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....

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.