A big story told at great length. Good Housekeeping Magazine

There have always been two ways of telling a story – through words or through pictures. Gathered round the fire, early men and women must have regaled one another with stories of deeds of courage in the face of danger. No doubt there were songs, too, as music always makes a story easier to remember and to pass on. But at a fairly early stage of our development, our ancestors seem to have tumbled to the idea of using pictures to record their hunting exploits. Cave paintings, found in very differing cultures all over the world, testify to the power of the painted image to record the details of the hunt or other important aspects of human life. Those stories remain on rock surfaces to this day, linking us with that difficult-to-imagine life thousands of years ago. Looking at them today, their message makes itself known across the ages – a tiny persistent echo of great hunts and battles, of struggles to survive in a hostile and frightening world.
Those cave paintings were the beginning. By the dawn of the modern age, the role of pictorial narratives was firmly established. The Bayeux Tapestry, that magnificent record of the Norman invasion of England, represents one of the earliest extant examples of art that tells a story in a sequence of images. From there it is but a small step to the first comic strips, and on to the contemporary graphic novel, where pictures are used to tell an unfolding story. This persistence of the narrative image tells us something important about ourselves: we love seeing our story told in a sequence of pictures.
Just over two years ago I was reminded of this when I went to see an exhibition in Edinburgh of a tapestry telling the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ultimately ill-fated trip to Scotland to recover his father’s throne. I was not prepared for what I saw. I had heard good reports of this tapestry – known as the Prestonpans Tapestry – but I had no idea of the sheer impact it would have on me. As I walked past its panels, I became completely engaged in the story it was telling. I already knew that tale, of course, but what impressed me so much was the effect of seeing it in tapestry form (even if it was not, strictly speaking, woven tapestry but was embroidered needlework on linen). It was impossible, I thought, not to engage emotionally with the tale that the beautifully-designed panels told; it was impossible to be indifferent to the artistic vision of Andrew Crummy, the man whose drawings formed the basis of the tapestry. I was hooked.
When I reached the end of the tapestry I found myself face-to-face with the artist, who happened to be in the gallery at the time. I told him how much I admired what he had done, and he replied modestly. But even as we spoke, the kernel of an idea was forming in my mind. Why not do another tapestry – not one dealing just with Jacobite rebellion but with the whole history of Scotland? And why not make it the longest tapestry in the world?
It was a mad idea, but an irresistible one. That evening I telephoned the artist and asked him whether he would be interested in designing a tapestry that covered the history of Scotland from the beginning to more or less the present day. He answered without hesitation. He would be happy to do that.
I swallowed hard. We had started – and without any feasibility studies or consultative process – in other words, in the good old-fashioned way in which things used to be done. I telephoned various friends including the broadcaster, James Naughtie, and the historian, Alistair Moffat. Would they be interested in joining me as trustees of the project? Again they accepted without the slightest hesitation. Several other trustees similarly accepted office without delay. The project was launched.
But what would the tapestry show? It is all very well talking about the whole sweep of Scottish history, but a country’s story can be a minefield when it comes to selecting what should be included and what should not. One thing was clear: people are no longer interested in history solely as a progression of kings and queens. The history that engages people today is the history that reveals the day-to-day life of ordinary people – not just of those who were in positions of power or privilege.
The choice was made. The tapestry would include over one hundred and forty panels, each a metre square, which would show not only the major events of Scotland’s history – wars and disasters featured prominently in that list – but also the achievements and inventions, the triumphs, the hardships; times of sadness, times of joy. Now it was a question of making the tapestry.
A call went out for volunteer stitchers. Over one thousand people answered, some experienced and some complete novices. Under the expert guidance of Dorie Wilkie, groups of stitchers up and down Scotland started work on the panels designed by the artist. It was a labour of love, taking hundreds of hours for each panel, but at the end of the day not only did we end up with entrancingly beautiful panels, but countless new friendships had been born in the stitching groups. It had been the largest community arts project Scotland had ever seen.
So now we have the longest – and I would say the most beautiful – tapestry in the world. Over the past year it has been touring Scotland, spending weeks at a time in various halls throughout the country. The public reaction has been extraordinarily enthusiastic: I have seen people standing before various panels that meant something to them, weeping with emotion: people get emotional about their history and their place in the world. The whole project has been infused with love.
A permanent home is planned for the tapestry in the Borders region of Scotland. This is a part of the country closely associated with textiles, and so it is an appropriate place for the display of this astonishing work of art, showing not only the history of Scotland, but the love that people have for the country. And why not? There is nothing to be ashamed of in loving a place and the people who live there – loving it enough to spend many hours recording its history in yarns, just as those fingers, so long ago, picked out that story now to be seen at Bayeux.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland
The next exhibition will be held in Ayr Town Hall from 4 April – 31 May 2015

From the Library – Orkney Library talks to the Scottish Review of Books

In Celebration of Libraries Week 2017, Scottish Review of Books talks to Louise Graham and the staff of Orkney Library about what makes their library tick

A Year of Spark - Bold Publishing Programme to mark the Centenary of Muriel Spark's birth

2018 is the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth. One of the great writers of the 20th century, all 22 of her novels will be re-published by Polygon in a bold publishing move, A Year of Spark.

Independent Bookshops - Alexander McCall Smith

In the run up to Bookshop Day – 7 October 2017 – Alexander McCall Smith talks about the joy to be found within your local bookshop.