The Great Tapestry of Scotland, now going on tour following its launch at the Scottish Parliament is an ambitious project inspired by novelist Alexander McCall Smith. It tells the story of Scotland in 160 panels, freeze-framing key scenes from history.
In a Scotland which often seems divided the project has brought people together. 1000 stitchers aged from 4 to 94 spent 50,000 hours creating these panels, from designs by artist Andrew Crummy.
The 160 scenes and themes depicted were chosen, after widespread consultation, by historian Alistair Moffat. He had a difficult task. You could argue that the Highlands are under-represented, although there is a magnificent panel stitched in Caithness depicting a local school classroom in 1851.
And though the Christian faith, which did so much to shape our nation is well-represented in the earlier panels – which include among other Christian topics Saints Columba and Ninian, the great Abbeys, the Reformation – the last specifically Christian-themed panel recalls the birth of the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.
Perhaps this is symptomatic of the undervaluing in contemporary Scotland of religious faith. There should have been at least one panel representing Christian faith in the 20th century – perhaps centred on the Iona Community, the Billy Graham mission to Glasgow in 1955 or Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Scotland in 1982, all hugely influential.
I love the thought of 1000 people across the country busily stitching over the last year – it reminds me that each one of us, in all we say and do and are – is stitching the story of our nation.
And the Tapestry project reminds me of how memory works. We look back over our lives, and consciously or not, choose what to remember. We freeze-frame events, moments which we think define us, and have made us what we are.
These panels from the tapestry of memory include not just the good times. For just as the Great Tapestry includes the darkness of Flodden and the Glencoe Massacre, so we recall the times when things went wrong, when we messed up, when bad stuff was done to us. Some of us linger in front of these distressing panels, obsessively stitching and re-stitching.
Christians believe that as we review the tapestry of memory, the God who has been invisibly present in each panel stands with us. God reminds us of panels we have forgotten to display. God offers us forgiveness for our failures. God sets us free from the compelling power of the darker panels, helping us to see them in context.
Alexander McCall Smith says of the Great Tapestry project: ‘Colour and friendship and art are what we need when times are hard. And the other ingredient, of course, is love.’ He reports that ‘all of these have been invested in this tapestry in large measure, and have worked exactly the miracle that we thought they would.’
But when it comes to living the future which will in time give birth to new panels of tapestry, people of faith insist that the presence of God is also necessary. Even the best of us know our own failures, our own proneness to pride and selfishness, our sense of impotence in the face of the despair and bleakness which characterise the lives of so many Scots. We need in Scotland a deeper miracle if we are each to weave consistently yarns with the colours of love, joy and hope.
Christians believe that God’s knowledge of past and future is like a long gallery of tapestry panels. We cannot yet see the content of panels depicting the future, but the last tapestry is already visible. It depicts a city beside a river, in which consistently there is colour, friendship, art and love, where dreams of peace and wholeness are fulfilled.
And in pride of place in the very centre of God’s gallery is a tapestry depicting the miracle which makes the last frame possible. It shows a figure, hanging in agony from a crude wooden structure. Near it, the same man stands in bright sunlight before a cold, dark cave, his face and hands raised heavenwards.
The Great Tapestry is a wonderful, joyous project to be celebrated. Even where not made explicit, God was present in the events of every single panel. But inevitable, the project puts its own ‘spin’ on Scottish identity. What I wonder, would have filled the panels if the God who sees all things as they are had been selecting their contents?
The purpose of the Tapestry, says McCall Smith is ‘to bring pleasure’ to ‘many thousands of people.’ When we stitch our tomorrows with threads of realism, love, hope and faith we not only bring pleasure to one another but to the God whom we are helping to weave the tapestry of time.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 19th September 2013)