Report by An Lanntair on their work with Woven Communities

Arora Woven Communities Report


The project has evolved out of initial conversations between Arora and St. Andrews University Woven Communities Project leader Dr.Stephanie Bunn. We were both inspired by the richness of narrative and material culture in the Outer Hebrides and the ability to discover first-hand knowledge about traditional practices and materials from elders in the community. From this we developed a framework of shared goals and aims that were mutually beneficial to both projects.

In order to focus on woven traditions and memory in the Outer Hebrides we needed an achievable scope and remit and a need for new partnerships with relevant organisations such as Museum nan Eilean and the NHS.

We wanted to involve artefacts, archives and first-hand knowledge, to create workshops that were bi-lingual, intergenerational, practical knowledge sharing experiences that involved the whole community and that embraced our ethos of person centred care communicated in the language of people’s choice.

We also wanted the project to be specific, to be targeted and relevant to a particular community. We wanted to discover what elders in that community knew about materials, making techniques and the stories related to them, but also to provide for them a fun stimulating time outside of their normal daily routine.

The project also needed to be able to inform museum curators about the artefacts in their collections and to provide insights that added meaning and narrative to an object, filling in details about its construction or the technique of making or even finding the name of its maker.

From the Arora perspective we were keen to further explore the ‘Hand memory’ aspect of working with individuals and their needs, elucidating the stories and anecdotes that might come from bringing objects into the care home environment and stimulating both their brains and their hands in conjunction.

As with much of our earlier work we wanted the project to perform the dual function of being a great stimulative and meaningful activity for the participants as well as gathering the knowledge that they imparted, leaving a legacy both for the local community and for museums, curators and researchers and giving those elders a value in the community as a resource that couldn’t be accessed by the internet or the printed word.

Insert image: Talking to Elders in Trianaid care home about the uses of local plants

From the vast amount of traditional skills and artefacts that could be examined in the Outer Hebrides, we decided to focus in on one particular material, Marram grass and a limited range of artefacts that were made from it. In addition, it was important for us to locate an area that was particularly connected with this material. For this reason, we chose Uist which in Gaelic is known as the Land of Marram/Bent Grass Tir a’ Mhuran. Another relevant reason was the strong connection in South Uist with Angus MacPhee – who was known as ‘The Weaver of Grass’ *

Insert image Objects made by Angus MacPhee in the Kildonan museum

The Team

Maggie Smith – Gaelic Co-ordinator; Dawn Susan – Basketmaker                                                                        Paula Brown – Arora Project co-ordinator; Dr.Stephanie Bunn – Senior Lecturer in Anthropology – St.Andrews University; Jon Macleod – Arora Project Curator

Outline brief

Our brief for the outset of the project was based on five core strands:

Person centred care, Academic research, Bi-lingual learning, Traditional craft making skills, Intergenerational learning,


Our initial research took the form of a weeklong visit to Uist to undertake trial reminiscence sessions, listen to relevant people and organisations and then to ascertain the best way to move forward.

We also visited the School of Scottish Studies archive in Edinburgh to look for images of marram grass use in the Outer Hebrides with the help of Dr.Cathlin Macaulay.

We ran two reminiscence and listening sessions in the two main care home facilities as well as museum archive artefact visits with Museum Curator Catriona MacCuish

At the end of the week held a short presentation on the project aims and a showcase of previous work at Taigh Chearsabhagh. We also invited relevant practitioners and sought advice on Marram grass harvesting storing and usage from Chris Spears and Neilly Macdonald as well as listening to the audience about their knowledge of the material.

Other research included looking at likely locations for harvesting marram and collecting stories from the community. One piece of oral tradition donated by Dr.Finlay Macleod (whose Grandfather Iain Buidhe is documented in the publication ‘The Basketmakers of Newstead and Ness’ **) describes his family tradition associated with the marram grass Ciosan.

‘Also known in my family was the use of the ciosan as a measure of time: by New Year that the day will have lengthened by enough time to allow you to mill an extra full ciosan of meal. That’s “the length that had come on the day”. I still refer to that each year.’

‘The grass was cut from the dunes in Autumn , when it was strongest and then ‘combed’ by hand to get all the stems lying the same way’ – Flora Celtica – William Milliken

We also learnt from an elder in one of our care home visits that the marram grass horse collar got its strength and rigidity from a wire inside it.

These insights were invaluable first-hand accounts of practices and narratives that had died out in the community and together with archive images and museum artefacts they formed the backbone of the next part of the project.

Based on our research we decided to work in the village of Iochdar, South Uist as our first location. We planned to run making workshops in the school, to learn more about Angus MacPhee who was from the village and to hold listening sessions with the local community to learn more about weaving traditions in the community.

We also decided that the marram grass would be harvested on the island of Kealasay in the Isle of Lewis, a location where it had been traditionally harvested but also a place that was not going to cause problems with the local grazing committee or for coastal erosion.

