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....

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Thoughts as we approach New Year

My favourite Christmas present - a handmade journal/note book by Joanne B Kaar for notes and ideas on the Angus show. Thank you so much Kay!

With just a few days left until the New Year, Alison and I are busy making things in preparation for another hectic rehearsal schedule once we get back to Horse + Bamboo. We're also very aware that over the next year a lot will happen that will affect many artists and the vast majority of arts companies throughout Britain. Although the immediate subject of this blog is the future of a show provisionally entitled 'Angus', the future of Horse + Bamboo Theatre itself will depend on decisions made by Arts Council England over the next 3 months, as they begin to act on the Government's drastic cuts to public spending. So although we've had a hand up with a grant from the Foyle Foundation enabling us to start work on the project, it's by no means certain how we'll be able to sustain this and, ultimately, tour the production - probably and hopefully - in 2012.

Along with many other theatres, we have to re-apply in the next few weeks for any chance of funding beyond March 2012.  We are warned that many companies will fail in the process of doing this, and we have no illusions that the path will be a difficult one and so we've already started to re-view and re-consider all of our work. Over the next weeks Helen, Alison and I will find time to put our heads and hearts together to create the best and most eloquent funding application we can possibly devise. This blog will follow progress on all of this as intended. It is always a difficult process raising funding  for a touring show. In the future it will probably be even harder. 

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Decision time

On Friday we had a long meeting, in part to close an eventful year at the theatre (and in our venue - the Boo), but also to decide how we would proceed with the Angus McPhee project. The grant from the Foyle Foundation gives us a firm foundation, and we agreed to use the money for precisely the work it was awarded for - to further research and prepare for a show about Angus, his life and his work, and that a large part will be created in the Uists. Over the next few weeks we'll be in touch with our partners in the project and discuss how we will move things forward in 2011.

Being far from the land that I know
Is what has stirred me in my sadness
Because nostalgia wounds me 
Since there are none around me of the folk I know
I will touch the harp-strings of my voice
To see if I can fashion a little song for me
About green, grassy Uist of the glens
And something of the way of the people who live there

The last glimpse of the sun
After it has circled the whole day
May be seen from my land
Just before it rises again on it.
I must cut short my account for today
Since my time has gone
And even if I lived twelve times as long as a stag
I could not recount all the beauties of Uist.

The translated first and last verses of Moladh Uibhist, "In Praise of Uist", written (in the Gaelic) by the late Roderick MacKay of North Uist. A version by Julie Fowlis closes her second album "Mar a tha mo Chridhe" and hearing it again it can't but remind me of Angus and his, perhaps necessary, long exile from home. 

Saturday, 11 December 2010

What now?

This has been a busy period at Horse + Bamboo Theatre as we've been preparing for and rehearsing a new show for Christmas. This is now showing at our venue, the Boo, and the building has been packed each day with excited school groups and, in the evenings and at weekends, family audiences. It has meant that thinking about the implications of the news about funding for Angus has been put to one side

But next week we'll meet to look at where we are with all of this. We have an offer of £15,000 from the Foyle Foundation to start developing the project. On the other hand Creative Scotland have told us that they cannot contribute towards developing the show when our base is in England. Where that leaves us isn't entirely obvious. For one thing, we would be developing large sections of 'Angus' in Scotland, specifically on the Uists, and some of this will involve several Scottish artists making important creative contributions to the production. For another, the whole project is tied into various strands of work with Scottish partners - working with Theatre Hebrides, for example. 

So all of this needs to be teased out. Clearly the Foyle money is a major plus as it enables subsequent bids for funds to be put in the context of us already having a major part of the necessary support in place. We'll need to discuss going back to Creative Scotland on a different basis, and we'll also need to consider exactly what parts of the work can go ahead using the Foyle Foundation money. One obvious possibility will be that the timetable for the production will, once again, be changed in order to give us more time to put the changes into practice, and also to allow more time to go through the various funding processes. 

In the meantime, above is another photograph of Angus from Joyce Laings 'Weaver of Grass'. This, again by Jim Waugh, taken in 1978, of Angus weaving in the grounds of Craig Dunain Hospital.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Angus and technique

The picture above shows Angus, weaving in the grounds of Craig Dunain. He is wearing one of his wonderful self-made hats. This image is from Joyce Laing's 'Weaver of Grass' book and was taken by Jim Waugh in 1978. 

