ANGUS MCPHEE - Weaver of Grass

ANGUS MCPHEE or MACPHEE was a crofter from Uist who spent almost 50 years in a Highland psychiatric hospital. During this time he chose not to speak - instead he wove a series of incredible costumes out of grass. These he hung on trees in the hospital grounds.

This blog follows the progress of HORSE + BAMBOO THEATRE as they develop and tour a show about Angus....

Sunday, 29 May 2011


Back now on Uist, and staying once more on Berneray. The beaches along the west coast of the Outer Islands are famed for their beauty and the long, long empty stretches of pure white sand. Above is the west beach on Berneray, which we visited today, looking north with the mountains of Harris in the background.

The beach is backed by dunes, which are held together and stabilised by the marram grass, or muirineach in Scottish Gaelic, which flourishes in these dunes. 

This grass was equally abundant in the part of Uist where Angus grew up as a boy. On the east of Uist marram or muirineach was rarer, so rope was made by plaiting heather, but on the west coast rope was made from marram, which was so abundant that  it was also used for thatching the roofs of the blackhouses, such as the one in which Angus lived.

Seeing the muirineach grass today reminded me of the long section in Roger Hutchinson's soon-to-be-published book 'The Silent Weaver' about the importance of the grass to the Iochdar crofting economy; he also writes about the irony in Angus McPhee finding that grass weaving helped him to rediscover his identity after the period of a profound mental breakdown, just at the time when its importance in the community he had been removed from was in rapid decline.

In a few generations the traditional skills and the craft involved in the making of grass and heather rope were lost as cheap, commercially produced, strings and ropes became available to the islanders. New houses were tiled rather than thatched, and the horse, which had been so central to the island crofting economy, was rapidly replaced by the tractor, along with the woven grass harness that was an essential part of horse-powered croft and farm work. Yet during the same period as this rapid decline and loss, Angus was weaving away in the grounds of Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital in a long and heroic effort to retrieve his lost life. 

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