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, 22 June 2011

5 minutes - for The National Theatre of Scotland

Rehearsing for the National Theatre of Scotland film
I broke the morning routine to go downstairs to catch our five minute section of the National Theatre of Scotland's fiveminutetheatre at 6.55 this morning. It was running a few minutes behind schedule, and my broadband speed was appalling; so instead I caught snatches of disconnected movement and odd still images from our Angus film, which had been created last month as one single 5 minute take at the Community Hall on the island of Berneray. I noted that 69 other people were watching....

Berneray hall as we were preparing to shoot
our five minute film,
This 5 minute film isn't an extract or even a compilation of moments from our 'Angus' show. It's no more, nor less, than just one of the things we created as part of a very short research and development period on the Uists. Doing it was very useful - giving us at least a very clear goal and focus during the three days we were all together on the islands. Thank you, NTS, for allowing a Lancashire-based company to participate in the celebrations of your first, very exciting, five years. May there be many more!

Monday, 20 June 2011

Kist O'riches

Although I've been working on other projects for most of the time since I returned from the islands, work on the Angus MacPhee show is developing in many other ways. Esther and I have designed a card to promote the production and planned tour. This should be back from the printers this week, ready for Esther to mail out.

Daniella Orsini 

Daniella Orsini drove up from London last night to discuss the film and animation sections with me, and between us we've divided up the 9 sections and sub-sections that require film content. Generally I'll be working on the film sections and Daniella will be working on the animated parts. There's a link to Daniella's own blog on the right.

I also received an encouraging email from Mary MacInnes, the headteacher at Iochdar School. Mary liked the 'gentle' depiction of Angus in the script, and she particularly commented on the fact we intend to use gaelic songs throughout the production. She writes 

"Thinking of the first song - home - one springs to my mind which you will find on the Kist O' riches website - a milking song  (Crodh Chailein) sung by a lady who was a neighbour of Angus's -- Kate Nicholson was her name and the song really epitomises the crofting life in Uist at the time. You hear her milking the cow and it is brilliant."

Kist O'riches is the English name for the really wonderful Tobar an Dualchais archive site that we were first introduced to by Anna-Wendy Stevenson. A treasure chest of riches indeed. 

Meanwhile Helen is working on fund-raising for the production; Joanne B Kaar is working on the grass weaving, and Chris Spears is planning to join me some time in the future in order to create a finished version of the set. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Slippers of leaves...

Angus MacPhee was taken from his home at Iochdar, in the very north of South Uist, to Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital, just outside Inverness, suffering from some form of schizophrenia. There he remained for 50 years until he was returned home as part of the care-in-the community programme in the mid 1990s. Many people who knew him felt that this length of incarceration was, put simply, not necessary. The worst effects of his illness burned themselves out after a few years and Angus, one of the more able and capable inmates at Craig Dunain, was working anyway, largely unsupervised, on the hospital's farms.

But as a result of circumstances, Angus remained for the larger part of his life in this hospital. He turned to one of the skills, one of the crafts, that was practiced by the crofters of South Uist – weaving grass. At home this was an entirely practical skill – used to make rope, harness, and other articles that the crofters, living in a subsistence economy, learned in order to make ends meet, to make things work. But for Angus it became something else – a lifeline in order to reconnect himself with a lost past and everything it represented.

More extraordinary still, Angus began to use this craft in entirely new ways. No longer simply making ropes, but making fantastic garments, sun-burst hats, swallow-tailed suits, and even a representation of a stray cat he had befriended in the hospital grounds. This burst into creativity is what places Angus MacPhee's work in the company of other Outside Artists, other Artists Extraordinary.

One other way in which Angus's creativity went beyond the relatively straightforward craft of island rope-making was in the materials he began to use. When marram grass – the muirineach – wasn't available, he used the grasses that he found in the vicinity of the hospital. Later he experimented with other materials – sheep's wool that had snagged on the barbed wire fences around the farm and, even, leaves. The slipper above is one of a set made using leaves from trees in the hospital grounds. Now faded and wrapped in acid-free paper at Joyce Laing's gallery in Pittenweem in an attempt to preserve it from the inevitable process of decay, its shows Angus experimenting freely, not only with the form but also with the very material used in his work, in a heroic attempt to preserve his integrity, personality, and culture in an environment that was, inevitably, highly institutionalised.  

Sunday, 5 June 2011

The decline of the blackhouse

I'm back home now after my second recent trip to the Outer Hebrides. My work on the Angus show will slow right down now, as I have to turn my attention to other projects. But work on 'Angus' at Horse + Bamboo is far from stopping. Esther will be putting together the tour for 2012, and Helen will be spending a lot of her time in raising the funds that will enable the tour to take place. 

Individual artists will continue the work too. Joanne B Kaar will be making more of the woven grass work that replicates the pieces made by Angus MacPhee, and which will be such an important part of the final production. I'm also going to be planning the animated film sections with Daniella Orsini, and I hope Daniella will be able to make a start on these pieces of film, many of which will use the still and filmed footage that I've been taking on my recent trips. 

On our last full day on the islands we visited a ruined tigh dubh, a blackhouse, not dissimilar to the one Angus and his sisters would have been brought up in. Inside were the remains of the stove, the furniture, all the items the family living there would have used in their lives:

A sad sight, and not an unusual one on the islands. I wondered if Angus's home in Iochdar would have had its walls clad in wood as with this one or simply plastered. Of course his old family home is now slowly deteriorating as I've noted in previous blogs. The adjoining houses to the one in these photographs had gone a stage further, with the roof beams having collapsed, and the marram grass thatching had fallen with them into the inside of the house walls.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A discovery!

On the 15th May Loz Kaye and I were given a tour of Iochdar by Mairi MacInnes and Mary Schmoller (see the blog). Among the places we visited was Ardivachar Cemetary, where Angus, along with his father, sisters and other close relatives, was buried. Together we looked for his grave, and Mairi asked several people if they knew where it was. We all searched up and down the few rows of grave stones but, not finding any, concluded that Angus's grave was unmarked and lay next to that of his sister Peigi.

One paragraph in Roger Hutchinson's book The Silent Weaver puzzled me however. He writes near the end of the book of the cemetery 'where a spit of green land nudges into the Atlantic Ocean on the westernmost edge of Iochdar machair. A modest headstone was placed on his grave." 

So today I visited again, and searched once more. Within 10 minutes I came across it:

How we all missed it before I can't imagine. The headstone looked new, but it was highly unlikely that it could have been placed there in the two weeks since we visited. Anyway, here it was - next to that of his older sister Patricia, whereas we had been looking for it next to the headstone of his sister Margaret (Peigi). Fois Agus Sith = Rest in Peace. Apologies for having mislead anyone.....

Note, too, the spelling as Angus MacPhee rather than McPhee. Since I started researching his story I've come across both spellings (Joyce Laing uses McPhee), but throughout Roger Hutchinson uses MacPhee and so I shall, from now on, taking the family gravestone as definitive, adopt that spelling too.