The Battle of Prestonpans Tapestry: “the world’s longest embroidered artwork”

The surprising success at Prestonpans was the tinder that sparked the initial success of the Jacobite revolt in 1745:  on 21 September 1745 the Jacobite army loyal to James Francis Edward Stuart and led by his son Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) defeated the government army loyal to the Hanoverian George II led by General  Sir John Cope at Prestonpans – a few miles outside Edinburgh.

Out of the 2,300 Redcoat dragoons, only 170 managed to escape and some 1500 were taken prisoner by the Jacobites.  Cope fled south to Berwick upon Tweed. Colonel James Gardiner, who stayed at Bankton House close by the scene of battle, was mortally wounded in a final heroic skirmish.

The Prestonpans Tapestry was unveiled on July 26, 2010. With 104 panels (each a metre long), it was designed by  Andrew Crummy  and embroidered by over 200 volunteer embroiderers.  Some are clearly extraordinarily accomplished embroiders, others were just novices who wanted to be part of this exceptional project: what is clear is that the outcome is quite extraordinary.  A national treasure to rival the Bayeau Tapestry! It took the embroiders more than 25,000 hours, making some 10 million stitches, to create the world’s longest embroidered artwork at 104 metres.

The  choice of plain cream linen backing and brilliantly coloured wools makes this a dazzling sight: the panels contrast, some are fuller than others, some minimalist and others full of extraordinary detail.  There are plenty of humorous touches, too – and personal ones (each embroider or group of embroiders added a personal tag to identify their panel: there are quite a few wee dogs!).

General Cope emerges as an incompetent and selfish leader, while the English hero is undoubtedly Colonel James Gardiner who died a heroic death. According to the Dictionary of National Biography

Gardiner (baptised 1686 – d.1745) married Lady Frances Erskine, daughter of David, ninth earl of Buchan, in Edinburgh on 11 July 1726. They had thirteen children, of whom only two sons and three daughters survived their father.

On 18 April 1743 Gardiner succeeded to the command of Bland’s dragoons (13th hussars), based in Haddingtonshire. During the 1745 rising Gardiner was not reinforced and was obliged to evacuate Perth at the approach of the Jacobite army. He withdrew first to Stirling, and then Edinburgh. Both Gardiner and his regiment seem to have been in poor spirits at this time. He fought at the battle of Prestonpans (21 September 1745) close to his own house, Bankton in Haddingtonshire. Gardiner’s soldiers mostly fled but, though shot and wounded, he dismounted to fight on foot to encourage the infantry. He was eventually disabled by a blow from a lochaber-axe, and died at Tranent manse the following morning, 22 September. On 24 September Gardiner was buried in the churchyard at Tranent, where he had been a regular worshipper. He was survived by his wife.

On display beside the Tapestry, there was even a fragment of the thorntree under which Gardiner is said to have lain wounded.  He is also purported to have said the heroic words:

“I cannot influence the conduct of others as I could wish, but I have one life to sacrifice to my country’s safety and I shall not spare it.”

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