Mary Queen of Scots

I haven’t written about the books I have been reading for quite some time. However I will make an exception for this particular book. Mary Queen of Scots, by John Guy, is an exceptional book. I listened to the audio version which is beautifully and clearly read by Jan Cramer. It is also the basis for the recent film about Mary.

Though born and brought up in Scotland, I have little detailed knowledge of our history. I know the outlines thanks to my Primary school. However in secondary school Scottish history was effectively ignored in favour of British history, which in practice meant 19th century English history. So it was with a mixture of excitement and apprehension that I began listening to the audio.

This is not really a review as such, but rather I want to highlight what we’re for me the key take-aways from the book. Before I must pay tribute to John Guy for the amazing and exhaustive research he undertook for the book. Much previously hidden and some new material has now for the time been subjected to rigorous analysis. All of which has enabled the author to write what will undoubtedly become the authoritative history of not just Mary, but of the period.

Below I offer the key points that have most impressed me from the book.

1  An Unruly Kingdom Scotland was most definitely “an unruly kingdom” for almost all of the period. Mainly due to the unfortunate and seemingly ingrained habit of Scotland’s kings getting themselves killed, either in battle or just murdered, at a very young age. This was the case with Mary’s father James V, who died in 1542, when just 30 years old. Mary, the future queen was just six days old when her father died.

This meant of course that as in previous occasions there was a long interregnum before the new monarch could assert control. These interregnums were periods of much infighting among the nobles and meant that no Scottish monarch was able to exert, never mind extend, royal control over all of his kingdom.

2 The Reformation Mary’s difficulties with her nobles were compounded by the difficulties created by the Reformation.  Mary herself was brought up as a catholic and remained one all of her life. Some of the catholic nobles wanted to re-establish the church in Scotland while some of the Protestant nobles resented having a catholic queen. The vicious hostility of John Knox, the leading Protestant theologian added to Mary’s woes.

3 The Rough Wooing Scotland has always had a rather difficult relationship with England. Every since the Norman conquest a key objective of the Kings of England was to extend their control over all of the British and Irish isles. In the case of Wales and Ireland both were eventually brought under the rule of the Kings of England. Scotland proved a harder nut to crack and was never conquered nor fully brought under English rule.

This failure did not stop successive English kings from trying to bring Scotland under control. The favoured route was through a dynastic marriage. Upon Mary’s accession to the throne, the English were determined to force the Scots into agreeing to a marriage between Mary and an English prince, thus securing a personal union between the two kingdoms.

The Scots were not too keen on this though and the English decided to persuade the Scots by invading the country. Though this eight year war, known as the ‘rough wooing’, did not succeed, Scots were left in no doubt as to the determination of England to secure control over Scotland.

4 The French Connection By the time of Mary’s accession to the Scottish throne in 1542 Scotland was an internationally recognised independent country, with alliances with other European states. The most important of which was France. Mary’s mother was a leading member of one of France’s most powerful families – the Guises.

An alliance with France would offer Scotland some protection against English attempts to invade the country. France’s interest in Scotland did not rise much above using Scotland as a counter to English claims to rule bits of France. The alliance may have deepened when the very young Mary was betrothed to the dauphin of France. Alas Francis died shortly after ascending the throne, leaving Mary a widow at the age of 18..

France continued to take an interest in Scotland and Mary. Though from the French perspective what interested them most was Mary’s claim to the throne of England.

5 The English Succession Unlike Scotland there were competing claimants to the throne of England. Protestants and most of the court accepted Elizabeth as the rightful Queen, as she was the daughter of Henry VIII. However strict royalists and most catholics regarded Elizabeth as illegitimate as they did not recognise Henry’s divorce from his first wife.

In their eyes the rightful Queen of England was Mary, who was not only catholic, but also the granddaughter of Mary Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII. Mary was thus regarded as a threat to Elizabeth, particularly if Mary’s claim was to be supported by either France or Spain.

