Serendipity (the nation’s favourite word), has featured more than once in this blog. In the last year I’ve had two notable experiences that could be described as serendipitous: the meeting on a train between my wife and a priest who turned out to be a very old friend of mine (here); and the absurdly improbable common heritage that it transpired I share with my illustrator partner in a creative project (here).
A common definition of serendipity might be the way in which things appear randomly to happen to one, with positive results. But a much more interesting, and less passive, definition is that it’s the way we proceed to join up the universal dots, making sense and meaning for ourselves out of things that appear to be unconnected.
On Radio 4 this morning I caught a snatch of a programme about serendipity by psychologist Aleks Krotoski, who has set out to find out what it really is and why we need it. I learned that Serendip is an ancient name for Sri Lanka, and that there’s a fairy tale involving three princes of Serendip to whom unexpected things keep happening. I also heard a poet, Richard Price, talk about the importance in poetry of being open to the possibility of connections, and the science historian James Burke linking Mozart with Igor Sikorsky, creator of the helicopter, in seven serendipitous steps.
Meanwhile I was thinking about the Great Tapestry of Scotland, which I went to see yesterday at the Scottish Parliament, and which I was planning to make the subject of this blog. As I did so it struck me that here was yet more serendipity.
I have almost finished writing the text for the interpretative panels for the visitor centre of a new whisky distillery. Part of the story involves links, through place, with the medieval Scottish monarchs. On the train on the way into Edinburgh I had been polishing a short piece about King David I (1084-1153), and worrying about a particular piece of information I lacked.
Within minutes of arriving at the Parliament, I was standing in front of a tapestry panel depicting the great Border Abbeys, founded by – none other than David I. And in the accompanying text was the answer to my question.
Perhaps not so serendipitous, though, when I stop to think about it. I had simply moved from one source, Wikipedia, to another, the Great Tapestry, both of which present more or less the same historical facts, albeit in a very different way. But never mind. Serendipity or not, it brings me finally to the subject of this extraordinary project which is the Great Tapestry of Scotland.
It’s the brainchild of author Alexander McCall Smith, historian Alastair Moffat, and artist Andrew Crummy. In 160 panels, each one roughly a metre square, it tells the story of Scotland from 420 million years ago until the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. It took 1,000 volunteer stitchers 50,000 hours of sewing over a two-year period, used up 300 miles of yarn, is more than twice the length of the Bayeux Tapestry, and is utterly, breathtakingly beautiful.
I had an hour. I could have spent a day. There is so much colour and character, so much artistry and emotion, so much detail, in each square of canvas that one could surely return many times and be newly rewarded at each viewing. Its ambition is to show the entire history of Scotland. I wouldn’t claim to know half, let alone the entire history of Scotland, but I certainly didn’t notice any obvious omissions, and almost every other panel summoned some long forgotten or dimly remembered historical incident or event.
As I paused at the final panel, a tree whose branches bear the names of those who made the tapestry possible, I felt moved almost to tears. The love that has gone into this magnificent work is palpable – the love of the creators and the stitchers both for their work and for their country. It made me feel proud of Scotland’s history and heritage, proud of the fact that there are Scotsmen and women who could conceive of and execute such a wondrous thing.
The Great Tapestry of Scotland is storytelling on an epic scale. It’s on display at the Scottish Parliament until 21 September, then it goes on tour. See it if you possibly can.