Great Tapestry of Scotland 1-23

intro

On Sunday I finally got to see the Great Tapestry of Scotland. I was completely blown away by the vision of Alistair Moffat (who produced the tapestry’s historical content and context), Andrew Crummy (the superb artist who designed these 160 panels) and perhaps especially by the skill and beauty of the work of the thousand Scottish women and men who stitched it. It was displayed in the singularly fitting surroundings of the Anchor Mill in Paisley. The atmosphere in this wonderful space was electric. There were people of all ages there, and everyone was completely transfixed by the tapestry, and were clearly enjoying it tremendously. I heard several exclamations of delight at particular details, as well as folk sharing personal recollections in front of individual panels. Some of the panels moved me to tears, others made me laugh out loud and viewing this terrific work was a truly incredible experience.

viewing

The Great Tapestry of Scotland has a monunmental name, and it is certainly a monumental thing – but importantly, it is not in the least pompous or in any way up itself. Rather than telling the story of a nation through a top-down celebratory narrative of kings and queens and battles, it tells that story from the bottom up, in pleasingly piecemeal fashion, allowing many different identities, and many regional and linguistic differences to be included and represented. Scotland here is the sum of many different parts, and historical change is an uneven, and often deeply conflicted process. And this is a history where the folk who worked to build a bridge might be celebrated in the same terms as the engineer who designed it; where a can of Irn Bru and the King James bible might both share status as national icons. The tapestry’s 160 panels are alive with the colours of the landscape, with cultural invention, with the power of the imagination, with the emotive movement of time, with joy, wit, terror and sadness. That the panels sing so is testament both to Andrew Crummy’s wonderful designs as well as the skill and creativity of the stitchers, and I was deeply moved by the beauty and energy of the embroidery. The story of the people who stitched it is stitched up in this incredible thing, and that is certainly part of what makes it so terrific. So I think it was the tapestry’s sheer sense of shared endeavour that killed me most: that this was the best kind of collective history, created collectively. Craft and design have, I think, a unique power to bring people together in the expression and sharing of their creativity and cultural identity. In all honesty, this tapestry is the best example I’ve ever seen of how this might be so.

This blog serves several functions, one of which is as my own diary. I have thought quite hard about how to represent the tapestry to you, and to myself as well, so that, in the future, I can remember what I felt when I first saw it. I decided that the best way was, over several posts, to show you some of the details that really struck me. If you are interested in finding out more about the Great Tapestry of Scotland, two super books have been published about it. The first, a paperback by Susan Mansfield and Alistair Moffat, tells the story of the tapestry’s creation, together with the stories of the thousand Scottish women and men who were involved in its creation. The second book is a handsome (yet very reasonably priced volume) which carefully illustrates each of the tapestry’s individual panels, alongside more detailed and thorough historical information. I heartily recommend both books. And if you’d just like to look at each of the tapestry’s panels, you’ll find a wee slideshow here.

So here are some of the details I enjoyed from panels 1 through 23

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3b
Panels 3a and 3b The formation of Scotland / The collision. “Geology formed Scotland and the land and the sea formed the character of the people”

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Panel 4 Scotland emerges from the ice. Love the figures of the fisherfolk, the detail of the currach, the graded colours of the stitching.

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Panel 5: The wildwood Hare and Red Squirrel.

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7one
7two
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Panel 7: The First Farmers Wonderful textures on this panel.

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Panel 8: Brochs, Crannogs and Cairns. Scotland’s early vernacular architecture.

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Panel 9: Pytheas the Greek visits Calanais. I was particularly struck by the way the Isle of Lewis stitchers had carefully rendered the colours and textures of the banded gneiss and lichen of the Calanais stones.

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Panel 10: The coming of the legions. I love how the curls of Julius Agricola tell the story.

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Panel 11: Ninian at Whithorn. Beautiful stitching, the work of a single Dumfries needlewoman, Shirley McKeand.

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Panel 15: Dunnichen. Love the bold way that Andrew Crummy and the stitchers have here rendered the details of the famous Pictish stone.

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Panel 17: Dumbarton Rock One of many examples of how the geology represented in the tapestry afforded the stitchers an opportunity to really show off their skills. Astounding.