This situation was compounded by Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and produce her own heirs, thus securing a Protestant succession. This was to remain the main concern of the English court, in particular William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief advisor. While Mary did not make any serious attempt to become Queen of England herself, she strove to be acknowledged as the next in line to the throne, both for herself and her son, James.

James, who was separated from his mother when a baby, was brought up as a Protestant. As such there was less opposition to his succession to the throne of England.

However, as a staunch Protestant, Cecil was determined to deny Mary any recognition of her claim. Even when Mary was in captivity in England, Cecil remained suspicious of her and her catholicism. More than anyone, Cecil was the mastermind behind the execution.

6 A Woman’s Trials As if trying to govern as a monarch was not difficult enough, Mary had the additional burden of doing so as a very young woman. While Elizabeth faced similar challenges in England, it was much, much worse in Scotland. As mentioned above her unruly nobles were always more of a hindrance than a help. Added to which as a catholic she faced constant hostility from some of her Protestant subjects.

John Knox was an inveterate and constant critic. Her main failing was simply to be a woman. Knox had a very low opinion of women. They were unreliable and ruled by their passions. A catholic woman was the worst of the worst.

As John Guy makes eloquently clear Mary was under constant threat from the boorish behaviour of her male nobles. Her two Scottish husbands were just as bad, mistreating her very badly. Her one serious misjudgement probably was in part due to the pressure she was under from her unruly nobles.

This is the most likely reason for her marriage to Bothwell. She felt she needed a strong man to help her stand up to her unruly and often treacherous nobles. There was in reality nobody she could trust. Not even Bothwell alas.

7 Mary herself  The book provides lots of details about Mary herself. She was from a very early age recognised as a very attractive, learned and charming person. She was also a very lively one, who enjoyed life as fully as a princess and Queen could. This included wearing fine dresses and dancing, all of which added to John Knox’s disapproval.

She was also for a while a skilled ruler. Though she lost her final battle in Scotland it is a small miracle that she survived for so long in such an unruly kingdom.

Though she spent the final 20 years of her life in captivity in England, she never lost her dignity and her charm. Virtually of her jailers were impressed by her. It is also worth noting that her captivity broke just about all civilised laws. As Queen of Scots, Mary could not be guilty of treason against England. She had not led an army against England. She was held in captivity because the English court was frightened of her and her claims.

I end by noting that despite many invitations Elizabeth resolutely refused to meet Mary. Perhaps Elizabeth was a bit feart of being overwhelmed by Mary’s charm.


Four Stars in a field of Lilies

This is my first new project for 2019. The inspiration came from the beautiful works of Jordan Nassar, a Palestinian American embroiderer. His work was featured in the current issue of the Embroidery magazine.  Jordan Nassar uses the traditional Palestinian embroidery motifs in a very unusual and innovative way. Often just one motif is used, but in different colours to give the impression of a landscape for example.

As a lover of traditional Palestinian embroidery I was very taken by his work and could not resist trying something similar myself.  This is what I have ended up with.IMG_8545In my case I have used two motifs – stars and lilies. The fabric is an 18ct yellowy green Aida cotton. The four stars are in dark coral with a very dark blue centre. For the lilies I used a range of turquoise and acquamarine colours to provide a gentle contrast with the red stars. Though I did include a very light yellow green for the lilies by the centre. The first time I have deliberately used a thread that is almost identical in colouring to the fabric itself.

The threads are from the DMC cotton range and two strands were used for the cross stitches. The frame is 21cm in diameter and it was quite difficult stitching full cross stitches close to the edges. Another slow piece, this one took me just over 46 hours of stitching alone.

It was a bit strange to work with just one motif for almost all of the piece. At times I longed for a bit of variety. But in the end it was worth it. I rather like the finished article, and I definitely plan to do more pieces in this vein.



