Weaver of Grass

Posted: July 29, 2019 in Chat
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Donnie Munro, ex-front man of Runrig, Scottish/Scots Gaelic, band left the band in 1995.
In 2002 his solo album Across the City and the World contained the glorious song Weaver of Grass.
The song celebrates Angus McPhee, fellow Hebridean, and a weaver of grass.

Runrig officially retired/disbanded last year: 45 years!
Donnie left in 1995, and put himself forward as Labour councillor for Ross and Skye, Scotland. He was unsuccessful. It was no mean defeat, he was beaten by Charles Kennedy, who was to become the leader of the UK Liberal Democrat Party. Donnie Munro was contesting a traditionally-held LibDem seat.

He has his own radio show, Harvest Moon Radio
and still tours.

Runrig  also contributed another member to politics – Peter Wishart, keyboard player, left the band in 2001 to become elected SNP Scottish MP. A position he continues to hold.

So, what got me onto this track?
I found an old copy of Raw Vision, magazine of Outsider and Art Brut, from 1996 – issue 16.
There was the article on Angus McPhee, weaver of grass.

The article, Art Extraordinary, explores the collection of Dr W A F Browne, art therapist and consultant curator, based in Scotland.
Angus McPhee’s work forms part of the collection. His dates are 1916 to 1997.

Angus McPhee, we are told, came from a crofter family in the Outer Hebrides. He joined WW11 in 1939. The details are scanty. All we know is that shortly after – the War? After signing up? – he was committed to a mental asylum. He remained ‘in the system’ for the rest of his life: 50 years. He does not appear to have been dangerous in any way, as he was given freedom to roam the hospital grounds, and out into the land nearby. Nor does he seem to have been obliterated with medication, or electro-convulsive therapy.
He was not known to speak, although capable. He was competent enough to understand and sign an agreement allowing his articles to be used in displays.

It was ‘in the system’ his skill in the craft of grass weaving was developed to the full. This became especially apparent in the late 1970s: he would have been in his 60’s.
It is described more a form of ‘knitting’ using two lengths of fence wire.
He produced articles of clothing: caps, trousers, even shoes: ‘boots’. Also ropes of woven grass. He also used sheep’s wool gathered off fences and hedges, and made scarves, or as far as I can tell, combined wool and grass.
He would often leave these garments hidden under bushes.



He was later moved to another hospital, and lost access to wool, and the long grasses he had used previously. This did not seem to distress him, and substituted local materials. Using beech leaves he made pony harnesses, conical pouches.
He was getting old at this point, and his eyesight failing.

Wiki, naturally, has an excellent article on him, with images:

From this article we can fill in some gaps.
He was born on South Uist, the Outer Hebrides. He was a fluent bi-lingual English and Gaelic speaker.  In the War he was stationed on the Faroe Islands. It was there he became mentally unstable. He was returned home to Scotland, and hospitalised near Inverness, the east of Scotland.
His last years were spent back in Uist, at a nursing home.

A film documentary was made in 2004: Hidden Gifts: The Mystery of Angus MacPhee (IMDB), and book in 2011: The Silent Weaver by Roger Hutchinson

There is, of course, another dimension to the story.
We need to go back to the Raw Vision article. From there, back to 1991, and the Ötzil Alps. Here was discovered the remarkably well preserved body of Ötzi, the man who died between 3400 and 3100 BCE.
His clothes and various articles also survived. One of these was a woven grass cap much like those made by Angus McPhee.



Also preserved were woven grass cords and ropes, much like the ones made by Angus McPhee, for leading horses for which he had always shown a keen affection.

Old skills; our endless ability to transform environment, utilise, its constituents; the constant and continual bubbling up of creativity – whether for essential use, or the pleasure and healing of creation.


As an addendum, I remembered reading Francois Gilot’s memoir, Life With Picasso some time back.
She mentioned how, in the War, all rubber etc was requisitioned for the 3rd Reich. This led to people in Paris, France etc using wool for shoe soles.
My first thought was: But, rain!
Un, or semi, processed wool is very durable, and lanolin laden. Very smelly, too.

This is what people can do when put to the austerity test, though: utilise abundant natural elements. And with great success.

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