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....

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.