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....

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.

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