The Silent Weaver: The Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus McPhee – Roger Hutchinson
Angus McPhee’s story is remarkable – from the remote Outer Hebridean island of South Uist, he, like so many Gaels before and after him, signed up for the Army. He served in the Lovat Scouts and yet ended the Second World War institutionalised. When he was diagnosed as suffering from ‘simple’ schizophrenia (as opposed to ‘paranoid’ or ‘catatonic’), his fate seemed sealed – to join for fifty years the hundreds in Inverness’s Craig Dunain Hospital, a sprawling, sometimes overcrowded, Victorian lunatic asylum.
What marked out Angus, however, was his art – which was never recognised as such until he was an old man. Using skills learnt as a boy on Uist, where marram grass – the tough coarse grass found on sand dunes – was used for horse riding bits and thatch, Angus created something much more – objects of real beauty and ingenuity. But for Angus his transient creations from grass became, too, a form of therapy, a way of dealing with sense of withdrawal and loneliness brought on by his debilitating condition.
Like his earlier inspirational Calum’s Road, Roger Hutchinson has again recorded a touching story of endurance and quiet fortitude. And yet what might be a quite parochial account becomes a much deeper exploration of mental illness and the nature of art and creativity. And Angus’ story is also closely intertwined with that of the culture of the Gaels: the horsemen of Uist, the Tir a M’hurian or land of the marram grass, the dunes and the resilience of a poverty stricken crofting people whose lives are too often overlooked by the mainstream.
Hutchinson writes elegantly, with a fine sense of style. Well researched, The Silent Weaver draws on a range of sources – from those who knew Angus personally to Royal Commissions on the treatment of the mentally ill in the Highlands and Islands and French theories of art.
Let none of this deter you, however – in a society obsessed with celebrity, the trivial and the inconsequential, The Silent Weaver is a timely testimony to those individuals whose lives, against all the odds, speak the most deeply. Read it and feel more human.