In 2001 I was living in the Outer Hebrides. At the local art gallery I bought a small, slim book titled Angus McPhee: weaver of grass. And ever since I read it this story haunted me in a way I couldn’t explain.
Angus McPhee was born in Glasgow in 1916, and seven years later his family moved to Uist in the Outer Hebrides. As he grew up he worked on his family’s croft, played the chanter (unable to afford a full set of bagpipes) and had a ‘fine singing voice’. According to the book, he had a mental breakdown after volunteering in the second world war, and was invalided out. When he returned home to the islands he became isolated, wandering the moors and beaches, refusing to eat. Following the attitudes of the time, his family had him committed to Craig Dunain, a psychiatric institution on the mainland, where he remained for fifty years. It is of note that when he arrived there he became mute, and remained so with only one exception until he returned to Uist for the last years of his life, where he conversed in Gaelic with another resident of the Home for the Elderly he was transferred to.
That one exception was when he was ‘allowed’ day release, usually to work at Black Park Farm nearby. He was considered a natural with the animals, managing an aggressive bull fearlessly. There he conversed ‘about the weather or farm related matters but never about himself’. On returning to Craig Dunain he would retreat into silence.
Craig Dunain had its own farm in its grounds where patients, as they recovered, could work providing food for the rest of the inmates and staff. It’s likely that Angus’ move to the farm was a positive step, because it was here that he began to weave the grass items that would later draw such attention.
He remained isolated, interacting with staff only when necessary. Every autumn he would watch silently as the groundsman raked up his grass weavings and burned them.
The exact date isn’t given, but it looks like it was the late 80s when Joyce Laing, an art therapist, visited Craig Dunain. She was on a self described ‘Scottish hunt’ for what is now termed ‘outsider art’ but was then called Art Brut, or raw art, following a Swiss exhibition of art from Swiss psychiatric institutions.
I have to confess, at this point I am already feeling somewhat disturbed by this story.
Joyce arrives at Craig Dunain having persuaded a taxi driver to tell her of the old man who makes things out of grass. She questions a nurse about this, and having the story confirmed is told that Angus leaves the things he makes out in the field. Without making any attempt to speak to Angus, or ask his permission, they rush to the field and drag out every piece of grass weaving they can find.
Eventually they do speak to Angus, a another nurse’s suggestion. It’s not clear whether, had this suggestion been made, they would have made the attempt or would simply have removed the weavings. Anyway, they ask Angus’ permission to take the weavings to Glasgow. The nurse says Angus cannot read or write, but when offered a form he signs his name without difficulty, identifying the correct space without prompting.
Further on in the book, some of the things Angus wove, now lost, are described, including a swallow-tailed frock-coat, multiple types of hat, trousers, jackets, boots and waders. No one seems to have considered that in order to weave the multitude of items he must have had a keen understanding of what they looked like and an excellent memory. Where did he acquire this information in a world devoid of television or any source of information other than reading material? This question isn’t asked; the interrogators are happy with their idiot sauvant interpretation.
Angus McPhee’s diagnosis was schizophrenia, yet nothing in this story gives indication that he heard voices or had hallucinations, the defining symptoms of the condition.
I am left with a number of questions.
The main one, the one that brings me to tears, is what happened when he was called up? What happened to this intelligent, capable young man when he was thrown in with a group of his peers who likely had no tolerance for anyone who didn’t fit in?
We have only the slenderest details about his childhood; the book is full of ‘would have’ and ‘must have’ and nothing about any difficulties he faced
How could no one believe, after fifty years of observing him, knowing about his schooling and history, that he couldn’t read or write?
How could Joyce Laing not see that after fifty years of having no autonomy, when she ‘asked permission’ to take his weavings, he likely had no belief that he was allowed to refuse? (Being realistic, he was right, his refusal would almost certainly have been disregarded.) I also feel that a lot of the search for this kind of art was for the aggrandisement of the finders; the artists themselves were so disenfranchised they would have had little or no say in the display and sale of their work.
How could no one see that his mutism was the only way he could retain some sliver of autonomy? The simple fact that he would speak when away from Craig Dunain is telling.
There is much more in this book, and lots of distressing NT privilege on show, with constant references to Angus being ‘allowed’ to weave being a good example. I have ordered a more recent book, Silent Weaver, so will update this once I have read it.
But finally, the thing I realised only last year, the statement I am now willing to make:
Angus McPhee is likely one of us. Bullied, abused and tormented, he found solace in two things common to so many of us – his love of animals and his art. He is one of our elders, someone we should remember with respect.
Angus McPhee died in 1997.