South Uist Landscape

This is definitely one of my embroidery highlights from last year. Something very much out of my comfort zone of bargello or blackwork. Trying to recreate a complex landscape is not my scene as it were. It all started in August 2017 when I was on holiday in the Western Isles. We had a wonderful time and the scenery was spectacular. Once home I was keen to try and render one of the views in embroidery. So many to choose form, but the one I hit on was this one from Lochcarnan in the north of South Uist.

img_6097 (1)I have never tried anything like this before, but with the assistance of Jane, the tutor at the embroidery group I attend, I was determined to give it a go. After lots of procrastination I finally got started sometime in March last year. I say sometime, as most unusual for me, I have not kept an accurate record of my work on this project. Anyway I started by painting the top third or so of the fabric in blue as the basis for the sky. The rest was painted in a yellowy green for the base for the field and grasses.

The lower part of the design I worked separately on a rough green fabric. This included the grasses at the bottom. Once I had finished stitching this section I simply glued this fabric to the base fabric. For the rivulet and the inlet I cut out the shape from an old silk painting we had bought in France some 30+ years ago. Never throw anything out! This was then partly glued and partly stitched on to the fabrics.

The rest of the composition is made up of various threads, mainly cotton and wool, felt, bits of other fabric, cane and metallic thread. The latter two were for the fence. I split short bits of garden cane and the sections are held in place with fabric at the bottom of each cane bit. Here is the finished piece.img_8542The sky is a bit bluer than appears in this photo. As you can see I have used a variety of stitches in the piece. I have deliberately kept a chunk of the fabric stitch free as I felt that to overload the piece would be counter productive. Less is more as they say!

All in all I am quite pleased with the outcome, worth all the sweat and tears. I may try something similar again, but not sure I could do more than one per year. Perhaps something smaller.  The finished piece is with my framer so I still have something to look forward to.  Happy stitching!

Reading Highlights 2018

Some time since I posted about what I have been reading. Years probably, so this post is a brief overview of some of the highlights from last year. Despite regularly New Year resolutions to broaden my reading, I always end up mainly reading crime novels. As well as exciting reads, good crime novels offer an insight into the social situation in wherever and whenever they are set. So first up are highlights from my crime reading. I start with new authors.

Jane Harper is an Australian writer and last year I read her first two novels. Both feature Federal Agent Aaron Falk. The Dry is set as the title suggests in the parched outback of Victoria state, while the second, Force of Nature is set in a rainy, thickly forested part of the state. Both are very good and the natural surroundings play an important part in the novels. The Dry definitely edges it for me. You can almost feel the heat and the drought. Jane Harper has now published a third novel, The Lost Man, this one set in rural Queensland, with different lead characters.

Cal Moriarty is an English writer. The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is her first novel. It is set in the early 1980s, somewhere in the south west of the USA. The novel is not just about solving a murder, but explores the going-ons within the mysterious religious group The Faith, which dominates the region.  Excellent and unusual story telling. The Killing of Bobbi Lomax is the first of a quartet of novels with the overarching title of Wonderland.

Jacqueline Winspear is an English author who has written an impressive 14 novels in her Maisie Dobbs series. Somehow I managed to read seven of them last year. I read numbers 11, 12 and 13 first and was sufficiently impressed to go back to the beginning. I have now read the first four in the series. Maisie Dodds is a private detective at a time when very few private detectives would have been women. Her first novel, Maisie Dobbs, starts in 1929 with her very first case. However her researches take her back to her childhood and to her work as a nurse in the First World War. This is a recurrent theme in these early novels. Though a murder has to be solved the cases all turn around something to do with the war and its aftermath. The more recent ones take us up to the late 1930s and are more about spying in the lead up to the start of the Second World War.  

