Warp and Weft, Ann Mackinnon
Red Squirrel Press, 2023 £7.00
A tapestry in words
The subtitle of this pamphlet is ‘Poems inspired by The Great Tapestry of Scotland’.
I have never seen the Great Tapestry, but I know a little about it. It is held and displayed in a purpose-built gallery in the Scottish lowland town of Galashiels. The product of 1000 hours by 10,000 stitchers, this mammoth feat of hand-stitching tells the story of Scotland in a series of panels, each depicting a historic scene, a game-changer — from the end of the ice age to Andy Murray’s 2013 victory at Wimbledon.
Take a quick look at some samples online, and you’ll immediately see how and why poet Ann Mackinnon found the whole thing inspirational. For anyone visiting the gallery, this pamphlet, which focuses on historic scenes from specific panels of the tapestry, would make a delightful companion.
I was interested to find that my favourite poems here are in Scots. Somehow the intricacy of the Scots tongue — and the way it slows me down — seems right for the ekphrastic mode. The Scots is not dense; it is easily understood, especially in the context of dramatic stories.
‘Nae Gaun Back’ (No Going Back, Panel 72), for example, sums up the brutal situation during the Highland Clearances in its opening stanza. Apart from the word ‘fowk’ (folk), perhaps, I doubt any reader needs a glossary to get the point:
The land belangt tae the laird.
He could dae wi it whit he wished.
He favoured sheep ower fowk.
And ‘They Brocht Me His Cap’ (Panel 121), which commemorates the sinking of the Iolaire off the coast of Lewis in 1918, is heart-breaking. Through the monologue of a bereaved mother, and in brief, well-chosen words, we get the story immediately: ‘They tellt me the war wis ower / and he wuid be hame the nicht’. This anguished woman has the terrible faith-driven acceptance of fate, a faith that brings little comfort:
I must hae din summat wrang
fir Him tae tak ma lad.
‘The Lord giveth and He taketh away.’
This slender pamphlet evokes richly vivid scenes in Scotland’s history. It also made me determined to go and see the tapestry myself.