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....

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Silent Weaver

Within the past hour I've finished reading the proof copy of The Silent Weaver that the author Roger Hutchinson very kindly allowed me to read before its forthcoming publication in September. This is a detailed story of Angus McPhee's life - in fact its full title is 'The Silent Weaver: The Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus MacPhee'

The information for my own play about Angus has so far been derived almost entirely from the short book Weaver of Grass, by Joyce Laing, and it was through Joyce that I heard about Roger's book. I've read Calum's Road - Roger Hutchinson's previous and very successful book about a crofter from Raasay, and it occurred to me, as I began reading The Silent Weaver, that his new book had the potential to upset all the notions and ideas that came together to form the raw material for my production with Horse + Bamboo Theatre (as yet untitled, but we currently refer to it as, simply, 'Angus'). 

Trial collar for our production of
'Angus' by Joanne B Kaar

Roger Hutchinson's book is beautifully written and clearly very well researched - not only the particular details of Angus McPhee's life, but also with regard to those things that helped shape it - grass weaving in the crofting community; the soldiering of the Lovat Scouts; the Art Brut movement; the treatment of mental illness in the Highlands during the Twentieth Century, for example. 

Despite this I've put the book down feeling pleased and perhaps a little surprised that the only real modification I'll need to make to our piece is an acknowledgement that Angus was actually born near Glasgow, rather than in South Uist as I had assumed. What is more, in The Silent Weaver, Roger Hutchinson continually places Angus's work in the context of Celtic art and traditions, which is something I decided to make a part of our own 'Angus' from its inception. 

Within a few yards of where I'm staying there are two rocks on the shore with mysterious cup marks (above); slightly higher up the hill is Cladh Maolruibhe, an ancient burial ground and later a 6th century chapel; within a 100m is A'Clach Mor, a standing Stone and from there walking back to the house is Leac an Righ (The Flat Stone of the King), believed to be the inauguration stone of the Lord of the Isles. None of this is signposted or marked in any way; they just exist in the landscape, just as they always have.

Angus's weavings, it has been noted, have an ancient, archaeological, look - a feeling that they could have been made at any time during the period that human beings have lived on the earth. The Silent Weaver notes this too, and celebrates the fact that Angus McPhee, trapped in the institution of Craig Dunain, was able to reach deep down into the ancient well of his culture and somehow manage to twist the strands together in a way that protected his individuality with work of great inventiveness, distinction and even wit. 

Monday, 30 May 2011

Sunday, 29 May 2011


Back now on Uist, and staying once more on Berneray. The beaches along the west coast of the Outer Islands are famed for their beauty and the long, long empty stretches of pure white sand. Above is the west beach on Berneray, which we visited today, looking north with the mountains of Harris in the background.

The beach is backed by dunes, which are held together and stabilised by the marram grass, or muirineach in Scottish Gaelic, which flourishes in these dunes. 

This grass was equally abundant in the part of Uist where Angus grew up as a boy. On the east of Uist marram or muirineach was rarer, so rope was made by plaiting heather, but on the west coast rope was made from marram, which was so abundant that  it was also used for thatching the roofs of the blackhouses, such as the one in which Angus lived.

Seeing the muirineach grass today reminded me of the long section in Roger Hutchinson's soon-to-be-published book 'The Silent Weaver' about the importance of the grass to the Iochdar crofting economy; he also writes about the irony in Angus McPhee finding that grass weaving helped him to rediscover his identity after the period of a profound mental breakdown, just at the time when its importance in the community he had been removed from was in rapid decline.

In a few generations the traditional skills and the craft involved in the making of grass and heather rope were lost as cheap, commercially produced, strings and ropes became available to the islanders. New houses were tiled rather than thatched, and the horse, which had been so central to the island crofting economy, was rapidly replaced by the tractor, along with the woven grass harness that was an essential part of horse-powered croft and farm work. Yet during the same period as this rapid decline and loss, Angus was weaving away in the grounds of Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital in a long and heroic effort to retrieve his lost life. 

