Tapestry – or the more recent Prestonpans Tapestry, also the work of Andrew Crummy. And the panels often contain little jokes – like the books emerging from the head of David Hume or a lost priest wandering through the high gallery of his medieval abbey, or Dr Knox’s Gok Wan glasses.
Alistair Moffat has selected his 160 snapshots with real panache. There are the usual suspects – the Picts, the Romans, the Celts, Queen Margaret, Robert the Bruce, Flodden, the Reformation, Prince Charlie, the Union of the Crowns and Parliaments, Robert Burns, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the Highland clearances, the building of the Forth Bridge, the scientific inventions, the sufferings of the first and second world wars, the building of the new towns, the opening of the new Scottish Parliament.
But there are also a lot of surprising choices – the first house (at Barns Ness), the Lewis weavers, the Darian Scheme, the first golfers and footballers, the tobacco traders, the missionaries, Sir Hugh Munro, the Gaelic renaissance, the foundation of the NHS, the Hilman Imp, the miners strike, the Edinburgh Festival. And this history is not just a male story – we meet St Margaret, the women of Flodden, the burning witches, the herring girls, Queen Victoria, Mary Slessor and Elsie Inglis.
And all of the above are weaved (appropriately enough) into a single storyline, with captions as crisp as (for panel 4) “The ice melts, Scotland emerges, the first pioneers come ” and observations as arresting as “Every Scot is an immigrant, the only interesting question is when waves of ancestors arrive.”
Andrew Crummy has also drawn the whole story together with a repeated circular design – a sweeping longboat here, engineers joining hands there. He plays with the theme of heads – heads beside or within heads, or water running out of Fingal’s cave into the form of a girl’s head. And finally the head of the thistle representing the Scottish Parliament.
It’s all so simple and yet so clever. And as I weaved (again that word) about between the panels, I felt I was in a maze of history and I wondered where I would come out. As Alistair Moffatt says beneath the final panel: “The Great Tapestry of Scotland may never end.”