A’fighe le feur – Weaver of Grass i.m. Angus MacPhee


The Loss
 is mother lived
on the tip of memory –
known but half forgotten.
a missing word
a presence
that smelled of Lowland fields
and sang a lullaby
a language
learned at her knee
now seldom spoken.
unfinished sentences


The Island
It is All Grass, all of it –
Nosing green, springing to lank, to waste,
bending to blast, blown buffeted,
nosing green again; last first, first last
When his horse died Angus wove a harness
of stout grass and pulled the cart himself
to the peat bog. Laden, he it hauled it back
across the slack and sucking land.
‘duine mor sàmhach,-they called him.
Big, quiet man.
It is All Wind, all of it –
ripping thatch
from roofs; earth from grass-roots;
scattering stacks
plucking fence-wire to a jangled
bent disharmony.
Slicing the sky to tattered rag above
Corghadal, Hecla and Ben More.
He twisted muirineach to ropes
tugged from The Uist sands
spoke to it in its ancient tongue
Wove nets to tame wind’s snatch;
tether the thatch to earth, to stonework;
hung rocks to hold it down
harness his life to this sweet place
It is All Sea, all of it –
grinding, shell and stone
her turquoise edge frilled
with their silver powdered bone
miles of it, arcing the shore-line
returning, always returning.


The War
 When call-up papers came
He rode his finest gelding
to Lochboisdale Ferry
a cartwheel broken
in the shed, eggs uncollected
jobs on the croft unfinished
his favourite collie mewling
on its chain. He left
with other crofting lads
Neil Johnstone from Eochar
Angus Mackay the piper
Ian Conelly from Borinish,
hooves deep in campion and furze,
the bent-grass racing wind
a sky-lark’s requiem high
in the boiling cloud-mass.
He felt the ferry loll and list
the silver shoreline dip and rise
until his palm could hide
the granite ramparts of the quay
the crouching crofts,
the cattle small as flies.
Rolling a cigarette against the rail
he saw the machair disappear
then reappear in wraiths of haar
and disappear for aye
behind a knuckled fist of sea
his agitated steed calmed
with round vowels of home
until the ferry, bucking
on the wayward tide
was tethered safe on Kyle.


The Sickness
Dismounting he began another journey
through the towering tumbling country
of Invernesshire to Beaufort Castle at Beauly
seat of the Lovats and their ancestry,
and Uist was abandoned to its own devices –
men, excused the draft, mending fences
milking and sowing; while others manned defences
on foreign soil, in dangerous  places
as war raged down Europe’s corridors,
the flower of island youth reaped on her shores,
while  Angus with Lovat Scouts sent to The Faroes
were ’ lookouts’ for U-boats and  German invaders.
That he left star bursts of asphodel
hawkweed radiant in rock clefts, spring squill
the bloody stalks of birds foot trefoil
sightings of the chestnut breasted dotterel,
and was transplanted in unfamiliar valleys
remote, volcanic – that he grew restive, solitary,
that darkness consumed him, that he heard voices,
Old Celtic songs in the emerald grasses …
That he searched in their songs for himself but found
someone otherwise inside his head, the ground
under him, no place to belong, the sea sound
the sound of the wrong sea, menacing, loud
that spat drift mines at fishermen’s questing hulls
as they braved a mainland journey for supplies,
the ocean bloody as a fin-whale cull –
That he grieved in his bones for the machair,
wild open spaces, the wind and the haar
on the wide windy fields of Eochar
big skies where he could count the stars
That he was not himself in this disordered
place; mourning a mother half remembered-
that childhood loss so long untended
grew to a nameless hurt, a thorn grown inward…


The Hospital
 hey pulled him up like grass,
shook Uist from his roots
took him, for better care
by sea and land
to Craig Dunain.
Alien. Distant. Otherwhere
Housed Angus with the mad, the sad,
the manic, alcoholic, wild, sapped
him with residential ritual,
shocked him
with electricity to shake
his sullen self-hood back
drugged him to sleep to tame
thoughts rambling round him
like convolvulus.
He dreamed of a mother’s Irish lilt,
caught like a burr on cloth
of dim remembering,
of frightened children scuttling
down the lanes, or hanging
insolently off his cart
a sense of nothing making sense
a nameless terror yapping in the dark
an aging father trying not to fuss
a preacher at Our Lady of The Isles
‘all flesh is as the grass…all flesh is grass’
animals dying from his negligence,
the  wound of absence
open and unhealed.
‘I’m a big man’ he says
inside his head
‘duine mor sàmhach,
 but how can I construe
the size of this, my bigness
living so deep inside it as I do’
They wake him, locked inside
himself, bereft
of everything but dreams of home.
an angry ghost haunting
the hospital not looking left
or right, but through
as if his eyes could penetrate
all intervening things to view
the croft house, gazing back,
a high tide honing his initials A.M.P.
hard-hammered into gneiss to stake
his heart’s claim to the territory.