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Both nam Faileas - and new information too

Rainbow over the Hut of Shadows or Both nam Faileas

I'm preparing to return to Berneray at the weekend; hoping the gales keep away. In the meantime I'm beginning to read the manuscript for 'The Silent Weaver', the new book by Roger Hutchinson (author of 'Calum's Way') which is due for publication this autumn.

It's a lovely book, telling Angus's story but giving a lot of detail about the background circumstances to his life and times. Detail about the life of a crofter on South Uist in the early years on the twentieth century (that had hardly changed for 100 years); detail about the Lovat Scouts - the regiment that Angus and other young island men of his generation signed up for, and so on. 

For me this is not only fascinating but also has in impact on the story we're telling in our production.  Although our piece is almost entirely non-verbal, telling the story with images and music, it's very important that it's bedded into a factual base. Joyce Laing's 'Weaver of Grass' provides some of this material but her story is essentially about the Angus Mcphee she met at Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital, and the background she gives is necessarily quite basic when compared to Rogers. 

Already (I'm half-way through the book) I've discovered that Angus wasn't born on South Uist, but near Glasgow. His father had left the island, looking for work as a hired hand, and he married and had his 4 children during this period. Eventually he returned, by a twist of fate, when Angus was around 7 years old. This knowledge subtly affects the opening of our piece as I had written it, and accordingly it will need to be changed. 

Monday, 23 May 2011

Back home - via Pittenweem

So, a breezy crossing of the Little Minch enlivened by the company of dolphins leaping through the waves, and then on to the Art Extraordinary Gallery in Pittenweem, where Joyce Laing's collection of extraordinary art is based. The collection is the home of almost all of Angus McPhee's surviving work, where part of it is permanently on display.

Loz and Joyce Laing in front of work by Angus McPhee
Joyce welcomed us warmly and, after a cup of coffee and a discussion about how fragile the pieces by Angus now are, and our own exploits on Uist, we retired to her home and Loz recorded Joyce reading short passages from her book. These extracts we plan to incorporate into our theatre production; although the piece is essentially visual, with music, we will probably use short pieces of spoken text to link scenes and create an underpinning narrative.

Loz listens to a playback of a recording of Joyce reading from her book
Meanwhile I'm back at Horse + Bamboo, catching up on the news and describing our adventures in the Hebrides. Today Roger Hutchinson generously sent me a draft version of his soon to be published book on Angus, and having it in my hand I'm now very much looking forward to reading it. 

We've also had a look at Joanne B Kaar's version of events last week, and to see more photographs of the work we've been undertaking, have a look at Joanne's own blog here.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Angus's gift

The week in the Uists has been very, very good. I always felt that it would be a useful venture for us, but what I didn't realise was just how important it would be. Important in a number of ways – firstly, a key stage in developing a theatre show about Angus McPhee; but also important for doing something altogether more fundamental – reminding us, when it comes to the crunch, of what actually matters.

To work in the (publicly subsidised) arts right now can be frustrating. Matters of funding, of management, of income generation, of negotiations with the Arts Council, of service and contract agreements, sit so visibly on the surface of our day to day work life that it often feels as if the real substance of our work – the creative vision and all the work that springs from it – is totally squashed by the these considerations, and that the sheer weight of emails, budgets, meetings, audience analyses and suchlike dominate and take precedence over the relatively straightforward matter of creating work which communicates and explores ideas with grace, in the process entertains, and then brings people together meaningfully.

Loz Kaye described this well in his guest blog on Monday – and reminded us that we are dealing with a man who needed his art for his survival. We were told that Angus felt that the system had crucified him, and we saw how his grass weaving grew from his deep need to reconnect himself with the culture and place from which he came, and from which his life was so abruptly severed.

