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, 29 September 2011

To Joanne and Dunnet Head

I've been on the road now for a couple of days; yesterday started with a visit to Wick Heritage Centre and then to see Aileen Grogan, who worked as Producer at Horse + Bamboo until 5 years ago when she left to a plot of land and a new life in Caithness. Then on the Caithness Horizons in Thurso to see the Robert Dick exhibition put together by Joanne B Kaar (above). Joanne has been fascinated by the story of this baker turned botanist, and in partnership with the museum department at Caithness Horizons who had Dick's herbarium collection in their care, catalogued 60 of the beautiful pressed specimens and used these as a basis for an exhibition about Dick's life and studies. The gallery is a really rich and evocative installation full of images of Dicks work and his fascination with phrenology and botanical studies alongside the paraphernalia of a bakers work - flour bags, twine, loaves.  

And then to meet Joanne and Joe, who live close by Dunnet Head - the most northerly part of the British mainland. Joanne is an important collaborator in the Angus production, and has been researching Angus MacPhee's work and the precise manner in which he created his woven garments. Recently she visited Joyce Laing and looked at the originals in the Museum of Art Extraordinary, and has since tried recreating some of Angus's work. The first she showed me was a reproduction of the oddly memorable jacket that dominates Joyce's collection. To me it was exactly as I remembered the original and I felt in awe of Joanne's ability to recreate such a unique piece of work. I had asked Joanne to do this as it's clear that we need, on stage, to show the work Angus produced, but to have such a hauntingly accurate piece at this point is something I hadn't expected. Something about seeing this laid out of Joanne's floor (above) filled me with fresh confidence in the production. Joanne's material all comes from her land - the grasses and plants used in the weaving process pulled from outside her doorstep.

Then at the end of a warm and sticky and it has to be said, untypical, Caithness day, Joanne took me to Dunnet Head, where as the sun set we looked all around - north to Hoy in Orkney, south to the Sutherland hills, and below us her own Brough home.  You can find more about Joanne's woven 'Angus' jacket on her blog here.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Esther sends in a progress report

Esther is on the last leg of her mini-epic round trip with the Press Night of Para Handy at, I think, the Eden Court in Inverness. A perfect way to end a day of travelling if you ask me - as we found on our horse-drawn tours of Scotland, when it became a regular habit to read out loud the adventures of Para Handy and the crew of the Vital Spark, while we clustered around the camp-fire, dram in hand, 'til way past midnight.  

Anyway, while Esther recovered from the Stornoway - Ullapool ferry, she sent word of her meetings with Rona MacDonald of Glasgow Life; then at Sabhal Mor Ostaig - Mikey and Annette and Kath and then the TV studio at the college, plus talk of BBC Alba. Then on to Uist and meeting Andy MacKinnon. Everywhere mighty enthusiasm and promises of help. 

Alison during our trip last year, on the beach near Eochar, with the chimney of
Angus MacPhee's now ruined childhood home peeking up over the shore line. 

Esther then met Mary McInnes in Eochar, (Angus's home as a young man), where she clearly had a wide-ranging discussion touching on Ceolas, possible venues, Julie Fowlis, Kathleen McInnes, Anna Murray, and came away even more enthused than before. Then on the way to catch the Berneray - Harris ferry she popped in to see Chris and Mary. Next to An Lanntair and Alex MacDonald - and finally a rough crossing to Ullapool and thence to Inverness and the coal-puffer crew.

So, now I can barely wait to hear directly from Esther - and then get on the road with my own trip.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A ferry, three galleries, a school, a college...and a workshop

Esther (our Producer - see column on right) is, as I write, on the Cal-Mac Uig-Lochmaddy ferry, and when she lands she will drive up the ramp, turn left and almost immediately pull over to the other side of the road to park outside Taigh Chearsabhagh, the arts centre for North Uist where she has a meeting arranged with Andy MacKinnon. Esther has texted me to say her meetings in Glasgow and at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College on Skye, have been very good and she was looking forward to seeing Andy and later Mary MacInnes, the head of Eochar School - where Angus MacPhee was schooled about eighty years ago. 

