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 I was completely blown away by the vision of Alistair Moffat (who produced the tapestry’s historical content and context), Andrew Crummy (the superb artist who designed these 160 panels) and perhaps especially by the skill and beauty of the work of the thousand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

3a
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”

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

5one
5two
Panel 5: The wildwood Hare and Red Squirrel.

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

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

9one
9two
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.

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

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

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

17
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.

20
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.

22
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.

23
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 . . .

Images of knitting – 2

sunlightsoap

Here are a couple more postcards from my collection. Strictly speaking, these are reproductions of advertisments, but I am particularly fond of the Sunlight Soap image which, as you can see, has been pinned on my board for some time. I find it interesting for the way it represents knitting as a leisure activity, rather than as a part of women’s domestic labour. Washing is textile-related work for this nostalgically mop-capped woman, but the activity of hand-knitting is situated firmly in the category of “rest and leisure”. Since Sunlight has made the washing quick and easy, she can relax happily with her yarn and needles. This is interesting because, in other contexts at around the same time, hand-knitting was work and could easily be associated, in very different ways, with ideas of women’s labour. But quite apart from the questions it raises about what-is-work and what-is-not for women, I also like many things about the design of this advertisment – the giant ball of yarn in the foreground; the brilliantly white sheets waving gaily in the landscape; the knitter’s sense of contemplation; and the strong, bright colours of the image.

saymcvitties

This advertisment — in which Jeanie and Jimmy are about to make a terrible mess on the carpet while playing sit-up-and-beg with a giant tin of digestives — is rather different. The yarn and needles are incidental to the scene, and seem to be there to give middle-class mother something to do, or perhaps to calm her nerves before she contemplates getting the dustpan and brush out. She stares at her offspring’s biscuity activities with a rictus grin which seems to say “put the tin back in the kitchen where it belongs, you wee shites.” Quite apart from the crumb-related horror that is about to unfold, the association of digestives with dog biscuits is not one you’d imagine Mc Vities wanting to cultivate. Extraordinary.

I love reading your thoughts about these images — perhaps particularly when you disagree with me — so all comments are very welcome.

In other news, I have a couple of designs to release! More about that tomorrow.

Taking stock

After a rather tricky few weeks, I’ve had some time to think, and to reflect on where things stand for me, healthwise and workwise. It is fair to say that I am really very busy at the moment — far too busy for things not to become difficult when I’m not feeling my best. So, after taking some advice, I’ve decided, with considerable regret, to step back from many fun projects I’d agreed to be involved in, including all events, talks, and teaching for the coming year. This means, for example, that I won’t be attending Woolfest, or Shetland Wool Week as I’d planned. I’m very sorry about this, but am sure you will all understand. Staying on an even keel has to take priority and I’m hoping this decision will enable this to happen.

Washing Day

I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments about Steamies. So many interesting snapshots of women’s lives – so different, but all connected by the necessary business of laundry! I was very struck by how so many of your comments were written from a child’s perspective: an outsider, while the bustling work of women went on around you. This reminded me of Anna Laetita Barbauld’s poem Washing Day, which I thought I’d reproduce here for those of you who don’t know it.

For many years, I did not get on with this poem. I felt that it was in some way responsible for the pigeonholing of eighteenth-century women as domestic writers. I disliked its ‘prattling’ muse, and I disliked the fact that it was about, of all things washing – how very inconsequential! Barbauld is a tremendous writer, and I felt strongly that she needed to be known more for her political works. After all, any woman who could write a pamphlet with the title Sins of the Government, Sins of the Nation deserved to be taken seriously. But, after a decade or so immersed in the Eighteenth Century, my thoughts about this poem totally changed – not coincidentally, around the same time that I started knitting again. I realised that Washing Day was a brilliant poem, with all of Barbauld’s brilliance, on a subject that was no less worthy of attention than the many other topics she tackled in her writing. The poem itself was not to blame for the pigeonholing of eighteenth-century women writers — rather, that was the fault of several generations of male academics and editors. The beginning of the poem is mock-epic in tone, but I don’t think that this trivialises its subject matter in the least. I love its material, textile details: the wet sheets on the line; the grandmother in the process of knitting a stocking. It is an important poem for being written from a child’s perspective, as well as for its descriptions of women’s work and household routines. And I really think that, in the last few lines, the transformation of the child’s soap bubble into the Montgolfier hot-air balloon – before the poem itself goes POP and disappears – is one of the most gobsmacking, imaginatively defining, moments of eighteenth-century poetry. I hope you enjoy it.

Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Washing Day (1797)

The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost
The buskin’d step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come, then, domestic Muse,
In slip-shod measure loosely prattling on
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or drowning flies, or shoe lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face;
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded Washing-Day.
–Ye who beneath the yoke of wedlock bend,
With bowed soul, full well ye ken the day
Which week, smooth sliding after week, brings on
Too soon; for to that day nor peace belongs
Nor comfort; ere the first grey streak of dawn,
The red-arm’d washers come and chase repose.
Nor pleasant smile, nor quaint device of mirth,
E’er visited that day: the very cat,
From the wet kitchen scared, and reeking hearth,
Visits the parlour, an unwonted guest.
The silent breakfast-meal is soon dispatch’d
Uninterrupted, save by anxious looks
Cast at the lowering sky, if sky should lower.
From that last evil, oh preserve us, heavens!
For should the skies pour down, adieu to all
Remains of quiet; then expect to hear
Of sad disasters–dirt and gravel stains
Hard to efface, and loaded lines at once
Snapped short–and linen-horse by dog thrown down,
And all the petty miseries of life.
Saints have been calm while stretched upon the rack,
And Guatimozin smil’d on burning coals;
But never yet did housewife notable
Greet with a smile a rainy washing-day.
–But grant the welkin fair, require not thou
Who call’st thyself perchance the master there,
Or study swept, or nicely dusted coat,
Or usual ‘tendance; ask not, indiscreet,
Thy stockings mended, tho’ the yawning rents
Gape wide as Erebus, nor hope to find
Some snug recess impervious: should’st thou try
The ‘customed garden walks, thine eye shall rue
The budding fragrance of thy tender shrubs,
Myrtle or rose, all crushed beneath the weight
Of coarse check’d apron, with impatient hand
Twitch’d off when showers impend: or crossing lines
Shall mar thy musings, as the wet cold sheet
Flaps in thy face abrupt. Woe to the friend
Whose evil stars have urged him forth to claim
On such a day the hospitable rites;
Looks, blank at best, and stinted courtesy,
Shall he receive. Vainly he feeds his hopes
With dinner of roast chicken, savoury pie,
Or tart or pudding:–pudding he nor tart
That day shall eat; nor, tho’ the husband try,
Mending what can’t be help’d, to kindle mirth
From cheer deficient, shall his consort’s brow
Clear up propitious; the unlucky guest
In silence dines, and early slinks away.
I well remember, when a child, the awe
This day struck into me; for then the maids,
I scarce knew why, looked cross, and drove me from them;
Nor soft caress could I obtain, nor hope
Usual indulgencies; jelly or creams,
Relique of costly suppers, and set by
For me their petted one; or butter’d toast,
When butter was forbid; or thrilling tale
Of ghost, or witch, or murder–so I went
And shelter’d me beside the parlour fire:
There my dear grandmother, eldest of forms,
Tended the little ones, and watched from harm,
Anxiously fond, tho’ oft her spectacles
With elfin cunning hid, and oft the pins
Drawn from her ravell’d stocking, might have sour’d
One less indulgent.–
At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,
Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,
All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,
To fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.
Then would I sit me down, and ponder much
Why washings were. Sometimes thro’ hollow bowl
Of pipe amused we blew, and sent aloft
The floating bubbles, little dreaming then
To see, Mongolfier, thy silken ball
Ride buoyant through the clouds–so near approach
The sports of children and the toils of men.
Earth, air, and sky, and ocean, hath its bubbles,
And verse is one of them–this most of all.


(Antonio Carnicero Y Mancio, Ascent of the Montgolfier Balloon in the Gardens of Aranjuez, 1784)

September

It is is a lovely time of year.

of fruits . . .