The meetings we've had with people here who are working to sustain the rich Gaelic and Celtic culture of the islands have been extremely stimulating. Honesty and integrity has shone through. South Uist, where Angus was brought up and where he died, has a population of about 1800 people spread over a large area. In this context an art centre, or a centre of learning, can be seen clearly for what it is – as an essential and necessary part of the community, maintaining and sustaining and developing the history and heritage of the people. On these islands the creativity of the community shines out – most particularly in the musical heritage, but also in the wealth of fine artists and craftspeople and their studios that dot the landscape.

Back in Lancashire the landscape is very different of course, and the view is more complex – shops, traffic on the roads, business of all sorts - all this and much more obscures the picture. But at heart the same human needs remain – places where we can meet together with meaning; opportunities to create and express our anxieties and uncertainties, as well as celebrate who we are individually and collectively. Having got considerably closer to Angus this week, I'm humbled that this humblest of men can still manage to give me something very important to take back home to our own community and place in Rossendale, reminding us of the real urgency and importance of what we're trying to do as artists.

Angus and the 5 minute film

Today was a long and rather fulfilling day. From the successes and uncertainties of yesterday we put together a sequence of performed sections and music that had a kind of internal logic and balance. The NTS film had to be no more than 5 minutes long, and our first run was well over 7 minutes. We then chipped away at it - clipping the narrations; cutting parts of the performance; curtailing film sections; and generally making things flow more easily. Soon we were down to 6 minutes; then 5'30", and then 5'20"...and so on until we hit 5 minutes exactly. We found we could repeat this run after run - and so the 5 minutes version of 'Angus' was born. 

We then put on two 6 o'clock shows to a small invited audience, but also an unexpected 2.30pm run when three visitors turned up at the community hall to shelter from a squall. Turned out one worked for the National Theatre (of England)! Tea was brewed and all went very well and each of the shows were duly recorded on film. 

But we also had to discuss and brainstorm several problematic parts of the show; take publicity shots (see a selection above); test focal length for projections and finally dismantle the set and pack everything away so the hall was clean and shiny for tomorrow's Berneray Youth Club session.

The evening was rounded off by a group trip to Tigh Dearg for a great meal for all eleven of us. Many, many thanks to Chris, Mary, Joanne, Joe, Alison, Loz, Jonny, Christina for making this expedition so effective, and such fun; not to forget young Joseph for the terrible jokes and Nicky for grimacing at them. 

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Workshopping 'Angus'

Angus drinks a cup of tea. The first thing we looked at today was Jonny's transformation to the character of Angus McPhee. 

We've also been looking at the other things that have been made in preparation for this day of workshopping, plus a few of the ideas that grow out of my script. Such as imagining Angus at the time he had returned to Uist in the 1990s and was living in Uist House. Also the young Angus - Angus as a schoolboy, and his love of horses:

Some of todays workshopping session involved film projections and these, typically, created the main problems - plenty of hiatuses whilst issues about formats and suchlike were sorted out, and the problem of a small hand-held projector that simply didn't have the power to work effectively as our back projection source. Despite this the day has been very, very useful in discovering what works well (the masks, puppets, and the staging), and what doesn't (the projector). Loz has been trying out his first musical ideas too, and we therefore already have a few short sequences where image and sound come together very powerfully. Tomorrow we build on today's work to create a 5 minute sequence for the National Theatre of Scotland, filmed in front of a live audience.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

In the hall

Above is Berneray Community Hall in the Borve township, where we're currently working on the Angus show. Here it's seen from across the machair that stretches all the way to the enormous and beautiful West Beach. 

I visited Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy this morning and met up with Joanne B Kaar to visit the new local history exhibition. We also met the director, Andy MacKinnon to see their slides of Angus's work, and to mull over the idea of an exhibition there to co-incide with a tour of our show. 

This afternoon Joanne and I worked in the hall; Joanne fitting her woven hats to my Angus McPhee mask, and I tidied the set (see above) in readiness for the arrival tonight of Alison, Jonny and Christina, and the work we'll be starting tomorrow. 

