Weaving Mathematics: Intergenerational Weaving on Uist
In the Woven CommunitiesProject, where this all began, our intention was to learn about Scottish history through the lens of Scottish basketry by using practical basketry skills and working in a hands-on way with the public. We worked with Scottish basket makers such as Liz Balfour, Julie Gurr, Dawn Susan, and Caroline Dear. Yet when we focussed on what it was we were actually learning while ostensibly ‘doing basketmaking’ with the public, we realised that a lot more than basketry or history was happening, and mathematics came pretty closely into focus.
An intergenerational research week at Iochdar School in South Uist illustrates this well. It began with the intention of learning the process of ciosan-making from marram grass, working ‘From plant to basket’, and plaiting the murran, or marram grass, into a traditional Uist horse collar. – The Gaelic name for Uist, Tir na Murrain, literally means the Land of the Marram Grass. We sailed to the island of Cealasay to cut the murran. Having dried the grass (by laying it around the house of An Lanntair project leader, Jon MacLeod), our plan was to begin by using it to make murranrope, with the children at the school, and move on to baler twine rope, hand-palming, twining, plaiting and using pencils as a windlass, from which we could make the ciosans.
“There’s always been murranhere,” said the thatcher from North Uist. “Our murranis very fine, it comes from Cealasay (near Uig on Lewis)…. It takes an area of murranthe size of a football pitch to thatch a house…” As well as for thatching, ropes were made for stacks, (although these ropes are made from straw). The murranisn’t so good now, we were told, there’s a lot of grass in it, because it’s no longer grazed (meaning the horses no longer eat the grass and leave the murranpure). Along with creels, men also made baskets from coloured twine in the 1950s and 60s.
As everyone worked making rope, Jon Macleod told the children the Gaelic love story about Scearmaghreit, (the name of a rock) and plaiting… There were two sisters on the shore collecting shellfish. Both loved the same man. One girl fell asleep with her head on the rock. The other girl plaited her sister’s hair to the seaweed to attach it to the rock, so she drowned…
Comments from pupils after working with the murran…
“ All these things are so cool,” said one lad.
“You haven’t got enough tension in that, you need to pull it out. Move back.”
“I just hate it when the murranis dry, could you get me some of that murran that has been soaked?’
“I want to join your club” said one boy. “What club is that?” “The marram grass and rope making club.
“Your gang’s art is excellent.” (Two thumbs up).
We talked about the event afterwards in the car. The activity brought inventiveness and adaptability, self-directed learning. The children learned rope-making and then they tried to think of ways to develop it. Changing colour, material. How fast they could go in comparison with their friends? Challenging each other, measuring things, testing the strength of the rope and how much it could hold, decorating it, having tugs of war, skipping, weighing things. Opening up the big rope to see how it is made of smaller ropes. And problem-solving. For example, “Why is there a big stitch across the bottom?” – “Think why.” There was problem solving, reflection, and patience. They learned most from the natural materials – they learned it had more give, it could be moulded, and would hold itself in place.
And they transferred the skills once learned from one medium or technology to another. The children made bracelets out of grass and plaited their own hair while waiting to plait the grass…
And there was talk. Paula commented that the girls tended to want to know the details of how to do it. For the lads, there was conversation about survival, “Could it save your life? Could you make a basket to catch flatfish from it?” This led to conversations about how we came to be doing the jobs we were doing. For the lads this was an insight, talking to Jon, finding out the nuts and bolts of how he had got to where he was, where he had travelled to, what made him decide to do this for work, and ‘Did he do it all day?’ Dawn was also asked if she ‘did it all day?’
This was truly an intergenerational project. It inspired children about the past. When we visited a care home, and showed them what we had done, one lad said “Why don’t we go and cut some grass and make simmanshere?” They took the ropes into the care home. They wanted to share the joy of it. One boy came up to a lady from Eriskay and said ‘I think you’re my great aunt.’
It also inspired elders in a positive sort of way. It was not voyeuristic or romantic, it was a ‘This is where we are all from,’ sort of way and the past was a valuable, resourceful time. People often mapped genealogies when they met others in Uist and Lewis. They were always interested in where others come from. Reflecting on how people make connections with others, the Gaelic for ‘Who are you?’ literally means ‘To whom do you belong?’ If you come from somewhere such as Kent, the response will likely be ‘And why are you so far from your mother?’
‘I arrived around 11.30 during the first pupil workshop. During the second workshop where I was assisting I heard many comments from the pupils who had quickly learned to use a natural material they had never handled before…
…Testing the newly made rope two boys were towing one of the classroom tables across the room. Very impressed with the strength of it one said, ‘They should sell this in the shops.’
The two boys exchanged looks and one said, ‘Of course they don’t sell it in the shops.’ I encouraged them by saying that perhaps they could make some and the shop may sell it.
This class were very industrious, interested and engrossed. I looked around the room at one stage and all five adults were observing with no need to say a word or do anything. The children and their enthusiasm were leading the workshop.’ (Maggie Smith, Gaelic translator, SGOIL AN IOCHDAR)
A meal-measure basket