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Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers

Tuesday 18 September, 2018

Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers showcases an extraordinary collection of Scottish needlework from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Scottish Samplers to go on Show

Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers

26 October 2018 to 21 April 2019

National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

Press view: Thursday 25 October, 11.30am to 1pm


Embroidered Stories: Scottish Samplers showcases an extraordinary collection of Scottish needlework from the 18th and 19th centuries.

The 70 samplers in the exhibition are on loan from American collector Leslie B Durst, a philanthropist and passionate supporter of the arts who has assembled a remarkable collection of samplers from Europe and North America. The Leslie B Durst sampler collection is one of the largest and most comprehensive private collections in the world, and includes over 500 Scottish samplers, dating from the early 18th to the mid-19th century.

Mostly made by young girls as part of their education, samplers were primarily a demonstration of sewing skills. Every sampler is both a study in needlework but, moreover, each one is a fascinating piece of social history and it is the stories stitched into the samplers that interest Leslie.

Leslie B Durst said:

I feel that giving each and every sampler maker the chance to tell their story again is my life's calling. This exhibition gives me the opportunity to do so, and makes me very proud.

Where possible Leslie undertakes extensive research into the background of the girls and their families. Using the initials, names and motifs that the children have stitched into their work Leslie has traced girls from all walks of life and from all over Scotland. 

Exhibition Curator Helen Wyld said:

This exhibition isnt just about needlework: it is about the fabric of life in 18th and early 19th century Scotland. Made by girls often from fairly modest backgrounds, samplers give us an alternative view of Scottish history, one that does not appear in the history books. They are therefore an invaluable and fascinating slice of Scottish social history."

Samplers usually include the names of the girls who made them; and Scottish samplers in particular often show the initials of extended family members. These details have enabled Leslie to identify the girls through church and census records, and to conduct in-depth research into their lives. This makes her collection a unique archive of Scottish social history from the early 18th to the mid-19th century, and a valuable glimpse into the lives of ordinary families.

By the 18th century, samplers were intended to demonstrate a girl’s education through the inclusion of alphabets, multiplication tables and religious verses, but they can also reveal other details of their makers’ lives. References to towns, buildings and events are common in Scottish samplers, giving a sense of what was important to the young girls stitching these pictures.

The arms of the Flesher’s company appear in the sampler of Mary Hay, daughter of an Edinburgh flesher (butcher), while the now-ruined Dalquharran Castle in South Ayrshire appears in a sampler by Margaret Eiston. Leslie’s research has revealed that Margaret’s father was a mason in Ayr and may have worked for the castle’s designer, Robert Adam. Jane Milton sewed hers while growing up in the Orphan Hospital of Edinburgh – in such institutions sewing was seen as a useful skill to equip girls with a means to earn a living.

The personal stories are perhaps the most touching. A sampler marked the attainment of skills and social graces, and sometimes recorded further milestones. Anne Raffan’s sampler of 1789 shows her siblings’ baptism dates and, in 1792, aged 23, she added the date of her own marriage. A sampler begun by Jane Hannah of Garlieston has this touching addition by her friend: “the above lies sleeping in her grave; finished by Jane Murray”, and below the words “Time Flies; Death Reigns”. Made by hand during their formative years, samplers record the things most dear to their young makers, and often these are the only records of lives that would otherwise be forgotten.

Exhibition Officer Maureen Barrie said: 

We are delighted to present this fascinating exhibition.  Each story is different - some celebrate, others commemorate, many depict a sense of duty and care to family. Some are funny comical cats stitched by little hands, and exotic zebras decorating Scottish landscapes. From the Scottish Borders to the Western Isles no story is the same we even have a sampler from a girl called Catharine McPherson, whose parents immigrated to America where she was born.  At first glance it was assumed the sampler was from Scotland, but look closely at the ship in the corner of the sampler you will see an American flag.” 

The samplers come from all over Scotland, with examples on show from the main cities but also from the Western Highlands to the Orkney Islands, and even an émigré Scots family in upstate New York.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a book and a programme of talks and events.

Further information on exhibition and images from: Bruce Blacklaw, National Museums Scotland Press Office | | +44 (0) 131 247 4165

Notes to editors

  1. National Museums Scotland is one of the leading museum groups in the UK and Europe and it looks after collections of national and international importance. The organisation provides loans, partnerships, research and training in Scotland and internationally. Our individual museums are the National Museum of Scotland, the National Museum of Flight, the National Museum of Rural Life and the National War Museum. The National Museums Collection Centre in Edinburgh houses conservation and research facilities as well as collections not currently on display.

Twitter: @NtlMuseumsScot


Instagram: @NationalMuseumsScotland

  1. Bheireadh Oifis nam Meadhanan eadar-theangachadh Gàidhlig den bhrath-naidheachd seachad do bhuidhinn mheadhanan bharantaichte. Cuiribh fios do dh'Oifis nam Meadhanan airson bruidhinn air cinn-latha freagarrach.

  1. The National Museum of Scotland is the most popular attraction in the country outside of London (source: Association of Leading Visitor Attractions). The National Museum of Scotland was awarded ‘Gold’ Level Green Tourism Visitor Attraction status in 2016.

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