Loz, meanwhile, is staying in the house working on Gaelic songs for the show. Wise, given how windy it is. Mary telephoned Calmac in Uig to see if the MV Hebrides was delayed in any way but, no, it takes more than this to disrupt the island ferry. Let's hope the crossing isn't too rough.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

We meet Joanne

Last night Joanne B Kaar arrived on the island with her husband Joe. They have driven down from their house by Dunnet Head in Caithness and are camping at Berneray hostel. Joanne has been working alongside the Horse + Bamboo arts team on this project for a few months now but, in all that time we've never met or even spoken to one another on the phone. But now, at last, we meet. Joanne has four large chicken feed sacks of grass weavings modelled on the work of Angus McPhee, and this morning she empties them into Berneray Community Hall, where we're working on the set. The hall now looks like this:

In the background is the model for the set that we've now completed and dressed in rough cloths. Chris, Joanne and I spent the afternoon going through the script, looking at what we might concentrate on on Thursday when the rest of the party arrive, and how we could best use Joannes remarkable woven pieces

Monday, 16 May 2011

Every rock has a name

Chris and Mary's house - where we're staying on Berneray

Guest spot by  Loz Kaye :

Monday was a significant day for me, with a visit to Lews College on Benbecula which hosts a Gaelic music course. In our conception of the show, traditional music has always been a vital thread, or piece of grass, to weave in to the overall production. For many of our shows recently the soundtrack has been recorded, or had a minimal element of live music or song. However with the Angus show right from the very first discussions we have wanted to have a live musician or singer. This is in particular to reflect the musical and bard traditions of the islands themselves. 

Equally, I am keen that the music of the show is grounded in folk song and melody. Music is very good at evoking a sense of place - as I have found with the Horse and Bamboo shows Veil and Little Leap Forward for example. But it is particularly important for this project where the musical tradition is so related to songs evoking specific places in the Isles, the villages, causeways, seascapes, rocks and fields that make up the setting of the narrative.

The college is quite a small building, but it comes alive with the sound of lilting song from one practice room and vigorous fiddle playing from another. I met with course head Anna-Wendy Stevenson, renowned fiddle player and composer, to outline the project and enlist help for my search for the right material and performer. She arranged for me to meet the students, a bright, varied and engaged bunch. They quickly assembled a song list centering on the key ideas of home, exile, and loss. We had a wide ranging discussion, including the importance of the landscape in local culture, as student Kathy put it, "every rock has a name". 

I also met with singing tutor Paul McCallum. He was very helpful pointing me in the direction of useful source materials as well as providing perspective on the music itself. As well as singing a couple of the tunes he mentioned for me himself in his beautiful and distinctive tone. He was very interested in the project and seems assured of its success - a confidence we would do well to communicate to funding bodies and potential sponsors. 

I had already discussed with the students the question of what traditional music is, and issues of authenticity, accuracy and innovation. Literally thousands of Gaelic songs have existed, in various versions according to different singers, and new lyrics are still written - it is certainly not a question of a canon set in stone or a museum piece. Paul's answer to these questions was this: "What is traditional music? It is music that has not been put in a straitjacket and is free." 

Paul also had insights in to Angus McPhee's life, having been cook at Uist House where Angus ended his days. He described him as a very private person, he would get up to have a bath at 2 in the morning, and also a very spiritual man. As Paul put it "He was crucified" - by being taken to Craig Dunain. On the one hand he was perhaps more damaged than saved by being sent there, yet in Paul's opinion, he would not have begun the weaving without it.

One of the main themes that recurred in today's discussions was the necessity for Angus of making his creations to survive. To all of us it was an idea that resonated, that art, craft and music are not just a luxury or add on, it is fundamental to the survival of our culture, and who we are as human beings. 

Perhaps I'll leave the last words to one of the songs Paul directed me to:

Fhir a théid a null a dh'Uibhist
'Nad fhear turuis air a bhàta,
Gheibh the eachdraidh ann ad uidhe,
'S gheibh thu spionnadh ann ad shláinte.

You who travel over to Uist by boat will find history on your route and will strengthen your health.

