THE story of Angus McPhee, Craig Dunain’s Silent Weaver, has been told in many ways, in song, documentary and a recent book by Roger Hutchinson.
However, the stage re-telling by the Horse and Bamboo Theatre Company, Angus — Weaver of Grass, must be one of the most unusual, featuring puppetry, giant sized masks and film, and — appropriately enough for story of someone who remained silent for half a century — almost no dialogue.
Angus McPhee, who came from a crofting family at Eochar in South Uist, developed mental problems while serving with the Lovat Scouts in the Faroe Isles during World War II. Discharged from the army on medical grounds, he became a patient at Craig Dunain Hospital in Inverness for the next 50 years.
During that time he refused to speak, but used the grass weaving techniques he has learned in Uist to create clothing, tools and other items out of grass and leaves he found in the hospital grounds.
His creations were first brought to public attention in the 1970s by art therapist Jane Laing and some of his work went on to be exhibited in Scotland and Switzerland.
Horse and Bamboo founder Bob Frith first came across Angus McPhee’s story in a booklet sent to him by his old friend Chris Spears, who lives on the island of Berneray.
"Angus’s story touched on so many things," he said.
"It’s the story of someone’s descent into depression and mental health problems, the effect of war on that process and the effect of removal from the distinct, close-knit culture of the islands. In some ways it’s a very simple story, but it touches on so many things.
"But underlying those things, he seemed to achieve some kind of grace through the rediscovery of this craft of grass-weaving. That’s probably the most important thing for me — the healing power of art."
It was also a story which seemed to fit with Horse and Bamboo’s own style of storytelling.
"Our trademark is a very dramatic visual image and that goes back to my own background as a visual artist," he said.
"I suppose what’s new with Angus is that we have narration, largely in Gaelic, and Gaelic songs from South Uist, which weave in and out of the story, but you don’t need to speak Gaelic to follow what’s going on."
The inclusion of Gaelic song also makes the play a natural fit for the Blas Festival, which has the music and song of Gaeldom at its heart.
The Blas tour also allows Horse and Bamboo to take the production to places that missed out last year.
"In this particular case, the reputation of the show goes before us," Frith said.
"It’s first come first served this year."
The tour bypasses Inverness and most of the region’s bigger towns with shows in Fortrose, Ardross, Clashmore, Drumnadrochit and Nairn, and though the company has just finished an Edinburgh Fringe run, this remains part of the ethos of Horse and Bamboo.
"We no longer tour with horses and carts, but we did do that for over 20 years and that still affects the style of our company and our commitment to taking work outside the cities," Frith said.
That includes taking the play to Benbecula — as close as the company to get to Eochar and Daliburgh, where McPhee, who died in 1997, spent the last years of his life.
"I talked to Iain Campbell, Angus’s nephew, and he felt that Angus would have been highly bemused by all this interest and would have had a little chuckle to himself about it," Frith said.
"It’s something we hint at in the show — read find it hard to read him because he was silent by choice, but he did have a sense of humour."
• Angus — Weaver of Grass by the Horse and Bamboo Theatre Company can be seen on Monday 9th September at Fortrose Community Theatre; Tuesday 10th September at Ardross Community Hall; Thursday 12th September at Carnegie Hall, Clashmore near Dornoch; Friday 13th September at the Craigmonie Centre, Drumnadrochit; Saturday 14th September at Nairn Community and Arts Centre.