PHILLIPS — Traditional embroidery, both decorative and practical, endures as an art form.
Stitches and knots have changed little over centuries. Needlework skills were passed from mothers to daughters and among female relatives. That tradition has connected four groups of Maine women and their Scottish ancestry with their overseas roots.
This year, Scotland is celebrating the 700-year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, when a victorious Robert the Bruce led the charge against the English army. This year-long Homecoming 2014 required a spectacular highlight, and the organizing committee decided to reach out to 25 countries with a sizable Scottish heritage population to stitch its history. Designers create packets of panels that were sent with Scottish wool to volunteers. Maine has a very active chapter of the St. Andrews Society, according to John Mann, the organization’s historian.
Mann explained the concept of diaspora, a central theme of the tapestry. Natives of many world cultures have been forced out of their ancestral homelands by war, famine, loss of property and economic, political and religious persecution. Many Scottish and Irish tenant farmers lost their livelihood when owners decided to reclaim their land for other purposes. Many Scottish farmers and villagers were forced to move to Ulster Plantation in Ireland, and prisoners of war were shipped as forced labor around the world. Many came to the colonies to work on plantations, in New England mills or as woodcutters. Maine, according to the 2000 U. S. census, has a large — if not the largest — population of Scottish descent in the country, Mann said. Many came in the in early waves of new England immigration, which can be traced to the1600s and 1700s.
“The first wave was from 1651, from the battles of Dunbar in the 1650s,” he said. “The second wave was Ulster Scots, forced out of Ireland in the 1700s.”
Some emigrated to Maine willingly, but Mann said that most of the Massachusetts-owned territory’s first Scottish settlers served only as human buffers between the French and the Native Americans, who sometimes attacked those who dared to venture north.
“Many emigrated from England to Canada and eventually to the United States, but original ancestry can be hard to trace,” Mann said. “Much of Aroostook County was settled by Ulster Scots when the area opened for homesteading.”
The territory from the Kennebec River to the Penobscot River was settled by other waves of immigrants. The Maine-Scotland connection will be featured in this Diaspora Tapestry project, along with other major historical events and links to the rest of the world, Mann said. When the project organizers chose volunteer stitchers’ groups from 25 countries, the St. Andrews Society of Maine was excited to be chosen to participate, he said. The four completed panels from Maine include highlights of Scottish highland and lowland culture, immigrant settlement in Aroostook, York and Waldo Counties, the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester and the settlers in Merrymeeting Bay and the coast of Maine.
Volunteers often were interested in tracing their own Scottish and Irish ancestry. Jan and Phil McIntyre, owners of the Skye Music Theater in South Carthage, attended the annual St. Andrews Society’s Highland Games in August. Jan said after she talked to John Mann, she volunteered to coordinate the embroidery work on one of the 20- by 20-inch designs. Finding helpers wasn’t as easy as she expected, she said.
“I’d done embroidery in the ’60s, and I practiced some of the basic stitches before I started, but I really wasn’t prepared for how big this project would be,” she said.
Because the planned fall arrival of her panel was delayed until Christmas, McIntyre said she was a “little panicky” that she would have sole responsibility for the hundreds of hours of work during January and February. The March 1 deadline for shipment left little time for delay.
“I worked four to six hours a day for a week,” she said.
Even with hours of help from her friend, Monica Mann, she said she knew she needed to recruit more stitchers. At their last Skye Theater concert in Carthage, she mentioned the tapestry project to Pam Matthews of Phillips. Matthews offered to take the panel home to continue the embroidery and contact others to help. Other Phillips residents, including Carol Rogers, Audrey Ziglar and Ellen Bibeau, met for work sessions throughout January and early February. Curious about the other three groups of volunteers, they joined women at Bowdoin College for a day of embroidery and conversation about the panels and the history of the Scots-Irish influence on the state’s history. McIntyre said that because of the efforts of dedicated volunteers, they finished before any of the other groups.
“For those who want to see the panel before it is shipped to Scotland, Phil and I will display it at the Skye Theater on February 19,” she said. “We’ll open at 6 p.m. for viewing of the tapestry before, and we will continue to have it available during our season opening concert.”
The completed Diaspora Tapestry will travel around Scotland as part of cultural and educational projects. School children and historical societies can research their diaspora links, so Maine embroiderers may have the opportunity to continue their contact with the overseas community. Mann said a wealth of research material exists, including personal accounts of emigration, providing opportunities for cross-curricular projects involving history, literacy, art and drama.
According to historical research compiled by Mann and Pamela Crane, a historical archaeologist, two of those settlers, Andrew and Jane McFadden, may have been typical of those who arrived in Maine during the early 1700s. Crane and Mann have been working on an archaeological dig in Bowdoinham. After they uncovered what appeared to be a cellar, burnt timbers and household artifacts from 1718, Mann said evidence has been steadily mounting that this site does represent the home of a first-generation Ulster Scots family. The site was abandoned, possibly after an attack by Native Americans.
“Most importantly, there were no middle- or late-eighteenth-century artifacts in the sealed context beneath the fallen timbers,” he said. “The site has never been disturbed or rebuilt on.”
For more information about the Ulster Scots research or the tapestry project, visit each group’s Facebook page.