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).

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