In 2011, we had the great pleasure of exhibiting grass weavings by Angus MacPhee, along with some objects from Craig Dunain Hospital. The free exhibition, was part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, supported by the Highland Council.
Angus MacPhee (1916-1997) touches the hearts of many people in the Highlands. There have been songs, poems and stories about the silent Highland weaver of grass.
Angus lived in Craig Dunain psychiatric hospital for almost 50 years, following a diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1946.
He served with the Lovat Scouts, during World-War-2. After a couple of years, he returned to his father and sisters in South Uist. However, Angus seemed unable to cope with looking after himself. He was not really communicating, and the family did not know how to help him. Today, the diagnosis might be different…. perhaps Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ? … and that could have led to a different story.
At Craig Dunain hospital, Angus weaved long grass into hats, boots and other clothes, which he left around the grounds. The weavings were part of the island tradition he had learned on the croft at Iochdair, South Uist. Ropes, netting and horse bridles were made from twisting, plaiting and weaving the strong grass (machair).
For almost 50 years Angus chose to remain silent. At least that is how the story is usually told… that he was silent until he returned home as an old man.
Many visitors to the exhibition had met Angus, or had worked alongside him. They had seen him silently weaving the grass in the hospital grounds. He rarely acknowledged people passing by; and yet there are many accounts of him speaking … mostly when he was out on the hospital farm (Kinmylies) or up at the neighbouring farms.
There was a story about Angus calming a Craig Dunain hospital bull. At first it seemed the story might have been a myth, – however, later visitors to the exhibition recalled it was not the hospital bull, but one up at Black Park farm. The bull was on loan and had escaped into another field, but Angus calmly led it back.
Another farm worker, Alec, remembers the morning routine of Angus asking him if he needed to take a fork or a grape (hoe) to work. And once, on a trip to Inverness, how Angus had been impressed by the buildings of Inverness, and announced how tall they were. Staff Willie also remembers that Angus spoke when they walked ‘over the hill’ – general farm talk with humour, and in that quiet, gentle way of the island men.
Ann (nurse) recalls the lovely story of Angus coming to her exclaiming there was treacle on the living room windows. She was intrigued as he led her to the scene, and discovered it was thick tar (from all the smokers) running down the windows, when the window cleaners came.
People recall Angus sometimes wore his grass weavings as protective clothing when in the piggery or as insulation when out in the fields picking the potatoes. People would get dirty or cold, but not Angus. He wore his weaved boots and gloves. One of the staff once asked Angus if he could try on a glove. It was really warm… but huge and cumbersome.. not the easiest thing to lift potatoes with.
It was in 1977 that Joyce Laing, an art therapist, came looking for ‘outsider art’. She was told about Angus’s grass weavings. It was through Joyce’s enthusiasm for what Angus made (which she re-named ‘Art Extrordinary’ ), that Angus-the-man-who-weaved-grass, became Angus-the-artist. His work started to be interpreted in psychological and artistic terms… and his story became more widely known.
Most of what Angus weaved was left around the grounds, although he did occasionally place the grass clothing under his bed, (which had to be removed as it was a fire hazard). Some people remember coming across the grass clothes in the bushes, when they were children. They delighted in trying on the hats when they thought he wasn’t around.
Most of the people who visited our exhibition in 2011, came because they had heard about Angus. They brought their own stories about what he meant to them. For some people, Angus is a symbol of courage for overcoming adversity. But, the most over-riding sense from those who knew him, is that Angus had a peaceful life in Craig Dunain … and that he himself was a man of great peace and respect. People who had never met him are touched by his life. In fact some visitors describe him as ‘The Highland’s Chieftain’
A personal story about the Angus exhibition:
I first heard Angus’s story in 1995. What struck me was the reverence people had for this tall, quiet, gentle man. Sixteen years later, I offered to put together an exhibition related to Angus, for the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. With great good fortune, the pieces came to me. They had thankfully been stored in people’s attics. One bag of grass rope had turned to dust. But amazingly, the rest was still in tact. These were some of the last pieces Angus made at Craig Dunain in the 1990’s.
I excitedly phoned the Highland Council’s health improvement officer, who was keen on the exhibition. He was out, so I left what could have been an embarrassing message for him: ‘Tell Keith I’ve got the stuff and it’s good’ –
‘Oh’ he exclaimed to his intrigued colleague, ‘that’ll be the grass!’
On the final day of the exhibition, a great thing happened. Angus’s niece, Eilidh, came along. We had a wonderful discussion about all the ways in which people have interpreted Angus, his weavings, and his story. These tales continue today… each person weaving the bigger picture with their own accounts of Angus. It is really quite awesome that by simply getting on with his own thing, Angus deeply touched the lives of so many people.
It was through Angus’s relatives, Eilidh and her brother Iain, that we were all able to get the pieces to Kildonan Museum. The recorded stories will be available when funding and time allow. Meanwhile, the outcome feels perfect!
Where to see the grass weavings and other information:
1. Some large pieces of Angus’s weavings are on display at the Art Extrodinary Trust in Pittenweem, Fife. These include a jacket, trousers, pony nose bags and boots.
2.Other pieces, that had been kept in the Highlands, are now in the Kildonan Museum, South Uist, (near where Angus returned before he died). The pieces are three boots, a piece of grass weaving, a plaited rope and a gorgeous leaf plait.
3.See Me Now touring exhibition: about changes in attitudes towards mental health, includes one of the boots made by Angus in the 1990’s and recorded memories.
4. A theatre production about Angus is touring summer (2012) by Horse and Bamboo. See tour dates here: Angus, weaver of grass
5. Amazing replica grass weavings by artist Joanne Kaar
6. Faithful patterns from Angus’s grass weavings by artist Mile Inglis
7. Stunning prints telling the story of Angus and the bull, and Angus, the man (by school children) by John McNaught manager of Highland Print Studio
8. Excellent on-line Highland History site Am Baile
9. Evocative and moving song ‘Weaver of grass’ by Donnie Munro
10. Informative and touching book ‘The silent weaver’ (2011) by award winning author Roger Hutchinson
Grateful thanks to all who make the exhibition work possible (peoples known and unknown). Thanks also to Jim Neville, John McNaught, Andy Crossan, Iain MacLellan, Chris King, Lar & Stig MacGregor.