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The Great Tapestry of Scotland

The Threads Of History

The Great Tapestry of Scotland, soon to be the longest in the world, is just the colorful
tip of a national tapestry renaissance.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

You could call it a stitch in deep time. In a studio in the coastal town of Cockenzie, East Lothian, a few miles outside Edinburgh, a dozen or so middle-aged ladies are clustered enthusiastically around two large embroidered cloth panels, each stitched with a circular, stylized landscape bearing the names of some of Scotland's most ancient rocks: Torridonian, Lewissian, Dalradian.... Embroidered around these images is the enigmatic declaration: "No vestige of a beginning...no prospect of an end."

The words are those of James Hutton, the 18th-century Scottish "father of geology," whose Theory of the Earth, published in 1788, gave us our first glimpse of the breathtaking immensity of geological time. Hutton is just one of many eminent Scots, as well as significant episodes in Scotland's history, embroidered into The Great Tapestry of Scotland. This extraordinary feat of community art is due to be unveiled at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh this September and, at 140 metres long (nearly 460 feet), is among the longest tapestries anywhere, far out-stretching the world's best-known example, the 70-metre Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy, France.

Work on the 120-plus panels of The Great Tapestry began in September last year when Patricia Marwick, Presiding Officer at the Scottish Parliament, formally inserted the first stitch. Since then, around 1,000 mainly amateur stitchers throughout Scotland have put in some 50,000 sewing hours on the project -- the equivalent, we are assured, of one person sewing 24 hours a day for six years. And while that tapestry is due to be exhibited at the Scottish Parliament as this issue of Scottish Life leaves the press, another major embroidery project, The Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, is well underway -- also community led, but in this case spanning the globe and due for completion by the beginning of next year to coincide with Scotland's "Homecoming 2014" celebrations. While separate projects, both tapestries are under the creative directorship of the Cockenzie-based community artist Andrew Crummy, in whose studio just a few of this legion of stitchers are gathered during my visit.

It may be excessive to talk in terms of a Scottish tapestry boom, but things are certainly happening here in the worlds of embroidery and weaving.

The full text of this article is available in the Autumn 2013 issue of Scottish Life.

Click here to preview our feature article on Scotland, 500 B.C. by Terry Williams.

Click here to preview our column on The Highland Bagpipe by Gary West.

Click here to preview our Notes From The Isles column by Kate Francis

Click here to preview our reviews of Scottish Books.