Thanks to Tim Johnston who wrote a comment on my entry last weekend referring to sùgan. Tim writes "..the image (referring to the coil of woven grass I have at our workshop) ... shows a grass three strand plait rather than a sùgan rope that were usually one ply and made with a thraw or craw hook."

This took me back to Joyce Laing's book and the chapter titled 'His Method of Weaving', which as a non-weaver I must admit I had previously skimmed over when reading the book. The close up of Angus weaving (taken by Tim Neal) is from that chapter. Much of this is taken up with a description of the way Angus was able to use the sheep's wool he gathered from barbed-wire fences and still roughly spin and use the resulting yarn. Not knitting as such, but he apparently invented a way of making vertical strips of plied fleece, using short broken off pieces of fence wire or even wood fragments as a gauge or needle. 

I imagine he would have been more familiar with the plaiting of grass. As Tim says "Angus may well have learnt and used plaiting in his early days to make horse collars that were often plaited then stitched together", and this observation is supported by Joyce in her book, as well as the information boards in Kildonan Museum that I mentioned in the same post.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Bad news - and good

On Monday we received a letter from Creative Scotland. Unfortunately the application that Helen had spent so long on was not able to be considered by them, as part of the application was asking for support towards physically making the production. Creative Scotland can only support applications from groups based outside of Scotland for touring and other creative work within the country; they cannot subsidise that part of the work which relates to creating the piece. Odd we didn't pick up on this, or it hadn't been made clear at the various meetings or during the many phone calls and emails that had been made as part of the process of putting the application together. 

Still, at least we didn't have to wait until March to be told this news. Helen has been on leave so it's not clear what her next step will be but clearly the door remains open for a modified application that falls within these guidelines. Over the next week or two the whole company will be discussing our future plans within the context of the radical shake up of arts funding imposed by the government; the Angus show will clearly form part of this discussion.

Then on Tuesday another letter arrived. This time from the Foyle Foundation - Helen had applied to the Foundation some time ago. For luck I put the letter in Red Riding Hood's* basket and took it upstairs to the office. Clearly the fairy-tale magic worked - PHF are offering us funding to support the development of a production about Angus McPhee. 

* Magic Red Riding Hood Funding Baskets can now be purchased by contacting the Horse + Bamboo Theatre office at

Saturday, 27 November 2010


Rope woven from straw or hay is something made and used by peoples throughout the world. It features, for example, in Shinto artifacts where it is used for ceremonial and ritual decoration, and even to make rope bridges. 

At the Museum in Kildonan on South Uist there's a display panel with the title Gnionih Mo Lamhan which I think we can translate as 'hand work', or 'hand craft'. It goes on to say:

"The people of South Uist used the natural materials available on the island to make many of the things they needed during their working lives. 

"Sùgan (hay rope) was made by twisting hay and rushes to make a rope. The rope would be use for securing hay stacks and thatching buildings.

"Rope was also made from heather... Heather was pulled, not cut and the turf that was attached to the end was cleaned....two strands of heather were twisted together to make a rope. Heather rope was used round the thatch of the house, round hay stacks and basically to anchor anything that needed to be secure. When the rope was no longer needed it was put into balls and then it was buried in a field drain to keep it fresh and pliable."

These three photographs are of rope used in this way on the remains of the old house where Angus was raised. The technique of weaving hay described above is exactly what Angus used in making many of the objects during his years at Craig Dunain, and in the short section of home movie used in Nick Higgins film, Hidden Gifts, Angus can be seen endlessly working the grass and hay into ropes such as these.  

The picture above is a coil I have of Angus's sùgan, woven during his last years in hospital - we keep it in a black bin-bag at the Boo, hoping it may provide a little good luck towards getting this show on the road . 

Friday, 19 November 2010

Weaver of Grass

Yesterday Helen sent off the application to Creative Scotland. If we're successful in the bid it will enable us to work with and alongside a large number of Scottish artists and organisations to create a performance about Angus McPhee - and a whole lot more besides. 

Taigh Chearsabhagh, Theatre Hebrides, the Gaelic Music Course at Lews Castle College, Kildonan Visitor Centre and Museum, all on the Outer Islands, will be directly involved. Joyce Laing and the Art Extraordinary Trust in Fife will also be part of the project, as will artists Joanne B.Kaar, Andy MacKinnon and Chris Spears - again, based on the Islands or Highlands. So with the exception of Horse + Bamboo Theatre a bid entirely based on work in Scotland. 

Now it's waiting to see what happens....there's also a bid been made to Scotland's Islands Festival. So time to remember where it all started. Joyce Laing's lovely little book, Weaver of Grass *, published by the Taigh Chearsabhagh Trust. 

