Wooly Travels: The Great Tapestry of Scotland

No fiber-lover (or history-lover) can visit the Scottish Borders without making a stop in Galashiels to visit The Great Tapestry of Scotland.

To call it a tapestry is not entirely accurate. It is actually a collection of 160 separate panels that depict the rich history of Scotland in a visually stunning manner, showcasing key events, individuals, and cultural milestones. Conceived by author Alexander McCall Smith, designed by artist Andrew Crummy, and supervised by head stitcher Doris Wilkie, the project, initiated in 2010, engaged thousands of volunteers throughout Scotland who skillfully embroidered each panel.

The primary material employed for the tapestry is wool, known for its durability and vibrant color retention. Additionally, as the tapestry itself depicts on several panels, wool has been one of the main economic drivers through Scotland’s history. The use of wool allows for intricate stitching and ensures that the tapestry remains a lasting testament to Scotland’s history. The color palette is diverse, utilizing a range of natural hues to create a visually engaging and authentic representation of different historical periods. The combination of traditional craftsmanship and quality materials has resulted in a tapestry that not only narrates Scotland’s story but also stands as a testament to the skill and dedication of its creators.

Once the subject matter had been chosen and the panels designed, they were assigned to different groups to actually work the embroidery of each panel. Volunteers from various communities and backgrounds were invited to participate, ensuring a diverse representation of contributors. The selection of individuals for specific panels often considered their interests, skills, and knowledge of particular historical periods. Some participants chose panels based on personal connections to the depicted events or regions. Collaborative workshops facilitated the exchange of ideas and expertise, allowing individuals to contribute to panels that resonated with them.

In this detail from the opening panel of the Great Tapestry of Scotland, sheep and wool are literally centered, clearly emphasizing both that the work itself is a celebration of wool craft and the skills of the makers, and also pointing to the economic and historical impact that wool and wool industry have had on the history of Scotland.

This inclusive method not only ensured a broad spectrum of artistic styles but also fostered a sense of shared ownership and pride among the diverse group of contributors who collectively wove together the intricate tapestry of Scotland’s history.

The construction of the building to house The Great Tapestry of Scotland was made possible through a diverse funding approach that involved support from various entities. Government grants from cultural preservation initiatives and local authorities played a pivotal role. Cultural organizations, such as the National Heritage Lottery Fund, provided significant financial backing, recognizing the importance of showcasing Scotland’s rich history. Private donations from individuals who shared a deep appreciation for the tapestry’s cultural value also contributed substantially. Collaborative efforts between these public and private sectors, along with the active involvement of groups like Historic Environment Scotland, allowed for the successful fundraising needed to create a dedicated space for The Great Tapestry of Scotland, ensuring its accessibility to the public for generations to come.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland can be viewed (as of November 2023) from Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 am to 5 pm. There is an online booking system, but you can also purchase tickets upon arrival at the admissions desk located on the ground floor.

To the right of the ticket desk is a gift shop and entrance to accessible, “any gender” bathrooms that are each their own private room. To the left of the desk is a cafe serving light meals, snacks, and drinks that closes an hour before the building. After purchasing your admissions ticket, take the stairs or elevator to the first floor where you will be greeted by a docent who will explain how the tapestry is displayed and offer the use of magnifying glasses.

The design of panel 19, Carham, depicts members of the armies of Northumbria and Scotland as figures obscured by their weapons, creating the illusion that they are made up of the weapons.

The room is divided into seven “zones” that are reminiscent of petals. Each zone is labeled by the span of time covered by the tapestry panels within. The tapestry is hung on the walls of the display with no glass in front of it, allowing the viewer to enjoy the tapestry without worrying about the glare of the room lights obstructing the work. Each panel is accompanied by explanatory text about what the panel depicts, the name of the group who embroidered the panel with the name of all the participants, and the location of the group. Sometimes there is an additional quote from one of the makers, one of the tapestry subjects, or a person from the time period depicted to provide additional context for the piece.

Fans of embroidery, wool crafts, or history might find they need upwards of three to four hours to make their way through the Tapestry. Some will even pause their perusal to go have a break in the cafe before returning to it again. For those on a tighter schedule, the Gallery Plan pamphlet provides a list of 30 panels to look at for a more general sense of the scope of Scotland’s history. But, the author of this piece would recommend you set aside at least 2 hours.

As one engages with the Great Tapestry of Scotland, it is impossible to miss the sense of pride the stitchers have for their subject matter. As a whole, the Tapestry provides a beginner’s understanding of Scottish history. Not only are major events depicted in panels, but concepts and activities that had an impact. Football has its own panel and is referenced in others, as well essential women’s work that quite literally kept people alive and society progressing. Each panel could serve as a jumping-off point for further study.

It is official: no trip to Scotland can be considered complete without a trip to Galahiels to take in the history and artistry of The Great Tapestry of Scotland!

Panel 39, Waulking, is one of many panels that draws attention to the historical work and contributions of women.