Great Tapestry of Scotland to go on show at its own gallery for first time

By Libby Brooks

Beginning at the glacial formation of mountains and glens more than 420m years ago, spanning from the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 to the reconvening of the Holyrood parliament in 1999, up to Andy Murray’s Wimbledon victory of 2013, the Great Tapestry of Scotland – an ambitious project to render the nation’s story from pre-history to modern times – can be viewed for the first time in its new and permanent home from next week.

Comprising 160 panels – finely stitched, vividly colourful and animated with detail – it is thought to be one of the longest tapestries in the world, at 143 metres – 70 metres longer than the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy. Now hung in a purpose-built gallery in Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders, the panel were created by 1,000 volunteer stitchers from across the country working with more than 300 miles of wool over two years.

The tapestry initially toured Scotland on its completion in 2013, but this is this first time is has enjoyed a permanent display, in a gallery equipped with specialist lighting, temperature control and screening from direct sunlight.

A close-up view of part of the tapestry
A close-up view of part of the tapestry. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

The brainchild of the bestselling detective novelist Alexander McCall Smith, the tapestry was designed by the artist Andrew Crummy, and based on a narrative written by Scottish Borders-based writer and historian Alistair Moffat.

“When the idea was first hatched, there was no question of what cost or where it would go, it was just: let’s do it,” McCall Smith said. “So it’s a bit of a miracle and a wonderful tribute to all the people who worked so hard on it to see it in its new home. It is beautiful seeing it as a continuous work, and reading it as you walk along.”

The inclusion of relatively recent events in the panels was important, he said. “People don’t think of history as still happening, so when they see things they have experienced themselves put into the historical sweep, that contextualises those events.”

The tapestry on display in Galashiels
The tapestry is going on display in Galashiels. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

As coordinator of the stitching team, Dorie Wilkie knows the challenges presented by the scale of such a work. “Whether it’s samplers or antimacassars, embroideries tend to be small and in cross-stitch, but here you have human heads a quarter metre in size and we have used all the stitches in the alphabet.”

Unusually for a piece of embroidery, the makers of these tapestry panels can be identified. “In the past, you never knew who had embroidered a thing, so we made a point of encouraging stitchers to sign their work in some form, with their name or a design representing where they live.”

On first viewing the tapestry, visitors are struck most by the colours and textures involved, Wilkie said. “People involuntarily want to touch and stroke the panels. Every time I look at it I see something else, it’s full of surprises.”