Can the Great Tapestry of Scotland weave its magic and regenerate famed Scots mill town?

Author Alexander McCall Smith and Artist Andrew Crummy walk through some of the 160 panels.''Pic Neil Hanna
Author Alexander McCall Smith and Artist Andrew Crummy walk through some of the 160 panels.''Pic Neil Hanna
0
Have your say

They stitched for 50,000 hours with 30 miles of yarn weaving million years of Scotland’s story.

The result was the Great Tapestry of Scotland – 143 metres long – twice the length of the Bayeux Tapestry – and unveiled in September 2013 in the main hall of the Scottish Parliament.

It has toured Scotland, been at the centre of a police investigation when one of the panels was stolen in Kirkcaldy, and sparked a heated debate over where it would ultimately reside.

But now it is hoped a project which celebrates Scotland’s past can help secure the future of one corner of the country.

Despite being renowned for the manufacturing of high quality tweeds and textiles, Galashiels has suffered a decline in visitor numbers and high street businesses over recent years.

However, with work a the £6.7 million permanent home in the High Street for the massive artwork due to get underway in the spring, a major regeneration of the town will also start to take shape.

The brainchild of author Alexander McCall Smith, the tapestry project involved 1,000 volunteers across Scotland.

From the Battle of Bannockburn to the Map of Scotland Today, its panels depict more than 400 million years of Scotland’s history.

Also home to Heriot-Watt School of Textiles and Design, Galashiels is a natural home for the artwork. The first record of weaving mills in Galashiels was in 1581, at the Waulkmilhead Mill.

Textile manufacturers were the main employers in the town for many years; in 1788 there were 10 textile manufacturing employers, rising to 35 by 1825. According to Murray Dickson, president of the Old Gala Club history society, the town’s textile-making golden age was the 1800s.

“As the Galashiels tweed industry grew, the demand for tweed grew and the town expanded in the 1860s.

“The manufacturers began to show their prosperity by building large mansions many of which are still standing. One fine building is now the Kingknowes Hotel [on Selkirk Road] which still displays the grandeur of the period.”

The railway came to Galashiels in 1849 and largely influenced the textile industry in the town.

“The railway halved transport costs to Edinburgh and also led to an influx of foreign produced wool into the mills,” says Mr Dickson.

The decline in the manufacturing industry began after the First World War, during which 635 Galashiels’ men lost their lives.

“A high amount of casualties were many of the mill owners’ sons so by the 1920s, many of the mill owners had no natural successors and the companies were in some cases taken over by outsiders,” explains Dickson.

By the 1960s, the industry was in a deep malaise as imports appeared on the market and synthetic materials were introduced.

Many of the mills now sit empty or have been turned into housing.

Unlike in the 1800s, the introduction of the Borders Railway in 2015 has been hailed a success with 22 per cent more users than predicted in its first year.

A short walk from Galashiels railway station is the site of the cultural centre where the tapestry will be on display, which has received £2.5m from the Scottish Government.

It is expected to attract more than 50,000 people to the town each year and create 16 much-needed jobs.

“Gala has seen a decline in the visitor numbers, especially in footfall in the high street,” says Will Haegeland, chair of Scottish Borders Tourism Partnership. “There is no doubt that on Channel Street, which is the main street through the town, you can see plenty of closed-up and boarded-up shops, so something needs to happen.”

According to Mr Haegeland, owner of the town’s Grapevine restaurant, the cultural centre will have a ripple effect on businesses.

“It gives huge opportunities for businesses and for new shops and hospitality businesses to be there because all these people will need to find other things to do than just going to the tapestry; they need to be fed and watered.”

He also believes that the tapestry will boost the value of tourism to Midlothian and the Borders from around £340m to £500m in the next few years.

That increase, he believes, could come from the cultural centre attracting the likes of travelling exhibitions and projects.“It’s not only for the tapestry but for other new things that would attract new people,” adds Mr Haegeland.

Despite animosity towards the project by some elected members of Scottish Borders Council who fear it may strain taxpayers, there is no doubt in the mind of Alistair Moffat, historian and tapestry trustee, that Galashiels now has a tremendous opportunity in front of it. “In more than 40 years in and around public life in Scotland, I have never seen anything like the Great Tapestry of Scotland,” explains Mr Moffat.

“It is a cultural phenomenon that has inspired love, laughter and tears in the hundreds of thousands who have seen it. It is truly a national treasure, one that tells Scotland’s story in a fresh yet traditional way, making it accessible to all ages and interests.

“For Galashiels, to have a national treasure with international appeal will be a huge step forward in the regeneration of the town as visitors come in their thousands. But perhaps most importantly, and something not said often enough, this is a beautiful work of great art and I am proud that its home will be in the Borders.”

Energise Galashiels Trust, a group of individuals and businesses which aim to improve the town and create a more vibrant, welcoming and confident community, is fully behind the plans to regenerate Galashiels.

Chairman Mike Gray is confident the tapestry visitor centre will bring investment and wider benefits for the Borders.

“We were hugely encouraged by the pan-Borders support for the visitor centre from Scottish Borders Chamber of Trade, Scottish Borders Tourism Partnership and Destination Scottish Borders, which includes community groups from Jedburgh, Kelso, Hawick and Selkirk, all of whom recognise the potential benefits that this investment can bring to our region. No single investment will deliver the solution to the many challenges we all face but the cumulative impact of several initiatives can take our individual towns, and the Scottish Borders, forward.”