* ISBN 0 9535814 1 1

Saturday, 13 November 2010

A Celtic pantheon

The Gundestrup Cauldron. I photographed this at the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen last summer. An awe-inspiring object that I think shows a Celtic pantheon. You can just glimpse Cernunnus, the horned god, to the right at the back, on the inside of the vessel. I want our story of Angus to hint, just hint, at the Celtic stories and culture that remained in the Uists and other Western Islands when they have all but disappeared from mainland of Europe.

Here, one last image from Horse + Bamboo's 1984 journey to the islands, courtesy of Dennis Thorpe of The Guardian. The second has now started in earnest - Helen has almost completed the first application for support for touring a production about Angus McPhee. It has to be submitted by Monday. The past few days we've been discussing the final details with partners such as Theatre Hebrides, Taigh Chearsabhagh and Lews Castle College on Benbecula.   

Friday, 5 November 2010

More memories...

The one and only surviving poster from our 1984 tour. I took the photograph at CallanishClachan Chalanais, on one of our many reconnaissance visits with Moira Hirst, the company's horse-handler. For this image Moira wore the mask and shawl that I carried in the car. In fact the tour never actually reached Lewis, finishing at Tarbert, on Harris just south of the long pull (for a horse) up to Lewis. 

This is us on Barra, with a semi-staged photograph for The Guardian, who flew up their Arts Reporter, Robin Thornber and the photographer, Dennis Thorpe, and published an almost full page (large, pre-Berliner format) photo-feature on our tour. 

Thursday, 4 November 2010


As fundraising and planning for a tour of a show about Angus McPhee gets underway in the Horse + Bamboo office I dug out the old photo-files of the 1984 tour of the Outer Hebrides. Then, we performed inside a marquee, although the first scene of the show took place outside of the tent before the audience were invited to enter. That outdoor show could also be used as a stand-alone performance, and the top photograph above is that show taken, I think, at Leverburgh Festival on Harris. 

The other two photographs are of the company travelling. If anyone recognises where we were then please let me know. The bottom photograph is on a causeway (look carefully and you can see the horse-drawn wagons in the distance), probably around Creagorry, on Benbecula, and not so far from Iochdar, where Angus was born. The middle photograph may be on Barra, or possibly Harris? 

Helen has created a Mastersheet - a plan of how we intend to raise the money to undertake this project and tour. A raft of different sources will be approached to support the work, and the first letters and applications are beginning to be worked on as I write. One interesting thing is the discovery that 2011-12 will be the year of a festival focused on the islands, -a year of events and activities that will showcase Scotland’s islands’ cultures and creativity, and called, not surprisingly 'Scotland's Islands'.

The festival will aim 'to raise the profile of the islands, attract new visitors, bolster community and economic development and strengthen links between the islands and mainland cultural organisations', and although co-incidental with our project, it may well be a perfect match.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


Despite working flat-out on Red Riding Hood (a new and small-scale show for Christmas) there's plenty happening here with Angus. Joanne B Kaar finally returned my email - the original had been chewed and rejected by her spam-eater - and we made contact. This has really delighted me as Joanne's work looks both fabulous and perfect for a show about Angus McPhee.....

Above we see Joanne after a recent fishing expedition with her husband, dad - and Chip. Joanne has also put me in contact with Tim Johnson, who has worked on Uist, and is a multi-skilled maker, working in photography, basket-maker, sculptor and painter. I also spoke with Chris Spears on Berneray yesterday, outlining our current plans and discussing the possibility of hiring a hall, perhaps even the community hall, on Berneray or North Uist in 2011 to use as a base for making parts of the production. 

In the course of our conversation Chris gave me a link to a number of artists associated with the island, including Chris Drury, whose show Land, Water and Language is currently at Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy (though closing shortly). So far as I can see it looks stunning. All of this confirms to me just how much really good creative work is happening in the Highlands and Islands.

Above - guisers on Uist (love this photograph); and finally - a link to a short section from 'Hidden Gifts: The Mystery of Angus McPhee' the excellent 25-minute film made by Nick Higgins for Landsdowne Productions in 2004.

Friday, 22 October 2010

A visit to Craig Dunain

One of the places that Esther and Helen visited on their recent trip was Craig Dunain, the psychiatric hospital outside of Inverness where Angus McPhee lived from 1946 until 1996. Craig Dunain Hospital was the only hospital for psychiatric illness in the Highlands, and formerly the Highland District Lunatic Asylum - Scotland's third oldest district asylum.