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Panel 20: Macbeth. Each of the tapestry’s panels includes the ‘signature’ of the stitchers who created it at the bottom right. This one, a small sampler of every stitch and every colour used in the panel was particularly striking. The panel was stitched by Sandra and Glennie Leith, Ingrid McGown, Paddy McGruer and Rhea Scott.

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Panel 22: The Flowers of the Borders. Anyone familiar with the architecture of the great Border abbeys will find the subtle pinks and greys of these stitched columns immediately evocative.

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Panel 23: the medieval wool trade. One of many panels illustrating the importance of textiles and their production to Scotland’s culture and economy.

More to come . . .

Pottering

clematis

Tom is away, working in Ireland at the moment. I really miss him, but I am distracting myself by working very hard on my YOKES, and am enjoying pottering in the garden in my spare moments.

leeks

I cannot use a spade (I have tried, and I just fall over), and we knew there was going to be a limit to what I could feasibly do this Spring in the garden in Tom’s absence. But with a couple of raised beds, a plastic lean-to, and many containers, I’m not doing so bad.

lettuce

I brought salad leaves on in the lean-to, planted them out in a raised bed and have been amazed at how well they are doing. I don’t want to speak too soon, but as yet they have remained mercifully unmolested by pests – the raised beds have a protective cordon of bark and copper tape, which has proved an effective slug deterrant. More remarkably, perhaps, the deer and rabbits have not yet taken the opportunity to chow down on my tasty crops. There are certainly rabbits and hares in abundance in our environs (I enjoy seeing the hares if I’m out on an early morning walk) but so far, there have been surprisingly few in our garden. My neighbours (who inform me that we are usually overrun with bunnies by this point in the Spring) think that Jesus (our cat) has something to do with it. He has been seen out on the prowl in the early hours, and kindly leaves headless rodents on my doorstep, as well as those of my neighbours, from time to time. If the rabbits are concerned that they or their offspring might meet the same fate, it is all to the good. But I have no idea how he is seeing off the deer.

Meanwhile, in my containers, the beans are doing their bean-thing. . .

beanpole

.. . the cabbages are looking cabbage-y . . .

cabbage

. . . beetroot is sprouting . . .

beetroot

. . .and some tatties, which my dad and I planted rather late a couple of weeks ago, are starting to appear.

tatties

There will be fruit too – raspberries and strawberries.

strawberry

. . . and there are tiny gooseberries on the tiny gooseberry bush!

gooseberry

Yesterday I took the squash and courgettes from the lean-to and planted them out in 10 litre pots to see how they do.

squash

If I see a spare space in a container I pop in a petunia. . .

petunia

. . .and the back of the garden has presented me with other, unexpected floral delights.

iris

But what I seem to have most of are tomatoes. I started growing them from seed in the bathroom several months ago and their flowers and trusses are now starting to appear.

tomatoflower

The lean-to is now taken up with eight very vigorous tomato plants, and I have probably twice that number rotating in and around the house. My mum ventured yesterday evening that I might have grown too many tomatoes.

What do you think?

manytomatoes

Please to note the housemartin, to the right of the photo, on its way to its nest under our eaves. Their nests are beautifully compact and sturdy and I love to hear them chit-chattering above my head when I’m sitting outside knitting at the back of the house. Last year, when the housemartins had finished with their nests, a few were occupied by late broods of swallows. Will that happen again this year?

Every day, in one way or another, I am grateful to be living here.

The Kelpies

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My parents have been visiting, and I thought they might like to see The Kelpies. A few years ago we rather enjoyed visiting Jaume Plensa’s Dream, a meditative and beautiful public sculpture commemorating Lancashire’s mining past. Like Plensa’s Dream, The Kelpies celebrate industrial heritage, but are things of water rather than of light. Kelpies are mythical Scottish water beasts, generally malevolent in nature, and able to assume many different forms. The Loch Ness “monster” should perhaps be more accurately described as a kelpie, and in Scottish song, art and literature, kelpies most often take the shape of a horse.

horse

Taking the fabled creature as a starting point, Glasgow sculptor, Andy Scott has constructed a new mythology for the kelpie — one with a refreshingly specific sense of place, and history. Directly inspired by two local Clydesdale horses – Duke and Baron – Scott’s Kelpies celebrate the beasts who once pulled ploughs, carts and barges — effectively powering the industrial revolution in central Scotland through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries.

