Tuesday, 9 October 2012

A birthday at Stirling Castle

Saturday September 8th was my birthday and we had a particularly active schedule, up early to catch the 10 o'clock train from the Edinburgh Waverley station to the pretty town of Stirling, a forty minute train ride, then by bus to the top of the hill that is crested with the imposing castle, home to Scottish royalty for hundreds of years.

Our group at Stirling

The reason for the visit was to see the re woven Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries, a project that has been undertaken by the West Dean tapestry studio over a period of twelve years. Originally woven in Brussels between 1495 and 1505, this famed suite of six tapestries hangs in the Cloisters in New York, part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the theme of this allegorical hunt, the fabled Unicorn is associated with purity and inaccessible love, and the hunt is a mission to capture the animal for its healing powers.

Funded by Historic Scotland and the Quinque Foundation of the United States, the new tapestries have been woven on a horizontal or low warp loom at West Dean and also on a vertical, high warp loom at a purpose built studio at Stirling. They are one tenth smaller and warped at ten ends to the inch as opposed to the 18 -20 ends of the originals.

Past and present collide in this endeavour as contemporary artist weavers inhabit the skin of the mediaeval artisan and create a repetition of their thoughts and movements in a fascinating exercise. Enormous research has gone into the making, from careful examination of the 15thC. Hunts, to the establishment of the colour palette, the dyeing of the range of yarn and the sampling of the elements that make up these incredibly complex panoramas. Conforming to ancient techniques, tonal gradations are achieved through areas of “hatching” in singular colours rather than mixing strands of wool together.  There are enchanting vignettes of botanically accurate bunches of “millefleurs”, dainty animals, prancing hunters clothed in a variety of fabrics, jewelled ladies, sleek baying hounds, animated mediaeval faces and the calm purity of the hunted mythical Unicorn in their midst.

Five of the tapestries are complete, and the last one will be ready in next year.  Senior weaver Katherine Swailes has imaginatively re - created the final and sixth tapestry in the suite as in actuality it only exists in two incoherent strips of weaving. The missing areas of the tapestry have been re - imagined through referencing other work of the period, including the contemporaneous La Dame a la Licorne from the Musee du Moyen Age in Paris.

 Tapestry studio with artwork in the background

Tapestry detail

Our first stop was the studio where the final tapestry sits dormant, as the weavers have been co opted into an urgent project at the West Dean studio in Sussex. A sprightly guide gave us a very full explanation of the weaving technique and the history of the project that somewhat made up for the lack of actual demonstration. Seeing the quality of this work up close is a revelation and the amount of skill employed to render the detail is quite awe inspiring.

The Palace

Built by Scotland's James V for his French bride Marie de Guise, the palace has recently undergone a 12 million dollar refurbishment that sets it authentically in the mid sixteenth century. Completed originally in 1545, at the height of the Renaissance, its flamboyant decorative past has been painstakingly captured in carved and brightly stencilled panels and gilded columns. This is where 
Mary Queen of Scots spent her childhood with her mother, Marie.

After lunch we entered the newly renovated Queen's apartments in the Palace to view the completed Hunt tapestries that grace the freshly painted rooms. Although displayed in an authentic manner, they are hung up so high that it is impossible to appreciate the amount of work that has gone into the weaving. It is also very disappointing that an embroidered velvet throne canopy has been installed in a way that blocks out considerable sections of two tapestries.

Tapestry installation in the Queen's bedroom

A treatise on the mythology of the Unicorn by a costumed guide dressed as an attendant of the Royal Court. 

He holds a replica of the horn of a Narwhal, thought to be related to the Unicorn.

And what of the birthday? I had a very special day because my dear friend Carol Dunbar, an artist weaver who has lived in Orkney for twenty five years, came down to Edinburgh to spend the day with me. We met at the Edinburgh College of Art in 1980 and have maintained our friendship through all the ups and downs of the intervening years, bridging continents and hemispheres. It was so exciting to meet her at the station and talk non stop all the way to Stirling and back, and continue the conversation later over cups of tea and dinner. Carol's work has recently been featured in Tapestry - a Woven Narrative, a comprehensive survey of tapestry from the past to the present day, compiled by Fiona Mathison, Caron Penney and Timothy Wilcox.

With Carol at Stirling

We ate our lunch outdoors, the grey skies belying the mildness of the weather and the lack of a customary stiff breeze. As we finished my lovely tour participants sauntered up the hill singing Happy Birthday and presented me with a card and little package wrapped in gift paper from the V&A. To my great delight it contained a delicate muslin scarf that I had admired a few days before in the V&A shop. It is from a design by Cecil Collins for "Avon" furnishing fabric, originally woven by the Edinburgh Weavers in 1960 and featured in the recent British Design exhibition at the V&A. I felt quite emotional when I realised how truly thoughtful they had been.

Birthday presentation with Stephnie and Marie

More images from the visit

My thanks to Eleanor Muir, visitor experience manager at Stirling Castle, for hosting us and making us feel most welcome. 


  1. Belated birthday wishes! It sounds like a wonderful day.


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