In 2007 it was mostly destroyed by fire and is now being transformed into luxury flats, as you can see from the photographs that Helen took there. The places where Angus worked, where he carefully placed all the garments he made from grass and sheep's wool beneath the protective bushes of rhododendron or holly, still remain. But they sit unloved amidst the security fencing and diggers and earth movers that are slowly eating away at the gardens that provided a studio and workshop for Angus for half a century (below).

The meetings in Inverness were really positive. Most were meetings with potential partners, and there is a keenness to tell this story and take it around the Islands and Highlands. On our part the need to work with Scottish partners on this project is apparent, and I'll be spending my time over the next few weeks consulting with friends and colleagues, planning ways of doing this and time-tabling our next visits.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The elective mute

There's an excellent article in yesterday's online SCOTTISH REVIEW by Angus Skinner. 'The Elective Mute', a piece about Angus McPhee and the work of Joyce Laing.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Feel the draft

Esther phoned me on Friday. She wanted to confirm that I was happy for her to take the draft script along to Inverness today in order to show anyone who might want to look at it. Presumably so they could get a sense of the general drift of the production. Sure, I said - meanwhile pointing out that my own version has already been modified. 

At this time the script is simply a draft. It's there so other people who may get involved with the production, whether artistically or organisationally, can get a feel of how it might be. So what we have now is no more than a general approach to telling a story. It combines a narrative about Angus McPhee with stage directions, such as whether a scene is accompanied by film, or whether the scene is played using masks or puppets, and where I see songs being placed amongst the action. 

The script tells a broadly sequential story of Angus's life. It's held together by narratives told as if by 'Joyce' - Joyce Laing, that is, and using her book 'Weaver of Grass' as a guide. Film is used to suggest some of the textures of the islands, and there are puppetry interludes that broaden the context to include Scottish and Celtic stories and histories. As I've mentioned there is also a thread of song. Probably largely Gaelic song.

In a way I've tried to write a script as a kind of analogy to a piece of work by Angus himself. To weave together threads of material that make connection with one another. To, in the end, create a complete artifact that says something about the man himself and his life, the place he came from (and goes back to), the historical and social circumstances of the time, and finally the cultural context of the whole. 

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Things get moving

I'm building the set for a Christmas production - Red Riding Hood - but on the organisational front things are moving fast for Angus. We don't have a title for this production yet, so it's just known as 'Angus' or 'Angus McPhee' and I'm getting to like just that.

The photographs are from inside the house at Iochdar where Angus and his family lived. It's now a ruin.

Esther and Helen are travelling to Inverness on the 11th October to discuss our plans with the Highland and Island Touring Network, Creative Scotland and possibly other touring agencies. They will also talk to Zenwing Puppets, who are based in the Highlands, about the possibility of them undertaking some work in schools related to the Angus McPhee theme. We've also had helpful expressions of interest from An Llantair on Lewis and from Taigh Chearsabhagh on Uist. The sense of something developing momentum is palpable. 

I've also discussed the idea with Chris Spears of him working on at least part of the set in Berneray - I like the idea of part of the show being physically created on the Islands, and finally I stumbled upon another blog - Mary-Ann's Cottage - and the work of Joanne B Kaar, an inspiring fibre artists who has herself been inspired by the example of Angus McPhee. 

Saturday, 25 September 2010

A pair of trousers

I phoned Chris Spears on Berneray this morning; it was Chris who first introduced me to the story of Angus. Alison and I stayed with him on our recent visit, and I inadvertently left our only copy of Nick Higgins film about Angus in his DVD player and now I need it back. Nick told me that the DVD had sold out (deservedly) and he was waiting for a new bunch of copies. In the meantime I had a French language subtitled version and I took it with me to the islands in order to remind Chris of the story.

Chris has built his own house in Borve where he lives with his family (above). On our visit he showed me the stone, just a few yards down on the beach where he has discovered ring and cup marks. The geneology of 113 Scots kings starts with Fergus Mac Erc around the year 500, the first king of Dalriada. It's a complex story but it's an important one; the first independent sea kingdom of the western seaboard. The Kings of Dalriada travelled their sea-kingdom to cement their authority, submitting to coronations at key points. One is at Leac an Righ, the 'flat stone of the king', or the Coronation Stone on Berneray. It is a stone ledge in the form of a footprint cut out of the rock. It has inscriptions similar to the stone at Dunadd where kings were known to have been crowned. Chris wonders if his stone is connected in some way to the Coronation Stone nearby.

