More research for the Tapestry and a session with the Designer

I think I’ve already mentioned that each panel in the Great Scottish Tapestry has a number of “badges” which are particular to the theme of the panel and each group has to come up with ideas for filling them.  The other morning some of our group spent a fascinating few hours with Andrew Crummy, the designer who has spent the past two years working on this enormous project.

Andrew with Panel 86 – The Great War 1914-1918

Andrew is based in East Lothian and we drove down to his studio on a beautifully sunny morning – a welcome change from the snow and wind the day before.  We spent some time discussing ideas.  The horrors of the Great War have been the focus of countless works, and the destructive legacy of it and subsequent wars is still with us.

However, we felt that this tapestry panel could not encompass the theatre of War itself, or even identify specific Scottish regiments – although there are plans to name some of the barracks that were used all over Scotland during the War.

Instead, Andrew agreed with us that the panel should concentrate on the events, movements and activities that actually took place in Scotland during those traumatic years from 1914 to 1918.  The problem is that once you start to hunt around, there is a vast amount of material and the challenge of narrowing it down to just ten subjects was a daunting one.

We’ve included Leith itself, and its ship-builders – Ramage and Ferguson, among others – who converted mercantile ships into deep sea hospital ships. The National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle also provided inspiration in the form of the beautiful stained glass windows by Douglas Strachan, which here show aircraft – in this case the Sopwith Camel and Sopwith Cuckoo, I think.


The impact of the War on women’s lives varied enormously and generalisations regarding the War as a watershed moment in women’s emancipation can easily be overstated.  Many women were forced to give up their new-found freedom after the War and married women were often stigmatised if they continued to work or, in many cases, actively barred from keeping their jobs.


However, there is no doubt that women played an extraordinarily important role during the War and provided essential services of all kinds. The navy was the first of the armed services to enlist women. The Women’s Royal Naval Reserve was first set up in 1917 and included cooks and stewards, despatch riders, sailmakers and also some women in Intelligence. At this early stage, the motto used by the WRNS was ‘Never at Sea’.  The newly merged Royal Air Force followed in 1918 by setting up the WRAFS. In Scotland these women were employed at airbases in Gullane and at RAF Turnhouse, among others.

neveratseaA fundamental shift in the involvement of women in the War effort came in 1915, largely in response to the so-called “Shell Scandal” of March.  The Munitions of War Act was passed by the new coalition government in June and some 30,000 women demanded the right to be employed by marching through London on the so-called “Women’s Right to Serve March” in July. They included the newly formed Women’s Land Army, whose badge we will also include on the panel.

Courtesy of the Museum of London: Land-girls at the Women’s Right to Serve March

Millions of women signed up to work, mainly in transport and munitions. In Scotland, the largest munitions factories were in Glasgow and, above all, Gretna. There, at what was known simply as His Majesty’s Factory (or codename Moorside), a vast workforce of mainly women produced cordite (strings of gun cotton soaked in a volatile and highly explosive formula of nitroglycerine, petroleum and collodion).  After visiting the factory Arthur Conan Doyle described the substance as “The Devil’s Porridge”, while Rebecca West wrote a moving description in her essay The Cordite Makers of the “girls in the khaki and scarlet hoods” who worked there. The girls were also nicknamed the “Canaries”, or the “Girls with yellow hands”, because of the skin discoloration and poisoning known to be caused by TNT (see Angela Woollacott, On Her Their Lives Depend: Munitions Workers in the Great War, University of California Press, 1994, p.193). I think we should probably include a yellow background for the munitions “badge”, precisely for this reason.

Andrew and Cherry starting to trace the badges onto the linen using the light box.

Gretna was also the scene of the worst rail crash in the War years, resulting in enormous loss of life.  Known simply as the Gretna disaster, or the Quintinshill Junction crash, it resulted in the destruction of a special troop train carrying about half of the 7th Battalion of the Royal Scots Guards, whose base was the Drill Hall, Dalmeny Street, in Leith.  The troops were on their way south on 22 May 1915 and were due to embark for Gallipoli. There is the most extraordinary account of the crash told here to the actor and journalist Michael Simpkins by a survivor of the disaster, Peter Stoddart who was still alive in 1988.  The tapestry panel will simply show the Cross from the Rosebank Cemetery, Edinburgh which serves as a memorial. As I read the list of names this morning, I was struck first by the number of Privates (probably about 170 out of the 230 or so names listed), and second by how many of those killed had the same family name. 20130217_Gretna-Rosebery2

20130217_Gretna-Rosebery4The first branch of the  Scottish Womens Rural Institute was founded in 1917 in Longniddry, not far from where Andrew is based, and the idea for its badge came from the women’s group in Glamis. The movement spread from Canada to Europe, but it played an important role during the War, as did countless more informal charities, including knitting groups, groups who prepared Christmas boxes for the troops or collected dressings, including sphagnum moss (which has been used since the Bronze age for its acidic and absorbing properties – as revealed by this fascinating collection of references here).

Just hands visible! More tracing onto the panel using the light box.
Just hands visible! More tracing onto the panel using the light box.

Nursing was another area in which Scottish women played an extraordinary role.  We could not include all the different groups, especially because Elsie Inglis, the Scottish Women’s Hospital and the VADs are all the subject of another panel.  However, we have included the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) which, although suspended during the War years, remained an umbrella association for many of these groups. One was the Women’s Military Hospital, led by Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson, in which my grandmother was Quartermaster.  Their motto, “Deeds not Words”, seems a fitting tribute to all those involved in this capacity.


One moving aspect of the National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle is the inclusion of animals: horses, of course, but also carrier pigeons, camels, elephants, and even mice and canaries, “the Tunnellers’ friends”. The sculptures were carved by Phyllis Bone, who later became the first woman elected as a Royal Scottish Academician. It was around this time that the protection of animals became a national charity, leading to the foundation of “Our Dumb Friends League”, later the Blue Cross.  We’ve included the Blue cross and its motto, “Treat me well”.

Blue cross badge

Lastly, we’ve included one of the most vivid symbols of the War, the poppy. Field Marshal Earl Haig launched the first sales of cloth poppy badges for commemoration and to raise money to support ex-servicemen in England in 1922. The Scottish factory, established by his wife Lady Haig in 1926, is still based nearby on the Water of Leith. There is an illustration of a rare early poppy on this page of the book by Neil Storey and Molly Housego, Women in the First World War, Osprey Publishing 2010. The authors write that the poppies were often sold by “female street collectors who had lost their ‘boy’ in the Great War”.


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