Insert image Harvesting marram grass on the island of Kealasay

Insert image The island of Kealasay on Google earth

Insert image Harvesting marram in a traditional way using a sickle

Insert image Returning home with a boat load of Marram grass

Insert image Dr.Stephanie Bunn and Catriona MacCuish in the North Uist museum store

Insert image Examining a Marram grass horse collar in the North Uist museum store

Insert image A Marram grass ‘Autopsy’ – examining a Marram grass horse collar in the North Uist museum store

Insert image Duncan Macdonald of Peninerine weaving a Plait a’Mhuran – Marram grass horse blanket (The School of Scottish Studies archive)

Insert image Duncan Macdonald of Peninerine twining Marram grass (The School of Scottish Studies archive)

Insert image Basketmaker Dawn Susan re-constructing a Ciosan base

Insert image Basketmaker Dawn Susan plaiting corn straw

Insert image A Lewis Marram grass Ciosan from the ‘Basketmakers of Newstead and Ness’ Thompson 1928

Insert image A Lewis Marram grass Ciosan from the Museum nan Eilean collection Stornoway


Based on initial meetings with the teaching staff and the head teacher at Iochdar School we decided to run making sessions for the entire school of 60 pupils. These involved twining and coiling workshops using both Marram grass and Baler Twine. We introduced a modern material so that we could explain the concept of using what was ‘close at hand’ and being resourceful, suggesting that this was the motivating force for makers in the past and for Angus MacPhee in Craig Dunain Psychiatric hospital.

We worked in Gaelic and English using the knowledge we had gleaned from local care home visits and the skills of our basketmaker Dawn Susan.

The kids were given the challenge of making a piece of rope from Marram grass that was as long as them. They rose to the challenge and created rope that covered the length of the classroom and headed out along the corridor into other rooms. The boys in the school were intrigued by the idea that they could find the materials around them to ‘survive’ in the wild in a Ray Mears way.

We also used the book ‘100 uses for Baler Twine’ by Frank Rennie as an inspiration.

Insert image Page from ‘100 uses for Baler Twine’

Insert image The baler and marram twine was then coiled to make Ciosan

Insert image Baler Twine Ciosan – Iochdar school

Insert image Making Marram rope – Iochdar school

Insert image Two Baler Twine Ciosan

In the evening we held a Community listening evening collecting stories and practices from local people. Amongst other things we learned that Duncan Macdonald the man in our marram weaving archive images was known for his great industry and that himself and his wife in one day sheared all their sheep, processed the wool and started weaving a tweed from their wool. He was unnamed in the School of Scottish Studies archive – we were able to add his name to the National record and a story about him.

Dr. Stephanie Bunn and Dawn Susan presented a newly woven horse collar and the results from the school workshop at a parents open day event. At the end of the week we took the kids to the local care home to present their marram grass rope and objects and to sing.

Insert image Bi-lingual Intergenerational session at Trianaid care home, South Uist


The project was immensely successful for the way it combined the sometimes disparate elements of academic research, reminiscence, person centred care, intergenerational learning, bi-lingualism, creativity, oral history collecting, archive research and hands on making.

Specifically it presented us as a team with a coherent way of working within a range of disciplines and goals, allowing us to interface familiar elements with an academic focus to the project.

The Woven Communities Syposium in St.Andrews in January 2017 gave us the opportunity to present the project alongside other very different Woven Communities projects. This allowed us to showcase the specific value and expertise that Arora can add to a larger academic project and the benefit that a holistic approach to community engagement can bring.

Discussions with other presenters at the symposium have led to plans for future collaborations.

On the Hand Memory and Bi-Lingualism side, we were able to conduct practical sessions that added to our knowledge and skill set as a team, but also complemented an academic approach to these subjects.

Our core emphasis of person centred care seemed to provide the academic side to the project a new ‘way in’ to understanding memory and oral knowledge. As a standalone project we were able to engage with all sectors of the community around one subject. Through this specific focus of the project – Marram grass, we were able to bring in many elements such as:

An increased awareness of Dementia Pride in local knowledge and Tradition; Resourcefulness; Ecology; Fun in making; Community pride; Intergenerational sharing; Restoring the value of the elderly in the community

The knowledge gained in this collaboration with St.Andrews University will form the basis of a new engagement with Heriot Watt, Duncan of Jordanstone and Napier University’s intelligent textile departments.

An Exhibition in Museum Nan Eilean and An Lanntair will showcase the different elements of the project


*Angus MacPhee was born in Iochdar and as a young man returned to Uist shell shocked and traumatised by his experiences in WW2. He spent the next fifty years of his life in psychiatric institutions in Inverness and Uist, spending much of his time constructing large grass items of clothing out of found grasses. These objects he left in the grounds of Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital in Inverness.

** The three books that influenced the project are;
The Basketmakers of Newstead and Ness – W.H. Thompson – 1928 100 Uses of Baler Twine – Frank Rennie – 2014
‘Angus MacPhee- the Weaver of Grass’ – Joyce Laing – 2000

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