Finally an unexpected and very pleasant surprise.  A new detective series set in Dundee, where I live. Great to read about places you know. Hania Allen is the author of this new series and the first novel is The Polish Detective. The title is not altogether surprising as Hania Allen’s parents are both Polish. Though she was born in Liverpool Hania lives in Fife and has lived in Scotland for most of her life. The Polish detective is DI Dania Gorska, who now works for Police Scotland in Dundee. She is plunged into the mystery of a series of brutal murders and the equally mysterious disappearance of two teenage girls. Looking forward to more of this series.

Study in Black and Magenta

My first post for 2019 features my last project for 2018. At least it was meant to be finished in 2019, but with one thing and another the work continued into January.

img_5200For rather obvious reasons I have titled this piece Study in Black and Magenta. The inspiration for both the design and the colours come from a dress I saw someone wearing at a wedding reception in Switzerland. The reception was partly outdoors in the grounds of a restaurant which overlooks Lake Zurich. The dress was stunning I just knew that one day I would try to emulate the pattern in embroidery.

Finally got round to this last month. The fabric is a 28count Brittney from Zeigart. This is a cotton/rayon mixture which I use a lot, mainly for blackwork. I think this was my first go at Bargello with the fabric.

The design is a kind of free-form bargello, consisting of rows of vertical stitches, each with a count of six. The resulting pattern, though inspired by the “dress”, is mine. Usually I outline at least part of the pattern on the fabric in pencil.  This time I just started stitching and made the pattern up as I went along.

I started with the magenta colour, stitched a bit and then added in some black. Continued in this way for the lower half of the piece. I then completed all of the upper half in magenta as I was beginning to run out of this thread, and didn’t want to buy any more.

Two different threads were used for this project. The black is one strand of Appleton wool. I works pretty well on the Brittney and gives good cover on the fabric. The magenta is from the Rajmahal ArtSilk range. This is really primarily made of rayon with a bit of silk. It is called Purple Dusk. This range of threads is very bright and luscious. However I find it hard going to work with. Difficult to get the thread to lie down evenly. I used all six strands for this piece and even then an odd glimpse of the underlying fabric can be seen. Thankfully the fabric is in orchid and blends with the Purple Dusk.

The finished piece measures 9cmx14cm.  This is the nearest I could get to the proportions of the Golden Mean. Altogether I have spent 22 and a half hours working on this project. Slow work indeed. Now to figure out what to do with it!

Embroidery Tiles

This will be my last completed piece for 2018. At least the stitching is finished. My inspiration for this project was the beautiful world of ceramic tiles. I first became aware of their beauty and the skilled craftsmanship that goes with them while we lived in Catalunya. A treasure trove of ancient and modern tiles were to be found. A few, of the modern variety, now decorate our home.

One of the most charming aspects of ceramic tiles is the way that individual tiles can be placed together to make a larger composition. Sometimes this can be geometrical but often the tiles are designed to illustrate a scene or tell a story.

I would love to be able to create a ceramic tile, but the next best thing, for me at least, was to try and create one with embroidered fabric. The inspiration for my first go, was not Catalunya, but our very own Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I used a Mackintosh style tulip as the focus for the design. The rest of the design is my own.


As you  can see I made four tiles in such a way that they would meet together to make a larger composition. The fabric is a very fine red linen. I ironed on a backing to give a bit of stability to the fabric and reduce the amount of stretching as I stitched. Unfortunately the backing fabric did not attach itself completely evenly. The result is that some air bubbles can be seen. One to iron out for future attempts.

To go with the red fabric I chose colours in the turquoise/acquamarine range for the embroidery. Silk, cotton and wool threads were used to provide a bit of texture. For the centre of each tulip I used a silk thread from Japan. Blueberry is the apt name for this lovely variegated thread from the Glissen Gloss Colorwash range. I used four strands for the long and short stitch.

The outer petals of the tulips are stitched in slanting satin stitch. I used two shades of DMC cotton for this – very light turquoise and light blue green. Two strands of the thread was used for the stitching. The base of each tulip is filled with seeding stitch.  I used two shades of another silk thread for this – Soie d’Alger from France.  Two strands in either pale blue or dark green. The tulips are finished off with a stem stitch outline with a single strand of black cotton.