. . . seedheads . . .



. . . and turning leaves.


Jesus seems even more than ordinarily contemplative. . .

. . . and Bruce enjoys sampling the Autumnal undergrowth. . .

For academics as well as students, this is back-to-school season – the moment when one puts away one’s research (one has never done quite enough), begins to prepare new lectures (groan), and faces the busy realities of a new semester. For me, this also meant hideously long days, commuting in the dark, and rarely ever getting outside to enjoy what I like most about this time of year. But this September is different: I shall continue my research and writing (huzzah) and I shall walk with my dog in the woods every day (an even louder huzzah). I no longer have the job or the commute. . . but I do have the boxes.

Forty-nine large boxes to be exact. They contain my books, which have just been sent up from my office in Newcastle. They are currently blocking the stairwell of our building because there is no room for them in our flat (which is full to bursting with my books already). Could anybody recommend a good bookseller who might be interested in purchasing a large collection of eighteenth-century literature, history, and criticism? I am completely serious. American revolutionary history and women’s writing a speciality. Anyway, I’m going to be offline for a few days while I sort through the contents of the boxes of doom. . .

podtabulous!


I can’t quite believe I’m writing a post about interior decor (really, folks, my home is not all that) . . .but I confess that I am very pleased with the pod’s new posh paint job, and with my revitalised workspace, so here are a few details.


The walls are painted with “Skimming Stone”. We used this same shade when redecorating our bedroom last year (I have a habit of getting paint for my birthday), and at that time had lengthy discussions about the different qualities of Farrow and Ball’s neutrals, which their colour card (lovely as it is) does not convey. Both of us were initially very keen to cover our walls with “Elephant’s Breath”, but when we swatched, it turned out to be the mucky grey-ey brown that its name perhaps suggests. “Skimming Stone” has a warmth, a clarity, and a quietness to it. You can see this, I think, on some of the interior shots I’ve taken in our bedroom – for example here and here. I think it is a neutral that does great things with whatever light there is.

The woodwork, chair, and some of the shelves, are painted with “Pigeon.” I heart pigeon! A few years ago I was doing some research for a piece about dolls which took me to Mary King’s Close, where I got to pop inside some of the spaces in the buried tenements that are not open to the public. Pigeon, to me, is the colour of those hidden rooms.

It is very hard to photograph the pod, because it is so damned small, but this shot gives you a reasonable sense of the Skimming Stone Walls, with a Pigeon-coloured bookcase at the bottom edge of the pic.


The light is coming from a gigantic wall-mounted lamp that, in lieu of a window, blasts out 10000 lux to prevent the pod from feeling too much like the storage cupboard it really is. The prints depict my locale, and its fisherfolk, a century and a half ago. The fishy theme continues elsewhere on the walls . . .


(this winsome lassie is a fashion plate from the moment when there was a brief trend in fishwife chic, following the International Fisheries Exhibitions of the late 1890s)

. . . on the desk

(a happy ebay find)

. . . and on my new pinboard, for swatches and design ideas.

Above the desk is a framed print of Caspar Netscher’s Lacemaker, which I’ve had for many years.

I’ve read a few fairly standard readings about gender and virtue &c &c in this painting, but what I really like about it is its Chinese-box quality: she is sat in a small box-like space, contemplatively engaged in detailed textile work; Netscher (a superlative painter of textiles if ever there was one), is similarly engaged, and I, sat at my desk in my pod, am too. I love the heavy woolliness of her woollen skirt and bodice, and the detail of her cap just about kills me – perhaps not least because I own a dress whose fabric is curiously reminiscent of it.

Well, that’s all you get to see of the pod today. But lest you think that I’ve gone all ideal home on you or summat, and since all Tuesdays are messy ones round here, I present to you some details from the rooms which are not neat and freshly painted.


Tea stains and dog hair perfectly set off an Orla Kiely radio. . .


Dust gathering in picturesque fashion against Farrow and Ball paintwork


Paint covered overalls that are yet to be dealt with . . . .