I'm feeling better already.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

An important day

Today turned out to be an important day for us. Mairi MacInnes, the headteacher of Iochdar School and Chairperson of Ceolas, met us outside the school, and along with Mary Schmoller, took us on a tour of the area - taking in Angus McPhee's birthplace, school, the church where he was baptised, the machair and beach areas where Angus worked, the site of the old post office where he would have received his call-up papers and, finally, his last resting place. All the time the two kept up a conversation about the life of the crofting community at Iochdar; telling us all that they knew about Angus both before and after his life in Craig Dunain. They were also very interested in our intentions with the production about Angus, and we began to talk a little about the sensitivities of the subject for his family. 

Angus's school group, 1930. Angus is far left on the top row. His sisters are on
the next row down, on the far right. 
Angus's sister Peggie - Margaret MacPhee Cross - died in 2007, 10 years
after Angus, and was buried in Iochdar cemetery. We were told that Angus is
buried next to his sister, in a site without a headstone.
Mairi and Mary had also arranged for us to meet John Campbell, Angus's nephew. John received us warmly and kindly, but it quickly became apparent that he was also rather nervous about how we might portray his uncle who, he emphasised, was a gentle man. Following on from the earlier conversations as we drove around it was clear to us how odd it must be for the family, even the wider local community, to have a member all but disappear for 40 years; then reappear; and finally and suddenly become a figure of interest to the wider world. After all, Loz and I are total strangers; we're non-Gaelic speakers and can probably understand little of the world that Angus was born into; and then, suddenly, we're standing on the doorstep, asking personal questions about a close relative!

We did our best to reassure John. We explained that our theatre piece would be largely non-verbal,  that it in essence it wouldn't deal in facts or figures, but would be a poetic, visionary, response to the story of his uncle.  Throughout John remained very friendly, and I promised to keep him informed about our work. He had read Roger Hutchinson's book about Angus in draft and appreciated it's honesty and accuracy.  Finally I showed him the puppet of Angus as a young boy, and my mask of Angus as an old man. He said the mask was a great likeness, and things relaxed. Stories were told about Angus's home coming as an old man, and we began to laugh together at these. It turned out that when I worked up here in the 1980s I had met people that John also knew, and in some cases was related to; people like Fr. Colin Macinnes of Barra, who I (similarly in some ways) had to convince of the virtues of our show Seol that eventually toured the islands.

This period of research into our production is clearly so necessary. If I ever wondered if it would be something of a luxury for us, given our tight budget, today has convinced me that it has already proved to be absolutely essential. In order for us to get under the skin of this story - but also to test our ideas and our experience in the very place where its subject was born.  

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Angus's house

At the top, the house in July 2010; below in May 2011. It's noticeable that the old thatch has fallen on the left hand side, exposing more of the roof supports.

Loz and I had a useful day - visiting the museum at Kildonan and discussing the lack of any information about Angus McPhee. The woman at the desk was anxious that they updated their displays to include something - interesting that although she hadn't heard of Angus, a visitor who was sailing round the Western Isles knew a lot about him having bought Joyce Laing's 'Weaver of Grass' book at Taigh Chearsabhagh. 

The museum is very interesting, particularly its collection of photographs of island life. The photo below, of a man making rope from horse-hair is from their archive. It demonstrates the kind of craft work that Angus would have known and clearly informed his activities in Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital. 

Chris, who does the Saturday post round here, was today talking with an island woman who knew Craig Dunain from the time Angus was there. She remembers walking in the grounds of the hospital (apparently footpaths went through) and seeing Angus's work all over the place, hanging from trees, under bushes - even glimpsing him working away at his weaving. She said she never dared touch anything. 