How this relates to Angus isn't perhaps immediately apparent unless you've visited the Outer Hebrides. Once there perceptions change – perceptions of the land, of the weather, of both time and space. A single rock on a shore or in a field has significance. For a start it will have its own name. In the same way distant events print themselves in song and in story in a way that can be difficult to appreciate. Angus grew up in this world. He would have known the names of the rocks, their stories and associations; he would have used seaweeds and grasses to make rope is just the way the Kings and Lords of the Isles would have. This sense somehow has to feed into the story we tell.

On another very different note I visited Liverpool's Museum of the World last week, which has a wonderful ethnographic collection, possibly the best in England outside of London and Oxford. In one cabinet I saw a costume that was strangely familiar and then realised how these Japanese grass trousers (above top) are so very like those woven by Angus McPhee (above bottom).

Saturday, 18 September 2010

A foreign land...

Organising a theatre tour of Scotland is for us, in many ways, the same as organising a tour of a foreign country. The organisations we deal with are often very different to those in England, both those agencies that might help us with the touring logistics and those that could help us with any funding. The Scottish Arts Council has also very recently been superceded by Creative Scotland, so there's a very new organisation to deal with.

Esther and Helen have began looking at all of this. I also wrote to an old friend, Jenny Wilson, who for many years was Director of Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association, and before that Director of the Crawford Arts Centre in St. Andrews. Jenny wrote back with a long list of suggestions, and that helped begin the process. Since then Esther has visited Fife to talk with Joyce Laing, and there's the plan to (very soon) travel to Inverness to meet the people involved with theatre touring in Scotland and, in particular, of the Highlands and Islands

The photographs here are a few more from the recent trip I made with Alison to the Uists, and show the ruined house that Angus was brought up in. The blackhouse is actually perched just above the beach, and literally five steps (and a jump down) will bring you to the high-water line. The close up (above) hints at the textures and woven components that exist even within the fabric of that home; textures that clearly meant so much  to Angus himself. Below is a shot of what's left of the interior.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Angus McPhee - Weaver of Grass

This is a blog following my progress putting together a theatre show about Angus McPhee. So, already it's getting complicated - who was Angus McPhee? What kind of theatre show? Who is going to do this? So here goes...

Angus McPhee was from Iochdar, in South Uist, part of the Outer Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland. He was a crofter who as a young man went off to war in 1940. Something happened during the next few years and he was invalided home, a changed man, an elective mute. Soon he was transferred to Craig Dunain, a Victorian psychiatric hospital outside of Inverness. There he spent the next 40-odd years. During this period he created extraordinary woven grass objects. These were hardly recognized by the hospital staff, until in the late 1970s the noted art therapist Joyce Laing visited the hospital, looking for examples of 'Art Brut', Outsider Art, or 'Art Extraordinary'. Joyce seized upon the pieces she found in the hospital grounds, and thus fortunately was able to preserve a small part of Angus's work. 

As Artistic Director of Horse + Bamboo Theatre I visited the Outer Islands in the 1980s as part of an extensive horse-drawn tour. I made many friends during that memorable time. Several years later, one friend, Chris Spears of Berneray, sent me a copy of the booklet written by Joyce Laing about Angus. Called Angus McPhee: Weaver of Grass, it told Angus's story and I immediately felt it would make a wonderful subject for a theatre piece. Angus had been sent home to spend his last years in Uist, and had died there in 1997.

Last year I finally got round to take taking Joyce's book down off the shelf again. I discussed the subject with my colleagues at H+B, and found they were extremely enthusiastic about the idea of a touring show on this subject, and furthermore a show that would be designed in such a way as to be suited to touring to the Hebrides themselves, as well as to other island and similar isolated communities. So with the help of my colleagues, in particular Helen Jackson, who has started the unenviable task of fundraising for the tour; Esther Ferry-Kennington, who as producer to the company, will be selling the tour, and my co-artistic director Alison Duddle, work has begun on the task - this blog will document the journey. 

I visited Joyce earlier this summer at her wonderful 'Art Extraordinary Gallery' in Pittenweem, Fife, and there saw some of Angus's amazing pieces for myself. Joyce was very enthusiastic about the project and has already been extremely helpful and supportive. Esther visited her at the gallery to maintain this dialogue and Alison and I visited the Uists (see foggy photo above) in July. There we tracked down Angus's old tigh dubh (black house - see below) and visited Chris Spears, who had prompted the whole adventure on Berneray