In November 1739, the slave-boat ‘William’ sailed from Ireland to Finsbay, in Harris. There, local men, women and children were taken on board by force. They were to be sold as slaves in the West Indies, but managed to escape when the ship stopped off in Ireland for supplies.
It’s a fascinating true story, but only one of many depicted on the ‘Isle of Harris Tapestry’, detailing over 1,000 years of Harris history. Available to view upstairs in ‘An Clachan’ stores, in Leverburgh, the tapestry comprises nine panels, all relating to particular areas of Harris.
And as word of the exhibition grows, more and more visitors to Harris are stopping in to view for themselves this stunning piece of artwork, made almost entirely from Harris Tweed.
The Harris Tapestry was the brainchild of Gillian Scott-Forrest, who moved to Northton in 1994, from Oxfordshire. She said: “In our church at that time we had been looking ahead to the millennium, to see what kind of gift we could provide from this generation to the next generation, something that would act as a lasting memento.
“I read that a town in the east of England wanted to portray their history of the last 1,000 years through a wall hanging. They did it, and it became a very popular tourist attraction and I thought that we could do that here.”
It was a novel idea, but one which took almost two years to create enough interest to get the green light. The time-sapping but necessary establishment of a steering group, constitution, and Harris Tapestry committee might have put off lesser willed souls.
But there was a special driving factor within the group. “The leading light for us was Murdina Macdermid, who ran the Harris Disabled Group Shop,” said Gillian. “With her enthusiasm we were able to bring in a lot of extra interest.
“We had to raise a third of the £10,000 we needed ourselves, with the remainder coming from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar and the then Scottish Rural Challenge Fund."
With funding eventually in place, the group decided to adopt the name ‘Harris Community Trust’, inviting inclusion from existing charitable organisations across Harris. “Our main aim was to try and capture prominent stories from over the last 1000-plus years, taking in the historical, social and the folklore elements,” said Gillian.
With involvement open to all residents of Harris, Margaret Mackay, of the former Soay Studio, agreed to provide the design of the tapestry, which was set from a high point over all of Harris, with the perspective of going clockwise across the island.
“Across the panels, we have gone through all the seasons of the year, and where possible the timescale is oldest at the top to most recent down at the bottom,” said Gillian. “The skyline is a connecting factor. It’s correct whichever way you look at the tapestry.”
Every panel on the tapestry has a different theme, made with tweed provided by six different weavers. Linen woven in Scalpay adorns the bottom of the artwork, depicting flora and fauna relative to each area. There is also a quotation in Gaelic at the bottom of each panel.
“We wanted the Harris Tweed to represent all the textures and topography of our landscape,” said Gillian. “There are five different styles of sewing to suit that interpretation, and the different levels of sewing ability. One lady could only learn one stitch so she did a Viking longboat and it looks great. Another lady was a Macmillan nurse who found it useful to sew when she was looking after patients in quiet times at night.”
Of the 60 Harris stitchers who contributed to the tapestry, a small section were men who made significant individual contributions. “Nearly 90 people in total helped in one way or another,” said Gillian.
With fact-sheets available to accompany your viewing of the special tapestry, it’s easy to get lost in the mesmerising web of depictions on the fabrics. Personal tragedies are included, as are some beautiful intricacies that might easily go unnoticed. “A lot of the work was based on personal photographs,” said Gillian. “So if a crofter has a blue jumper, that’s because he was wearing a blue jumper in the photograph. We even have a sheep with one horn, because that belonged to the designer!”
Despite having been completed in 2001, it is only recently that the finished work has been made available to the public all year round, instead of only the summer months. “If Harris looks empty today, then this tapestry shows that once upon a time there were lots of houses and families,” said Gillian. “We have made something unique for Harris which did not exist beforehand. “