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Scott’s Kelpies have been constructed at the basin of the Forth and Clyde canal, near Falkirk. Long before the development of railways and motorways, this important waterway enabled the transportation of finished goods and raw materials between Scotland’s industrial heartland and its ports. First constructed in 1790, it fell into decline in the middle of the last century. But its recent re-opening now enables continuous passage by water between Scotland’s East and West coasts.

canalandsteel

Scott’s Kelpies are constructed from an industrial material – steel – but when the light hits them they also seem to be made of water: rising and straining, sodden and dripping, from the basin of the canal.

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While celebrating the energy and might of Scottish industry, the Kelpies represent, in themselves, a remarkable feat of industrial engineering. Each of the 990 plates that make up the two Kelpies steel “skin” is distinct and different – our guide described them as “snowflakes.” This short time-lapse film documents the process of their construction, and, when you visit, you can examine their incredible structure from the inside.

inside

The Kelpies stand over 30 metres high, and are certainly majestic. Yet to me, it is not their size, but Scott’s very precise sense of detail and characterisation that impresses most: the flared nostrils, the flickering ears, the individual muscularity and movement. Detail at this scale somehow lends these monumental objects an immediacy that is deeply emotive.

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nostril

Andy Scott says: “I see The Kelpies as a personification of local and national equine history, of the lost industries of Scotland. I also envisage them as a symbol of modern Scotland – proud and majestic, of the people and the land.” Probably the best thing about the Kelpies, it seems to me, is that they are the focal point of what seems to be a modern and genuinely public space: a landscape that, with its new network of trails, cycle paths and waterways, once again has a practical function for the folk of Falkirk and beyond.

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My Mum and Dad and I all enjoyed our visit, and would highly recommend the very reasonably priced tour, as well as our knowledgable and enthusiastic guide, David.

garden days

pots

One of the saddest things I had to do in the months following my stroke was to give up our Edinburgh allotment. I simply did not have the strength and energy to maintain a garden, and since then I have rather missed growing things. Our new home has lots of outdoor space, and happily I have more energy and strength (though I have to leave the digging and hauling stuff about to Tom). This is the first time we have had a garden of our own and we are really enjoying it.

shed

Looking North and West from the top of the garden you can see Ben Lomond. The West Highland Way is just behind us, and you often hear the clink of the gate and the voices of walkers and cyclists as they pass. Away down the garden and past the house to the South there is the loch, and woods, in which, today, the first cuckoo of Spring was singing. It is a grand spot. I am trying not to be too ambitious with the planting this first year, and we are mostly growing things in pots and a couple of raised beds (which Tom is currently digging out). I have also put up a lean-to next to the shed, where I am bringing on the plants I started indoors.

salad

There will be salad leaves and herbs and tomatoes. I am very fond of sweet peas, and have planted several varieties, the shoots of which are currently colonising the bathroom. The other day, I found a few forget-me-nots behind the shed and potted them on.

forgetmenot

. . . and things in other pots are flowering

droplet

cowslip

There is blossom on the exciting spiny shrub that I’ve now been told is an ornamental quince (thanks, Lynn and Miriana!)

crabapple

Time for tea.

bench

basket

How very nice it is to be able to grow a few things and have this space to potter about in.

Þingvellir

Þingvellir3

About 30 miles North East of Reykjavik is Þingvellir National Park. Here there are many visible signs of volcanic activity within the past two millenia.

Þingvellirrock

The park crosses a rift valley separating the Continental plates of Europe and America. These tectonic plates are now steadily pulling apart, at a rate of about an inch a year.

Þingvellirrift

But this is not only a spectacular spot, of immense geological significance. Þingvellir is the locale of Iceland’s ancient parliament – the AlÞing, or plains of the people – one of the world’s oldest extant political institutions.