One corner of each tile is embroidered, so that the four can meet and make a single pattern. In this case triangles – one full and two half triangles for each corner. The very edge of the tile is a quadrant which is meant to turn into a circle when all are put together. Another variegated silk thread from Glissen Gloss – crystal bay – was used for the triangles. I used a simple satin stitch with four strands. The seeding in the quadrants is stitched with the same silk thread. As with the tulips the corners are finished off with a stem stitch outline in a single strand of black cotton.

Though each tile is a separate piece of embroidery, I wanted the four pieces to come together as a single composition. I have tried to achieve this unity by using the stalk of each tulip to wind its way round the outside of each tile. For the stalks I used two strands of Fine d’Aubusson wool from France. The broad chain stitch is finished off on one side only, with a stem stitch outline in a single strand of green cotton.

The stitching for this was all done on one piece of fabric. When finished I had to cut out each square and then attach each one to a solid board so that each piece would look like a tile. Easier said than done! I almost made a complete mess of this part. First off when I started to cut the fabric I forgot to leave a margin on one side of two of the squares. I recovered in time to not repeat this mistake with the other sides, thank goodness. However I realised that I had not left enough of a margin on each side.

This meant that when I came to glueing the fabric to the boards there was very little leeway to ensure that the board was completely covered by the fabric. With two sides there was of course no leeway at all. To try and cover for my mistake I have painted that side of the board with red paint.  Just about works!

The final piece of the jigsaw is to glue each tile onto another solid board. I have still to decide which background colour – black or white – to use. I posted some photos on Instagram and Facebook and most of the replies were in favour of a black background. Black does look good, but in the photos the black is a bit hazy, which is why the photo above has a white background.

Some lessons for the future. Each square is meant to be 10cmx10cm. Once again I found it impossible to mark this out completely accurately on the fabric. Need to improve my competence in drawing on fabric.  The board I have used to turn the embroidery into a tile is on the thin side. I will need to use a thicker board next time.

This was a fun project to work on. I will definitely be stitching more tiles next year. I am particularly interested in some of exquisite Islamic tiles from Iran, Syria and Turkey. I saw some wonderful examples in the Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon last year. They will be my inspiration for more tile embroidery in 2019.

Two that got away

This is a cautionary tale, suitable perhaps for this time of the year. Oh, how easy it is get things wrong, very wrong. Exhibit One.IMG_8478This, or a similar combination of three pomegranate motifs is one I have used twice before. So it should have been easy peasy to repeat for the third time. But, alas, no! Each pomegranate is supposed to be equidistant from the other two. However you can see quite clearly that the gap on the upper right is almost twice as large as the other two. Horror!

What made it all the worse is that I did not notice this error until I had finished stitching. How dumb can you get! Apart from this, I rather liked the work – the stitches and the colour combination.  Moral of the tale – check and then recheck your design, before starting to stitch!

Exhibit TwoIMG_7704This one should have been even easier – just five concentric circles. But no, you can’t rely on anything being easy. Despite possessing a good compass, I was clearly unable to draw five simple circles onto the fabric.  The inner circle is just about OK. Thereafter they get more and more skewed. It should not be that difficult to draw circles on fabric. It seems to be for me though.

At least this time I recognised my error right away. Nevertheless I decided to finish the piece as it was a bit of an experiment anyway.  To use different shades of the same colour as the fabric. With five different threads and five different stitches. That part worked not too bad. Definitely worth doing again, correctly this time.

I have decided to keep both pieces, as reminders of how easy it is to get things wrong. All before any stitching. I also have two New Year’s resolutions. 1. Must check each design before stitching. 2. Learn how to draw accurately circles on fabric.  Can’t be that difficult?

Happy, error free stitching!