To finish today, the sign I love to see as we cross back to Berneray. In the distance, on the opposite shore, you can just make out Chris's house, where we're staying.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Big Dog and Gloomy Dog

Unfortunately I don't speak Gaelic. I know a few words and I also have the Briathrachan app on my iphone i.e a Gaelic-English dictionary. From these limited sources I've excited myself by working out that the two rocks that welcome you to Lochmaddy harbour (above) are the Big Dog and the Gloomy Dog. Even that Lochmaddy itself - Loch Nam Madadh in Gaelic, means the Loch of the Dogs. Actually, and to be precise, Briathrachand says that madadh can mean any wild animal, but somehow I prefer dog. Perhaps because I'm missing my own two, big dog and gloomy dog. 

To tell the story in sequence, I should have started with this photograph, taken from MV Hebrides as we left Uig bay in Skye:

We arrived at Chris Spears lovely house on Berneray at midday. Had a brew together and I then took Loz on a short tour of the island, checking out the Community Hall (where we'll be working next week) and the wonderful hostel (where Alison, Christina and Jonny will be staying when they arrive in the middle of the week). We then went to Taigh Chearsabhagh, stocked up with Weaver of Grass books (Joyce Laing's very special book about Angus McPhee) and introduced ourselves to the Director, Andy Mackinnon. 

Outside the hostel (above - it's right on the beach), Loz swung straight into action, trying out his new gizmo, a smart new palm size 24-bit recording studio. The lower photograph is Loz recording the sound of the waves on the beach, unfortunately slightly marred by the sound of the wind.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Getting Myself Prepared Day

Today is a Getting Myself Prepared Day for our visit to Uist and Berneray next week.   


Loz and I will be driving up on Thursday - Loz to meet Anna-Wendy Stevenson and talk with other local musicians; myself to work with Chris Spears on putting together a rough stage-set for later the following week when Joanne B Kaar, plus Alison (with Christina and Jonny) arrive. Together we'll spend a couple of days workshopping ideas for the show - and putting together a 5-minute performance for the National Theatre of Scotland film.

There's going to be a lot of improvisation involved in the couple of days we have together in Berneray Community Hall. We'll be taking up a number of masks, puppets and films to play around with. Chris has told me we'll have 4 x 500w lamps, a rack and dimmer board available. He also pointed out (memories of our horse-drawn days flood back) that the hall has a domestic-type 13amp power circuit and we won't be able to draw much more power than this (plus sound and video) in any case. He has a simple but decent CD player we can use too, while Christina will bring projectors, a Mac with Q-lab, and film equipment that we'll need to operate the technical equipment. 

Joanne will (possibly) improvise some grass shadow puppets once we meet up on the island. I'm really looking forward to meeting Joanne, who has thrown herself into this work despite never have met me - come to think of it we've never even spoken on the phone; everything has been done through email.

In addition to the workshopping and rehearsing, there are publicity shots to be taken for future marketing of the show, and material to gather in order to provide content for animations and film-work to be used in the show, as well as recording material for the soundtrack of the production. On our return journey we'll be making a diversion to Fife, where we'll record Joyce Laing reading extracts from her book 'Weaver of Grass'.

Above is a horse-in-the-making, a puppet Alison is trying to get ready for the trip, and at the top two of the Angus masks that have been brought to a further stage of their painting.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

The nightmare of war

After taking a few days out for a sunny Easter and the various holidays we're back at Horse + Bamboo and suddenly our visit to Uist and Berneray seems just round the corner. There's still a million jobs to do - programmes to design for the Puppet Festival in July; helping Helen write applications for funding support for the Angus tour in 2012; planning for the next productions here (including Alison's version of The Nightingale), auditions, and more...

But also of course there's the jobs we MUST get completed before I set off to the islands in a weeks time. Making a tweed hat for Angus; finishing the horse puppet; cutting a window in the back screen for the set; more repainting of masks, finding costumes, and creating a short animation to try out front projections over the stage action. 

The picture above is a still from the animated film - there will be four main film and animation sections in the show. The first to set the scene and portray the view out of the window of Angus's small croft house. The second the wartime nightmares and return home from the front; a third will be the garden of Craig Dunain, and a final film will be the return to Uist as an old man. The photograph above is from the second animation - the nightmare of war.