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, 30 October 2011

An Guth

I watched Music from Blas on BBC Alba last night - from the Blas Festival that celebrates the culture of the Highlands and Islands. This was part of a concert held last month at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness, and celebrating the Voice, an Guth.

It included sessions from Kathleen MacInnes and Karen Matheson. Kathleen MacInnes was born and brought up on South Uist, a Gaelic speaker, and I discovered her first album 'Og Mhadainn Shamhraidh' on my trip to the islands in July. It's a fine recording, so it was great to be reminded of it on a cold and dark evening just before the clocks go back. If you haven't heard her, give it a try - a wonderful voice with great character, and a slight and subtle huskiness to it that is very appealing. Try it on here

It reminded me, too, that one of the more pressing issues, as we wait to see the result of our grant applications towards a tour of 'Angus', is finding a singer to tour with the show. Not just to accompany the performance, but to be a part of the performing team - also involved in the mask and puppet work and the thrills and spills of touring. We can't approach anyone until we know we have the funding for the project, but the ideal musician would be - a female singer, a gaelic speaker from the islands, with acting experience. Turns out that Kathleen MacInnes is all of these things! Now there's a thought...

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Operation Valentine

Permission: Postverk Føroya, Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
Last night I stumbled upon a short film from BBC's 'Coast', in which Neil Oliver traveled to the Faroe Islands - halfway between Shetland and Iceland. The story that the film was hung around was that of 'Operation Valentine' - the period in 1940 when, Denmark having been overrun by the German Army, Winston Churchill moved quickly to place the Faroes under British control. It was where Angus MacPhee, as a soldier in the Lovat Scouts, was posted as a young man - and where the first signs of his illness occurred. 

Although Roger Hutchinson writes at some length about this in 'The Silent Weaver', the film brought it home to me in a very immediate way. The British soldiers built the one and only airstrip on the islands; they built most of the surfaced roads, and they left behind several hundred vehicles. Romances flourished between the troops and local women, and I found myself wondering if Angus would appear on any of the film footage of soldiers they unearthed for the film. 

Neil Oliver mentioned how many of the soldiers were Scottish islanders, and how they would have identified with the lives of the Faroese. The footage of Faroe's coast, by the way, was stunning and quite incredibly beautiful. What chance of 'Angus' playing in Tórshavn, I wonder?

Monday, 17 October 2011

Now, we wait

The young Angus and his horse; from our research period on Berneray.

Last week an application for financial support towards a tour of Angus was sent by Helen Jackson to Creative Scotland and a second, smaller, one to the Bòrd na Gàidhlig.

A tour would start on the Outer Islands, and then tour throughout the Highland Region in July and August 2012. Thanks to the agreement with the Arts Council of England we would also be able to undertake some shows in Lancashire. But for now, we wait....

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Some positive news

Although the week for the artistic directors at Horse + Bamboo has been a rather scattered one - with work happening on several projects simultaneously - the news from the office team has been very positive for our Angus project. First, the Arts Council of England have accepted our case that their decision in March this year to fund the company only for regional work from the next financial year (2012/13) didn't allow us to make proper transition arrangements for a project like Angus that had been conceived almost a year beforehand and was already in production. Although this may seem like a minor issue in reality it makes a difference of at least £20,000 to the amount we'll need to raise in order to tour 'Angus'. It also encourages us to show it in Lancashire as well as in Scotland. 

Then Esther had a meeting with Brian O'Headhra at the Bòrd na Gàidhlig who took a very positive and understanding approach to the Gaelic language content of the show and our commitment to employing a Gaelic speaking musician to tour with the production. So we now know that the Gaelic Board support our intention to make this show directly relevant to the Gaelic speakers among our audiences. 

Meanwhile, even if we're quiet ourselves on the making front, Joanne B Kaar is busy working on a second replica of Angus's iconic jacket - this time for Joyce Laing's Art Extraordinary Gallery. These photographs are from Joanne's own excellent blog - Bakers-Botanists-Whalers - which is always worth a look.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Two jackets and a red calf

Yesterday I went to the Art Extraordinary Gallery in Pittenweem, Fife, to meet Joyce Laing, the art therapist who first noticed Angus MacPhee when she visited Craig Dunain Hospital in the 1970s, and who subsequently rescued some of his work and wrote about him in her book 'Weaver of Grass'. It's through Joyce's efforts that we now remember Angus and know a little about his extraordinary work. 

I had with me the reproduction of Angus's jacket made by Joanne B Kaar for our theatre piece, and took it for Joyce to see. 

I laid Joanne's jacket on the floor in front of the display. The photographs above do the pieces a disservice as their colouring is actually almost identical to one another, but under the gallery lights the original appears far yellower. Joyce was astonished at Joanne's achievement and clearly thrilled that someone had at last been able to discover and replicate Angus's technique. 

We had a long conversation about the jacket - Joyce's memories of finding it under a rhododendron bush in the garden of Craig Dunain, and her feeling that the distortion in the shape was probably due to her having had to pull and tug at the weaving to release it.  The original also had a neck opening, but Joyce had pinned this back in order to display the piece better. This opens the intriguing possibility that if and when Joanne makes another copy for Joyce's collection it should instead be made with the original symmetry and open neck as in Angus's original.

One last treat for me was that Joanne had made the red calf I had asked for - a woven piece to be used in the theatre show, during a section when Angus MacPhee as a young boy is told, by his mum, the story of the Rashin Cootie (a kind of Scottish version of Cinderella). The hero is a red calf - and here it is:

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Craig Dunain

On my way back from visiting Joanne I passed through Inverness and thought it only natural to visit Craig Dunain, the psychiatric hospital where Angus MacPhee has passed 50 years, and where he had made his woven garments. I knew, as Esther and Helen had visited just over  a year ago (see the blog for October 2010), that the place was in a state of development but I still wasn't quite prepared for what I found. 

The gardens were fenced off - all part of the hard hat zone - so I couldn't really see much of the place where Angus had worked. But incredible to think how short a time has passed since this was the main mental hospital for the whole of the Highland Region. Now it's well on the way to being swanky housing - apartments and penthouses for the successful people of Inverness. There's already a smart reception unit for prospective purchasers. 

Yet, in 1961 there were 1,051 people in Craig Dunain Hospital, almost 0.4% of the Highland population. Angus entered Craig Dunain on the 31st December 1946, and left there early in 1996. This statistic and much more about Angus MacPhee and the circumstances that surround his life are to be found in Roger Hutchinson's new book - The Silent Weaver, now published and in your local bookshop (or in Amazon. of course). Much to be recommended at £8.99 and published by Birlinn.