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....

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.  

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