Þingvellir1

Here Iceland’s settlers established what is known as the “Old Commonwealth” in 930, and the commonwealth’s general assemblies (which anyone could attend) were held at Þingvellir annually between then and 1262. Indeed, through all of Iceland’s constitutional changes during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, Þingvellir remained the official space of assembly for the Icelandic people until 1798. I confess to being something of a Commonwealth nerd: much of my Phd research and first book explored women’s attachment to this noble political ideal from the English Republic to the early years of the American Revolution. I also have a thing for outdoor assembly spaces: indeed, my favourite spot on earth is one. I found Þingvellir an incredibly impressive and deeply moving place to be.

Þingvellir2

Here there are no monuments, no palaces, no relics of individual wealth or power. Across the valley stands a modest church, similar in form to many Icelandic churches.

Þingvellir5

The power here derives from the landscape itself, and from the knowledge that this is a place that for over a thousand years, has played an important role in the lives of all Icelandic people. During the first Commonwealth, Þingvellir was not only the spot where political decisions were made and laws passed, but also a locale of celebration and festival for the majority of ordinary folk. Centrally located to be accessed by a ride of no more than a couple of weeks, scattered family members met once a year; friends shared the news from their respective regions; and young men and women might lay eyes on future partners. Þingvellir has always played a central role in the cultural life of the Icelandic nation.

1930
(celebrating Þingvellir’s thousandth anniversary in 1930)
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(celebrating independence at Þingvellir in 1944)

There are many things I found vaguely utopian about Iceland: it is certainly a paradise for anyone who loves knitting or the great outdoors; a recent World Economic Foundation report ranked it top of all nations for gender equality and here LGBT couples are accorded the same rights to marriage, surrogacy, and adoption as their straight counterparts. But for me this site of ancient democracy — a rift in the earth where an entire nation might gather in a spirit of collective self-determination — is the most utopian thing of all.

LANDSCAPE

ást

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seljalandfoss1

mel

basalt

thufur

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seljalandsfossme

I am home! I sort of knew I would like Iceland, but I was not prepared to be totally blown away. Due to my annoying health issues, we did not quite accomplish everything we’d set out to, but we met some lovely people, learned much more about Icelandic wool and textiles, and gained a taste of a truly incredible landscape and culture that makes me immediately want to return. I think I might have to do just that. I’m processing my photographs and will show you more very soon!

some Spring weather

homestead

It is a lovely time of year, and, as the weather starts to change I am really appreciating our new situation. Our house is in the middle of the photo above – one of five properties on a small steading, situated at about 250m above sea level. In front of the steading, to the South, the land dips away to a small lochan. To the North, East and West, we are surrounded by hills and woods. After living in a city, when one steps outside, the space here sometimes feels immense to me, but because of our location, there is also the interesting sensation of being cradled in the landscape, a dip in the earth sheltered by a canopy of sky. Yesterday I took a walk around the loch with Bruce, and felt this very distinctly. The arc of this rainbow shifted round the landscape with me, curving over the steading and seeming to somehow illuminate it.

daffs
On my daily walks I see the landscape slowly coming back to life. Birds sing in the early hours, daffodils have taken the place of the snowdrops, and last week I saw the first caterpillars and frogs of the year.

caterpillar

Golden flowers are appearing on the gorse, the ultimate sign of a Scottish spring for me.

coneandgorse

The Spring weather has almost made up for the fact that I spent last week at home, with a poorly Bruce, rather than in Shetland, where I was, in fact, supposed to be.

cone

Worry not, friends of Bruce: he is doing fine. The cone is a wee bit tiresome for everyone, but his snout is healing, and we will be back at the vets this afternoon.

The Spring light has also given me a chance to photograph the steeked design I mentioned in my last post. It is a garment for a man, and will be released as part of a new collaboration with my good friend and colleague Jen Arnall-Culliford. I’m very much looking forward to telling you all about it next week! It is a time for new releases all round, in fact, as various things are due to arrive next Monday which I’ve been keeping under my hat for some months, but am very keen to show you. (Apologies for all of the mystery, but soon all will be revealed.)

Right, the sun has come out and it is time for another walk with Bruce. Enjoy your Monday, everyone!

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