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