. . . and finally, and most messy of all, a terrifying discovery among the pod’s accumulated detritus

me, in 1992.

a pod of one’s own

We live in a typical, late-Victorian, Edinburgh tenement. It has high ceilings, and the rooms are reasonably sized, but there are not many of them. Most of the other flats in our building have an extra room which has been created by the division of the kitchen into two. But we kept the large kitchen, and took the unusual step of making a room in what most folk would regard as a cupboard. This room – known as ‘the pod’ – is the size of a single bed. Above head height is a stash of yarn and fabric and half of my (seasonally-rotating) wardrobe. Down below there are print-covered walls and book-covered shelves, a desk, a chair, and a computer. As it is small and windowless, there are no distractions: the pod has seen the thrashing out of many ideas and is a really good thinking space. It is also posessed of mysterious tardis-like properties — we have actually managed to fit a (small) sleeping guest in it, and, if there is something that we want to to watch on the iplayer, Tom and I and my knitting all get in it together (though things become tight when the animals want to join in). I wrote a book in the pod, and this blog, as well as all of my knitting designs are produced from inside it. It probably sounds a little peculiar to say that this tiny, windowless box is my favorite room–but it really is.

The pod has been a sort of faded-mid-blue colour for several years (we did what everyone does when they buy their first place, and painted every room a different shade). You can get a reasonable sense of the colour of the walls (as well as of the teetering terror of the upper shelves) from the picture in this post. (Were marvelous Messy Tuesdays really three years ago? Perhaps it is time to revive them.) Anyway, I have wanted to freshen up the pod up for a while, and particularly so now that my change of employment circumstances is imminent. My delayed birthday present was some paint from Farrow and Ball and we have spent the past couple of days sorting things out, and redecorating.

Sorting through things one has gathered generally prompts reflection, and this was certainly the case yesterday as I rearranged my shelves. As you might imagine, I am an inveterate buyer and hoarder of books. Now, in my mind, there has not been much buying and hoarding over the past couple of years, because I have had a stroke, but the contents of my bookcases show how far this is from being the case. Imperceptibly, a change has taken place. Rather than lots of books about eighteenth-century American politics, there is now a whole shelf of books about Scotland, and another one dedicated to the history and representation of the Scottish fishing industry. The woollen trade has its own area, and who knew that I had acquired so many of the pleasingingly idiosyncratic volumes published under the Shire imprint? I also seem to own everything that came off the Dryad or Odhams presses, and there are a disturbing number of gigantic tomes about fashion illustration and design. On another shelf, there are neuroscience textbooks, alongside memoirs of those who have suffered stroke, Parkinsons, and other conditions. Oliver Sacks has his own space, too, as I have, with increasing distaste, been working my way through his annoying essays with a view to writing about him at some point. (I regard Sacks in much the same way as my former colleague, Tom Shakespeare, memorably describes him: “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”)

I wrote a little glumly not so long ago about facing the fact that I was no longer an academic. But what my bookshelves reveal is that — as many of you pointed out in your comments at the time — I clearly couldn’t stop being one if I tried. I have many interests, and I love transforming the things that I am interested in into other things — words, photographs, sweaters. I no longer have an institutional context, and I am also considerably poorer than I was. Donuts are not everything, though: I still have a brain that works, a whole lot of ideas, and a pod of my own in which these ideas can take whatever shape I choose. I will never be happy about having had a stroke; about having to deal with its debilitating, chronic consequences; or about having to leave a job that, despite the many horrors of the ‘current climate’, I genuinely enjoyed. Yet I very much doubt that the working environment of UK Universities PLC was what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she wrote about the hopeful prospect of women’s intellectual and creative independence in 1929. Perhaps, with a couple of years hindsight, I will be glad that I no longer have to implement national and institutional policy decisions with which I do not agree, and produce research ‘outputs’ so formally, always with an eye to the next assessment deadline.

In any case, re-painting the pod was an extremely good move. We are still working on the finishing touches (prints need hanging, the computer is not set up and, most unusually, I am writing this from the living room). Perhaps I’ll show you some photographs tomorrow.

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