Edinburgh – more than meets the eye?

How often do we talk to a friend, thinking we know them well, only for something to be said or done and suddenly we find ourselves realising we don’t really know them as well as we thought we did? We might have to reassess our relationship with them, take a more honest view of the sort of person they are. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Besides which, aren’t we all far more interesting for all our own quirks and idiosyncrasies?!

In that respect places aren’t a lot different from people. We see bits of them, forgetting that the public face of a city is incomplete, omitting a great deal of what that place is really like. Like people, no city is perfect. And it’s worth taking another look at the places we think we know best. Which is exactly what poet Gerda Stevenson and photographer Allan Wright have done in this new book about Edinburgh.

Sculpture by Tim Chalk celebrating the work of Helen Crummy

Robert Louis Stevenson was well aware that the city he loved was far from straightforward. After all it was Edinburgh that was the inspiration for his chilling tale of human duality, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s important to recognise that while human creativity can be a wonderful thing, human imperfection can feed destructively into our surroundings; whether in the concrete monstrosities that we expect others to live in, or the casual destruction of the earth’s resources we’ve indulged in for decades. This book asks us to stop and look again at how we live – and expect others to live. And how that feeds into the surroundings we create.

Take the concrete desolation of Craigmillar. A far cry from Edinburgh’s much-vaunted tourist image. Yet a place that couldn’t quell the courage and determination of Helen Crummy, who would go on to found the Craigmillar Festival Society, and whose son would grow up to be the creative genius behind such marvellous works as the Great Tapestry of Scotland.

While writing this month’s article for iScot magazine, I had the opportunity to look at some of the issues they raise in their book. Although it’s not my home now, I’ve enjoyed this opportunity to look anew at the Edinburgh I’ve spent many years in: whether studying, working or being a parent. And just as we do our friends a grave disservice if we expect perfection from them, we do ourselves a grave disservice if we fall for the picture-perfect view of Edinburgh so often presented to us.  People and places are a complex, yet rich, tapestry of history and experience. Never static and always changing. Edinburgh is definitely worth a second look, and this book might just help you to do that.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland

The Battle of Carham 1018

I’ve just spent a day at Stirling Castle viewing the Great Tapestry of Scotland and it’s wonderful! Wonderful because of its aesthetic appeal, wonderful because of its succinct telling of thousands of years of Scotland’s history. Wonderful because of the way intricate, individual stitches turn into whole stories from our history. Wonderful for its sense of continuity – and that it can be added to as this country of ours continues to grow and develop and move forward.

Haakon’s Fleet at Kyleakin, Skye and the Battle of Largs 1263

I hadn’t expected it to make such an impact on me – after all it is silent, nothing moves, no CGI special effects or 3D specs – and yet it’s something far deeper and more lasting than that.  In detailed panels it tells Scotland’s ongoing story – the good and the bad, the tragic and the joyous, the heartbreaking and the courageous; all part of the rich tapestry of life that makes Scotland the country that it is.

Somerled First Lord of the Isles

Are there any particular themes that run through this magnificent Tapestry? On the one hand it celebrates the music, the literature, the scientific discovery, the exploration and political endeavour Scotland is rightly so famous for. The great high points in our history. But without doubt it clearly highlights the constant battle for survival faced everyday by ordinary people. The challenge to have enough to feed and clothe your family. To survive the ravages of war and famine. To retain dignity in the face of the harsh treatment of rulers, landowners and employers who held the power of life and death over the people they controlled. Life was seldom easy in the past!

But equally it highlights many of the brave and determined men and women who have, throughout the centuries, struggled to make life better for ordinary people – all too often at the cost of their own lives.  Ordinary decent Scots who have battled over and over again against enemies both within and without.

The Scottish Reformation, a School in every Parish, 1560s

It celebrates the poor and downtrodden who stood up to grasping landlords. It celebrates the men and women who strove to make life better for their fellows against the horrific conditions in mines, in rural poverty, in the wretched industrial cities and the factories where greedy owners cared nothing at all for the cruel suffering they inflicted, interested only in their own comfort and wealth.  How many people have struggled over the centuries against the inhuman and barbaric treatment those with wealth and power have meted out on the poor and vulnerable?  And how often have all those who should have spoken out, stood by silent in the face of such iniquity? How uncaring and how callous the rich and powerful have been and all too often still are. For even today so much of this country’s wealth, and land, is still held in the hands of the few.

The Discovery sails from Dundee, 1901

But, as The Great Tapestry so eloquently shows, life is never static and history moves constantly onwards. Everything changes, slowly but surely. As long as enough people care and are prepared to stand up for what is right then a future where the people of this country really matter – all of us – is possible. But equally, it’s all too easy for the precious gains of the past to be lost and for the rich and powerful to continue to hold sway over the rest of us.  Sadly, it’s very clear right now that it is not the goal of all in Britain today to see a country where there is social justice and all are treated with equal value and worth.

Women get the Vote

Perhaps this tapestry can be a wonderful lesson to all who view it.  A chance to reflect and think on how we, the citizens of Scotland today, can add to this history in a way that does honour to all in this wonderful country of ours.  How will we play our part in the life of Scotland now? How will the things that we do now be woven into the tapestry of our future?

We all have a wonderful opportunity in our own lifetime to work for the good of all in this Scotland of ours. To stand up against the injustices that continue to exist today. What will we chose to do?  And will our choices stand the test of time?  It is in our grasp to do so much for good.  Will we do it?  It will be interesting to see. People make history. What sort of history do we want to make right now?

For the story of the making of the Great Tapestry follow this linkThe Great Tapestry of Scotland

For the designer’s website and his other works follow this linkAndrew Crummy