The Silence
 Plucked from his island
of bent-grass, round skies,
and piebald flight.
Angus empowered himself
with silence
spoke nothing but gentlemanly kindnesses
things of importance, like a dog’s name.
‘I am a quiet man’ he says
inside his head
‘duine mor sàmhach,
but how can I construe
the size of this my silence
living so far inside it
as I do’.
only the grass made sense
and understood his conversation
rust bleeding down
spade and hoe in the peat-slabs,
peat slabs burning
a blackbird’s egg dropped
from its woven nest
cloud colour, warm
Atlantic squalls tugging the thatch
motherless children
hunkered in the dark
those lost at war
Neil Johnstone from Eochar
Angus the piper
Ian Conelly from Borinish
The comma of his father’s back
hauling big wind across the sky
bed-ticks drying on the croft-yard wall.
the pungent scent of loss, hanging
like incense down a draughty aisle,
childhood stories –
How Gille Padra' Paid His Rent
how Cumhail had the power of divination.
Only the grass made sense
and understood his conversation.
‘I am not mad,’ he says
inside his head
‘madness is only longing
turned inward like a thorn’

The choice.

How could we know…?
We didn't understand…
we thought he…well we..so…
we took the thing in hand…
we did the best we could.
He didn't speak, yapped
like a dog at night…. stood
on the beach wrapped
in a sullen dream…
he…well… he couldn't cope…
he didn't work, he seemed….
..we just ran out of rope..
and  other folk, the neighbours..
thought him strange.
not dangerous, but big, dour
queer… Such change
in him after the war! Children
would spit, would make up rhymes
throw stones.. if we'd known then..
but then… such different times…
the work was tough… another mouth…
if there had been…and even now
survival’s  hard enough..
we tried….we tried… and anyhow
doctors agreed…what could we do?
We saw…could see he wasn't right…
there weren't the pills…we never knew..
we took advice and … out of sight…
….with land and sea to cross..
was often out of mind..you just get
on with it, you do! No choice.
And sometimes..sometimes you forget…


The Burning
As spiders haul their thread from stem
to stem to weave the light, what do they care
if all that skilful labour’s lost when
wind unravels it – unpicking all their
careful artistry? As birds weave leaf
and stalk into their nests, abandoning
them to decay when fledglings leave –
only to build them back again in spring,
so Angus haunts the woodland hour on hour
labouring under branches, quiet, unseen
pulls buttercup, vetch, clovers – winding flowers
like wild embroidery into cloths of green –
makes mufflers; tailored jackets, sprouting hats
garments for a giant or a king
to stalk the hills and sport the finery that
he has wrought from his imaginings,
and then forgets; so all this fine attire
is left to rot and compost in the rain.
He watches gardeners rake them on a pyre
of autumn leaves: then crafts them all again
because he must; watches their ashes  wind
up towers of smoke, soaring like elegies
to distant landscapes of the mind, making
of these most precious gifts, a sacrifice.


The Journey
 If I weave a suit
 I can go home in it
gentleman-smart on my arrival
with bunnet and belt and pointie hankie
I will mak me a muffler and vest
to warm me with kemp
teased from the snagging
fence-wire that hems me,
 pu rashes to mak me a coatie.
against the big winds
that wait on the quay
at Lochboisdale to greet me.
Thigh-high must I weave the waders.
With no fare in my pocket
I must walk the long sea
by myself
No trawler will take me,
their arts will transport me.
with harness of beech leaf
to tether my horse to the peat cart,
a peat creel stitched over
with violets and clover
to carry the peat to the hearth
of my homestead
which calls me, which calls me…
Only the grass made sense
and understood his conversation
‘pluck me and mak me
net me and plait me
prepare for your journey.
you are the seed, the stalk,
the root and the stone
 of the Island that made me’


The Finding:
The bushes they look under hide
the dress of dreams;
playgrounds for worm and snail
the medication for a troubled mind
a special need
the iconography of loss
the therapy of hands,
a daily task
The Ice-Man’s cloak
the husk and seed
of myth and  fairy tale
of ancient craft
learned by the finger-tips
the wardrobe
of a travelling man
majestic, monumental, ordinary
wings for a homing heart
left under roofs of beech
and elderberry,
or laid on banks of moss
like votive offerings –
an archaeology
of grass and flowers
a treasure trove  trawled
from the collective memory.
An act of love. A legacy.


The Coda
If I should burn this poem
with the leaves
bury it delete it hide it
under the trees
if ash of it
flies in the moon's face
if nobody finds it,
if it becomes the grass,
is sucked into ether
if words like the leaves
fall from the live tree
and scatter
where go the thoughts
that it fashioned
the heart-tools the head-tools
the fire at its centre?
the ink on the page?
the word on the paper?
It is All Grass,
Nosing green, springing to lank, to waste,
bending to blast, blown buffeted,
nosing green again; last first, first last…