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, 25 September 2010

A pair of trousers

I phoned Chris Spears on Berneray this morning; it was Chris who first introduced me to the story of Angus. Alison and I stayed with him on our recent visit, and I inadvertently left our only copy of Nick Higgins film about Angus in his DVD player and now I need it back. Nick told me that the DVD had sold out (deservedly) and he was waiting for a new bunch of copies. In the meantime I had a French language subtitled version and I took it with me to the islands in order to remind Chris of the story.

Chris has built his own house in Borve where he lives with his family (above). On our visit he showed me the stone, just a few yards down on the beach where he has discovered ring and cup marks. The geneology of 113 Scots kings starts with Fergus Mac Erc around the year 500, the first king of Dalriada. It's a complex story but it's an important one; the first independent sea kingdom of the western seaboard. The Kings of Dalriada travelled their sea-kingdom to cement their authority, submitting to coronations at key points. One is at Leac an Righ, the 'flat stone of the king', or the Coronation Stone on Berneray. It is a stone ledge in the form of a footprint cut out of the rock. It has inscriptions similar to the stone at Dunadd where kings were known to have been crowned. Chris wonders if his stone is connected in some way to the Coronation Stone nearby.

How this relates to Angus isn't perhaps immediately apparent unless you've visited the Outer Hebrides. Once there perceptions change – perceptions of the land, of the weather, of both time and space. A single rock on a shore or in a field has significance. For a start it will have its own name. In the same way distant events print themselves in song and in story in a way that can be difficult to appreciate. Angus grew up in this world. He would have known the names of the rocks, their stories and associations; he would have used seaweeds and grasses to make rope is just the way the Kings and Lords of the Isles would have. This sense somehow has to feed into the story we tell.

On another very different note I visited Liverpool's Museum of the World last week, which has a wonderful ethnographic collection, possibly the best in England outside of London and Oxford. In one cabinet I saw a costume that was strangely familiar and then realised how these Japanese grass trousers (above top) are so very like those woven by Angus McPhee (above bottom).

Saturday, 18 September 2010

A foreign land...

Organising a theatre tour of Scotland is for us, in many ways, the same as organising a tour of a foreign country. The organisations we deal with are often very different to those in England, both those agencies that might help us with the touring logistics and those that could help us with any funding. The Scottish Arts Council has also very recently been superceded by Creative Scotland, so there's a very new organisation to deal with.

Esther and Helen have began looking at all of this. I also wrote to an old friend, Jenny Wilson, who for many years was Director of Dumfries and Galloway Arts Association, and before that Director of the Crawford Arts Centre in St. Andrews. Jenny wrote back with a long list of suggestions, and that helped begin the process. Since then Esther has visited Fife to talk with Joyce Laing, and there's the plan to (very soon) travel to Inverness to meet the people involved with theatre touring in Scotland and, in particular, of the Highlands and Islands

The photographs here are a few more from the recent trip I made with Alison to the Uists, and show the ruined house that Angus was brought up in. The blackhouse is actually perched just above the beach, and literally five steps (and a jump down) will bring you to the high-water line. The close up (above) hints at the textures and woven components that exist even within the fabric of that home; textures that clearly meant so much  to Angus himself. Below is a shot of what's left of the interior.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Angus McPhee - Weaver of Grass

This is a blog following my progress putting together a theatre show about Angus McPhee. So, already it's getting complicated - who was Angus McPhee? What kind of theatre show? Who is going to do this? So here goes...

Angus McPhee was from Iochdar, in South Uist, part of the Outer Hebrides, or Western Islands of Scotland. He was a crofter who as a young man went off to war in 1940. Something happened during the next few years and he was invalided home, a changed man, an elective mute. Soon he was transferred to Craig Dunain, a Victorian psychiatric hospital outside of Inverness. There he spent the next 40-odd years. During this period he created extraordinary woven grass objects. These were hardly recognized by the hospital staff, until in the late 1970s the noted art therapist Joyce Laing visited the hospital, looking for examples of 'Art Brut', Outsider Art, or 'Art Extraordinary'. Joyce seized upon the pieces she found in the hospital grounds, and thus fortunately was able to preserve a small part of Angus's work. 

As Artistic Director of Horse + Bamboo Theatre I visited the Outer Islands in the 1980s as part of an extensive horse-drawn tour. I made many friends during that memorable time. Several years later, one friend, Chris Spears of Berneray, sent me a copy of the booklet written by Joyce Laing about Angus. Called Angus McPhee: Weaver of Grass, it told Angus's story and I immediately felt it would make a wonderful subject for a theatre piece. Angus had been sent home to spend his last years in Uist, and had died there in 1997.

Last year I finally got round to take taking Joyce's book down off the shelf again. I discussed the subject with my colleagues at H+B, and found they were extremely enthusiastic about the idea of a touring show on this subject, and furthermore a show that would be designed in such a way as to be suited to touring to the Hebrides themselves, as well as to other island and similar isolated communities. So with the help of my colleagues, in particular Helen Jackson, who has started the unenviable task of fundraising for the tour; Esther Ferry-Kennington, who as producer to the company, will be selling the tour, and my co-artistic director Alison Duddle, work has begun on the task - this blog will document the journey. 

I visited Joyce earlier this summer at her wonderful 'Art Extraordinary Gallery' in Pittenweem, Fife, and there saw some of Angus's amazing pieces for myself. Joyce was very enthusiastic about the project and has already been extremely helpful and supportive. Esther visited her at the gallery to maintain this dialogue and Alison and I visited the Uists (see foggy photo above) in July. There we tracked down Angus's old tigh dubh (black house - see below) and visited Chris Spears, who had prompted the whole adventure on Berneray