Angus McPhee (1916 – 1997) was a Scottish outsider artist, who made his art while being admitted in the Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital near Inverness. He was born into a crofting family in Iochdar, South Uist. As a child on the croft, he learnt how to make ropes and netting from the abundant grass on the island.
In 1977, he was “discovered” by Joyce Laing, an art therapist. She wrote the book Angus McPhee: Weaver of Grass for an April 2000 exhibition for the Taigh Chearsabhagh Art Trust. The Weaver of Grass Exhibition, first shown at Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre and Museum was curated by Joyce as part of Art Extraordinary.
While serving with the Lovat Scouts, garrisoned the Faroe Islands during World War II, McPhee became increasingly mentally ill. He returned home on the croft, but he became mute, sullen and self-absorbed. His family noticed his animals became neglected. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1946, and spent the rest of his life in Craig Dunain Hospital. There he fell completely silent and didn’t speak for more than 50 years.
Being described as ‘the quiet big man’, he was admitted to the farm ward of the hospital, Kinmylies House. There he tended the animals and worked on the lands. He was a steady and hard worker. During his free time, McPhee wandered the lands in search for materials and created objects woven (mostly) from grass, sheep wool and beech leaves. He made garments, hats, cats, pouches and the like, which he liked to hide under the bushes. He was completely silent as to their purpose.
The day Angus moved in to Kinmylies House, the farm ward, is probably the day Angus began his grass weaving. Here he was in an environment more like that of the island. Fields surrounded the ward and trees and bushes were abundant in a farm setting. There was endless space for Angus to wander and although he may have been asked not to go far from the ward, the estate of Craig Dunain is vast and varied with gardens, woodlands and paths which lead to the numerous wards and out-buildings.
Long-term psychotic illnesses usually leave the individual in a segregated world, in which they seem to have no need to include others. Interest in daily events, even local news, fades or cannot hold meaning in their isolated mental state. While their minds remain lively within their own universe, they display no inclination to become part of a social group or to take any active part in everyday events. Their world is a world we cannot enter and all too often we choose to abandon much attempt to comprehend, yet some sort of relationships can occur and patients and staff slowly come to recognise each other’s characteristics.
Whatever happened for Angus in the early days of his life in the farm ward, he displayed a strong individuality by his intense activity with grass weaving. As he walked down the long grassy field from the ward backdoor, he could be seen to gather lengths of the couch grass until he held a handful. Then standing beside the bushes at the end of the field, he would begin to weave the grasses into lengths and plait these, adding new lengths to produce a plaited rope.
Angus would work discreetly, neither secretively nor hidden, but avoiding any unwanted attention. The staff soon accepted this strange behaviour, considering it harmless yet meaningless and left him to it. So day in, day out, whatever the weather, Angus spent every minute of his free time making things out of grass. We know only fragments of what and how he made these creations in the early days. Never communicating, he kept his thoughts to himself.
On the Western Isles, grasses of a variety of species have always been plentiful, easily accessible and put to many uses. Pulled grass was frequently used to make mattresses by filling a palliasse about thirty cm. deep and letting it flatten naturally through body-weight.The grass would first be rain-soaked to soften and then dried in the sun and wind. The mattress would keep its resilience and buoyancy for several months before needing to be refilled.
For hundreds of years, crofters on the islands would have known how to make ropes out of grass or straw, by plaiting lengths of pliable material. There would be numerous uses for these, from leading animals, to tying down the stones which hold the thatch of the croft houses against the prevailing winds. Angus would doubtless have made this type of rope and he probably also learned how to make netting during his work on the croft.
Once Angus had fashioned a length of plaited grass rope, usually about two metres long, he would commence on another and only when he had made sufficient of these to meet the needs of the garment in mind, would he begin to work on the actual garment. According to the nursing staff, he never possessed any form of implement to assist his creations, using only his fingers to weave and graft his lengths of rope into the shape of a coat, or trousers, or boots.
Of hats, there are accounts of splendid top-hats, hunting-fishing bonnets and a tricorne hat which he often wore and there was the hat which nursing staff described as, ‘stunning, like a sunburst’ and which sadly, was never discovered afterwards. Hats are probably the most important garment man has ever designed. While they often have a functional purpose, it is the symbolic status which makes them so important. A hat tells at a glance the order of hierarchy, kings and queens wear crowns, duchesses tiaras, clan chieftain have two eagle feathers in their bonnets, peasants wear berets. Even in this so-called classless society, a hat gives a message.
Throughout the many years Angus remained at Kinmylies, he would place all the garments he made from grass or sheeps wool below the bushes of rhododendron or holly. Most likely, he placed them there for protection from the wind and rain, for no storage would have been offered to him. Or did he believe his weavings had some deeper significance and he was offering them to some deity? This would seem a fanciful idea, but how can the evidence be explained that all the cornucopia-shaped pouches, of which he made many, were never placed under the bushes, these he always hung on branches of the trees, nearby where he was working, like votive offerings.
Twice a year the hospital gardeners would arrive at Kinmylies grounds with the task of keeping the estate tidy. As they pruned branches and, in the autumn, gathered leaves, they also raked in all the weavings made by Angus. When all the garden waste was collected, they would announce there would be a bonfire on the first fine late afternoon. Staff and some of the patients would assemble, as all groups of people do, to watch a bonfire. Angus also attended. Much of the flames, sparks and crackling would have been his woven garments. Angus never commented. He stood and watched.
It would seem that from time to time, Angus would alternate from gathering grass to collecting sheep’s wool from the fences. The sheep belonging to neighbouring farms were in the fields which adjoined the grounds of Kinmylies. Angus would pluck the torn wool and push it into his pockets. Sometimes, if it was dark or too wet, Angus could be seen sitting on the side of his bed spinning the wool with his fingers. As wool was relatively clean and harmless, the nursing staff were quite pleased to allow him to pursue this occupation. As it was wool uncarded and unwashed, it must have taken him a long time to make enough for a garment.
By comparing all the various works, it was found that the undergarments, such as vests and scarves and mufflers that Angus constructed were made of wool, while the outer-garments and also pony-harnesses, peat creels and pouches were made of grass and latterly of beech leaves. It would seem Angus spent much thinking and planning before commencing each work.
In 2004, a documentary was made of his life by Nick Higgins: Hidden Gifts: The Mystery of Angus MacPhee (IMDB), which won the 2005 Britspotting award.
Text Via Am Baile