Meanwhile I've been in touch with Joanne B Kaar about my own visit north next week, when I'll be visiting Joanne and catching her exhibition at Caithness Museum in Thurso. I've also written to Joyce Laing at the Art Extraordinary Gallery in Pittenweem, Fife, where most of Angus's existent work is kept, hoping I'll be able to meet with her on my way back south and discuss possible ways of connecting our tour of a show about Angus with her collection.

Above: a couple of photographs Joanne sent me this morning. At the top a close-up of an Angus-style woven blanket using sheep's wool and grass, and below her workshop.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Esther away

Esther is visiting Scotland next week; following up my own visits in July. Her itinerary, I believe, is Glasgow - Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Skye - Taigh Chearsabhagh, Lochmaddy - Eochar - Berneray - Stornoway - Ullapool - Inverness. In 5 days - good luck Esther.

The idea is for her to look for additional but specific and focused support towards a tour of the region; to see how we can work with other groups to make the tour more than simply a show that goes from centre to centre. It might be possible, for example, to have an accompanying exhibition, or follow up the show with skill sharing. This could take many forms - mask and puppet making, weaving, music, animation, even Gaelic song, for example. We couldn't deliver all of these ourselves, so it's beginning to look for partners, as well as listening to what people say to us - maybe new opportunities or things we haven't thought of will grow from the visit. 

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Open Studios Day

This weekend Horse + Bamboo opened up our workshop as part of the Reveal Open Studios weekend; it also tied in with Waterfoot Day Out - a small town fete for the community. The rain for once stayed away and we had a great day - 160 people having guided tours of the building, an animation workshop for children, and a film of the show we're currently rehearsing - Red Riding Hood - running on a loop next to the set and a display of related masks and puppets. 

On the middle floor we have a small display on Angus MacPhee; combining our masks, puppets and some of Joanne B Kaar's woven pieces. This was a great little talking point and many people came up to me throughout the day to ask for more information about the project and the story of Angus himself. 

Thursday, 8 September 2011


I very much like this photograph (taken from Joanne B Kaar's blog). It shows just how large Angus's woven jacket is, as Joanne looks round - almost as if it just touched her on the shoulder. There's also Joyce Laing (back to us) taking her own photograph of Joanne, and then we get a glimpse of a cheery looking Angus MacPhee himself in the upper left. 

Over the next few weeks the Horse + Bamboo team will be heading north. Esther for a number of meetings with potential promoters of our show, and myself to visit Joanne and other contacts in Caithness, as well as to film more material for the film elements of the production. 

All of this is in preparation for us putting in grant applications to enable the rest of the work, including the tour itself, to happen. We'll need the support of Scottish partners to help us with this; even small grants and partnerships will strengthen the case that we'll have to make to fund the tour. 

Donnie Munro wrote: "Very nice to receive your letter on your plans for the touring show (about) Angus McPhee which is fantastic news. It is such a fascinating story and one which I always felt should really be explored in film. I am delighted however that this will now be done as a piece of theatre and look forward to having the opportunity of seeing the production somewhere along the way."  He goes on to say that he felt Sabhal Mor could well be a host for the touring production.

It is this kind of support that will be crucial in the coming weeks and months.

Thursday, 1 September 2011


We passed through Copenhagen on the way back from Sweden and had a few hours to pass between trains. I couldn't resist the opportunity of revisiting the Gundestrup Cauldron in the National Museum. Not immediately related to Angus MacPhee, I suppose, but to me the quintessential piece of Celtic artwork. Look at the horned figure in the central photograph, and seeing his woven suit I can't but imagine it woven from grass. And more directly, these excavated sacrificial offerings of human hair - as fresh as the day they were cut - and even here, that compunction to plait and weave. Wonderful!