Scotland

Scots around the world celebrate heritage in tapestry

  • 15 February 2014
  • From the section Scotland
Image caption Stitchers from the town of Veere in the Netherlands with some of the panels they have created. It has strong historical links with Scotland

Whisky, haggis, the poetry of Burns; Scotland's cultural exports are well known, but Scotland has long exported people too. They went not only to the likes of the US, Canada and New Zealand but to all corners of the globe, from Sweden to Argentina.

Some of those communities have been hard at work stitching panels which will go to make up the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry. The project is supported by this year's Homecoming Scotland.

The tapestry will be premiered in Prestonpans at the end of May during the Three Harbours Arts Festival, but panels are now beginning to arrive from all over the world for assembling.

Image caption Barga describes itself as the most Scottish town in Italy

"Oh it's exciting, it's like Christmas," says Yvonne Murphy, stitching co-ordinator for the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, as she explains what it feels like to opens up the parcels of tapestry panels.

This project had its roots in the success of another tapestry conceived in the town, depicting the story of the Battle of Prestonpans. The idea now is for diaspora communities across the globe to tell their stories.

The finished piece will include 150-160 panels from 25 countries. Each panel takes at least 200 hours to stitch.

There are a range of abilities taking part, from very experienced stitchers to novices. One man had never really done any embroidery before and yet he completed his panel within a month, while others have been sewing for decades.

Image caption A Canadian panel telling the story of Scots who left home and settled on the other side of the Atlantic

"By the time all that work and all that love really has gone into their piece, it does come alive," explains Ms Murphy.

"This is a global community project. It's about taking part in the project and being proud of your story and your connection to Scotland."

Millions across the globe lay claim to some degree of Scottish ancestry. Not all the panels are of grand stories but some are much quieter tales of lives lived and an enduring connection to Scotland.

The tapestry also includes the 'reverse diaspora,' featuring Italian and Asian communities who have settled here.

Image caption This Dutch panel celebrates links between Scotland and the Low Countries

"Every family in Scotland will have a diaspora story," says artist Andrew Crummy. He has used the communities' stories to design an outline for each panel. It was then traced onto linen ready to be sewn.

"The number of Scots that have travelled abroad from pedlars, to merchants to mercenaries, industrialists, to farmers, to labourers, to married women to whatever," continues Mr Crummy.

"The stories and how they've engaged and not engaged with communities, you know there is a dark side to the Scottish diaspora as well, but it's generally how the Scots have travelled and gone to every corner of the world.

"There are stories out there generally that most Scots don't know about. It has been a huge learning curve for me."

Image caption An Australian panel featuring Lachlan MacQuarrie, who has been described as the "Father of Australia"

The sewing for the tapestry has been or is being done in diverse places including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Argentina, China, England and the Netherlands.

In the southern Dutch town of Veere, 25 volunteers have been producing a series of panels to recognise a shared history which encompasses a royal marriage, the wool trade and at one time a thriving Scottish community with their own church and style of houses.

Scottish soldiers were also involved in liberating this part of the Netherlands after the Second World War.

"We would like to keep the history living," says Hanneke De Vroe of the Museum De Schotse Huizen (Scottish Houses Museum) in the town.

"We want to not only show people the history that has been here in the past but also the story of the Dutch people and the Scottish people that are still connected. We still invite Scottish people over to our city and have a festival every two years. Of course it's a huge opportunity to be part of a worldwide project."

On the other side of the Atlantic a group from Mobile, Alabama, has been hard at work on their panels. One of them tells the story of John Ross, a man of Scottish descent who became a Cherokee chief.

"We're a group of about seven, but then we have others that we have encouraged just to do a stitch or two, just to participate," says Irene Troy MacDonald, one of the stitchers. Her husband is a first generation American whose family moved from Scotland in 1911.

"Since I stitch and I know a lot of people who do stitch I thought that would be fun and besides that there are a lot of Scots around here."

Back in East Lothian, as the panels begin to arrive they are attached to boards before being prepared for display. There is to be a series of exhibitions across Scotland this year and internationally in 2015.

"It's fantastic to see them all coming in," says Gillian Hart, who is part of the project. "They're all so individual but you get such a sense of pride as soon as you start opening the parcel.

"Every single one of them is just beautiful in its own way, different styles, different standards, but it all fits together it's just absolutely stunning."