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....

Friday, 28 January 2011

Angus at Craig Dunain

From 'The Voice of the Bard' by Timothy Neat 1999. pub. Canongate (with the authors permission):

"Angus McPhee was an unusual artist. What happened is this, at Craig Dunain, Angus was set to work on the asylum farm but he was always wandering off into the woods, and he was allowed to do this. And there in the wood he made rope and clothes and boots and shoes and harness and reins for horses, out of grass! He made them out of hay, wool, twigs and leaves, anything he could find. And this kept him quiet. He was so strong he could be dangerous. He was schizophrenic but, working at his ropes, he became as meek as a lamb and the staff let him get on with it. He used to hang what he made up on trees and in hedges and stack them under the rhododendron bushes. Over the months and years they rotted away into compost.

"He had this compulsion to be useful, to earn his keep. He had a dedicated sense of service. He must have remembered how his father had made ropes of grass and heather, how he'd helped his sisters carding wool, how they'd made horse-bridals and collars out of marram - so, in his madness, he made length after length of string and rope. Then he would weave these ropes into hats and cloaks and leggings, knapsacks, holdalls, and strange things that look like giant horns. He made needles out of wire and knitted vests from the wool he collected from the thorn hedges. He made trousers out of beech leaves and tobacco pouches out of birch and great sea-boots out of hay. He lived in a world of his own but it was also a world like the past, like the old days Mairi Mhor wrote about in her song:

When Martinmas came
And the livestock and crops were all put away,
The men would be making their ropes of heather
And the rush-bags stacked in a heap
By the clamp built high for potatoes,
And the barrel would be full of salt-meat:
That's how things were for us,
Growing up in the Island of the Mist."

As told by the bard John MacAskill of Blackpoint, Grimsay, North Uist. The photographs by Tim Neat are of sculptured weavings by Angus McPhee from the undergrowth of Craig Dunain Hospital, Inverness.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Planning our work

Now that I'm able to plan things in a little more detail, I've had another discussion with Chris Spears about the use of Berneray Community Hall in May. We're trying to arrive at a fee for hiring the space for a week. The hall committee meet in a few weeks time, and I hope that we can come to some agreement at that time.

Berneray map: Wikitravel Image Repository Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 1.0.
The hall is at Borve (Borgh) to the NNE of Loch Bhuirgh, numbered 3 on the map above (if you can read it), and Chris lives on the edge of the Loch. Everything is very close by, a short walk away, and it may well be that when we get to having visitors they will stay at the hostel at East Beach (no.6).

The plan is that I travel up and work with Chris to create a rough version of the set, accompanied by Loz Kaye, the Musical Director on the production, who will work with musicians from Lews Castle College Learning Centre on Benbecula. By the end of the week we will be joined by other artists and performers working on the show - Alison Duddle, my colleague and co-director at Horse + Bamboo Theatre; Mark Whitaker, a puppeteer who we hope will be in the final show; and Joanne B Kaar, who will be making the woven costumes and other performing objects for the production. We'll have some of the masks and puppets to work with; possibly even some film material, so we should be able to achieve a lot in a few days of workshopping. 

View across to Berneray harbour; with seals. 
We could easily do this work at our base in Lancashire but it makes real sense to do it on the islands. First it will introduce some our cast to the Outer Hebrides; it will also be far easier for Chris, who lives on Berneray and Joanne, who lives way north on the mainland (near Dunnet by Thurso in Caithness), and the musicians, to meet up with the rest of us here. 

Most importantly we're able to cross the various causeways and visit the place on North Uist where Angus was born and lived until he went away to fight in the Second World War (and, of course, to where he returned after 50 years away). 

Finally I want the set to have a strongly organic feel - not to be a rigid structure of painted theatre flats and screens, but to use local materials to help create a framework where wires or ropes tensioned by heavy rocks can support cloth screens. This will take experiment and probably some  beach-combing, but it's certainly something best done in this island environment. 

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The bard John MacAskill

It crossed my mind to find something more about the photographer who had taken the evocative photographs of Angus during his last years back in Uist (see recent blogs). In doing this I came across not only the photographs but the writing of Timothy Neat and, in particular, a very special book 'The Voice of the Bard': Living Poets and Ancient Tradition in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland'.

It's a lovely book, larger than I expected, and takes the form of interviews or biographical portraits, written in the first person, with a dozen or so bards - poets and singers who continue a rich and ancient tradition but are rarely heard outside of their own communities. It also has a short essay on the history of the bardic tradition by Dr John MacInnes. It's available at the moment (via Amazon) at the amazing bargain price of £9.99.

One of the bards portrayed in the book is John MacAskill, of Grimsay, North Uist, and he talks about Angus MacPhee "many men went away with the Lovat Scouts in both world wars. One of them came back to South Uist last year after more than 50 years away. His name is Angus MacPhee and he was from Iochdar. It's beautiful story. We saw a man talking about him on the television." He goes on to tell this story in his own way, making powerful points through his use of language "...he was brought back by aeroplane, all those years after he set out on his horse."

John MacAskill ends his piece with this.

"When I heard the story of Angus MacPhee, it's a very strange thing, but a lullaby came into my mind. Its called 'Blue Donald's Lullaby' and it used to be sung by Mrs Archie MacDonald, up in South Uist. She's dead these many years. It's a lovely song, and it's very old."

The sun rising
And it without a spot on it,
Nor on the stars
When the son of my King
Comes fully armed,
The strength of the universe with you,
The strength of the sun
And the strength of the bull
That leaps highest.

That woman asked
Another woman,
What ship is that
Close to the shoreline?
It's Donald's ship,
Three masts of willow on it,
A rudder of gold on it,
A well of wine in it,
A well of pure water in it. 

(Trad. trans. HH)

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The current plan

Angus McPhee drinking coffee at Uist House, the care home on South Uist where he lived after returning to the island after his long, long stay at Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital near Inverness. From Joyce Laing's book 'Weaver of Grass' (photo: Tim Neat).

The plan: Once our current shows are up and running, Alison and I will start working on 'Angus'. Between now and May we'll each find at least a months work to spend on the show - probably masks and puppets will be the first things we make. Some of the puppets required are complex - in particular a set of marionettes for the scene when the young Angus sets off to join the Lovat Scouts at the outset of the war. These I imagine will be carved in wood, and possibly by Alison who has got into wood-carving in a big way over the past year and more... Meanwhile, I'll probably start by creating a series of masks of Angus McPhee himself; masks that represent Angus at different stages of his life.

The plan is to then for us to take these to the Outer Hebrides early this summer, along with our musical director, Loz Kaye, and using Berneray Community Hall as a base for a short time, to start developing the staging for the show and beginning to look at how the different formal elements - the masks and puppets, song, music, film, woven pieces - might all come and work together. At this point we'll meet up with some of the other artists working on the development of the piece - Chris Spears and Joanne B Kaar. I'll also continue with this work throughout the summer months.

Helen and Esther will meantime be working on raising the funding to enable us to continue the work. By April 2012 we'll put together a more formal presentation at Taigh Chearsabhagh of our work in progress as a public exhibition. At this point the Foyle Foundation grant runs out and we'll  

Then the final making period will start at our base in Rossendale in preparation for a tour from July to September 2012. This happening will depend on how successful Helen has been in raising funding support to allow us to finish the making and then to undertake rehearsals. The final part of the funding jigsaw is in the organising and selling of the tour itself, and this is where Esther's work is crucial, and will need to start before we're too long into 2011.