Goliath’s gaze is one of the most impressive features of Shetland’s museum.
His stone head as furrowed as a fist, he stares out of a glass case in that building’s second floor, as if defying all who come to look at it. He is, of course, the work of one of Cunningsburgh’s former residents, Adam Christie, who apparently hewed out this head, using only a six inch nail and a heavy old file. Out of these unpromising materials, this untrained individual fashioned many such heads in his 82 years of life, working with stone again and again before he died in 1950.
For Goliath is not unique. He sculpted many such heads; wrote poems; composed musical tunes and painted tableaux of Biblical scenes, commemorating The Last Supper, Christ Making Fishers Of Men, the pithily-titled The Jews In Sackcloth Lament Haman’s Plot To Destroy Them.
He did this too not within the comfortable and stimulating surroundings of an art studio, but within the walls of the Montrose Royal Asylum where he was an inmate for many years, arriving in 1900 when he was diagnosed with depression at the age of 32.
In much of this, he was similar to Angus MacPhee, the man who is at the centre of Roger Hutchinson’s new book, The Silent Weaver. In its pages, he records the life and times of a crofter from Balgarva at the northern tip of South Uist. Like his Shetland counterpart, Angus spent much of his life confined in an asylum in the Scottish mainland; in his case, Craig Dunain on the outskirts of Inverness. Like him, he worked miracles with the most unpromising materials. In Christie’s case, it was stone. MacPhee performed his marvels with simple strands of grass.
Looking at the landscape of both places, it is easy to explain how such basic elements form the basis of their art. As most readers will be aware, Shetland has a wonderful harvest of stone. Many different types of rock are found within its borders. The difference between its multiplicity of shades and textures provide their own rich variety of wonders; the red of sandstone, the black of basalt. When I look at the stone walls of my native Hebrides in contrast, there is a remorseless grey, livened, perhaps, by an occasional splash of lichen or moss.
In terms of grass, however, it is the opposite. I recall one visiting musician to Shetland who commented wryly on the fondness of Shetland’s people for Thomas Fraser and Country and Western music. “It seems the only kind of grass that prospers in these parts is bluegrass,” he declared. (No doubt younger readers will know about the whereabouts of other, different kinds.) In MacPhee’s homeland of South Uist, especially on its western side, there is, in comparison, an amazing abundance of the green stuff. The machair with its fantastic array of flowers, stretches for miles behind white sands. Defending that coastline, too, from the constant assault of erosion are the bayonet tips of marran grass.
The people of South Uist have used this rich crop for centuries. Not just for grazing. Not just to thatch the roofs of their homes. They also used grass – in quite different ways from normal – for the horses that were such an important feature in their lives. Without any safe harbour on the South Uist’s west and more fertile side, they played a similar role for Uist’s young people to the small boats and yoals found along Shetland’s coastline. On high days and holidays, they would race them along the beach, their hooves stirring up clouds of sand.
In much the same way as Shetlanders cared for their boats, the Uist people nurtured and nursed their homes. Mingling love and economic necessity, they created bridles and harnesses for their horses, long strands to rein in and control the most unruly steed from the grass found upon the machair.
In his years of exile in Inverness, Angus MacPhee, however, did much more than this. Incorporating beech leaves and other material from the trees around the asylum, his artful fingers sculpted a bizarre wardrobe from grass. A swallow-tailed coat. A pair of shoes. An astonishing haberdashery of hats, from Tyrolean to Stetsons. Most of the time, however, he hid these creations away. A private artist, it was the fierce and secret obsession of a man miles away from the touch and texture of his beloved marranual grass.
Roger Hutchinson sketches in a great deal of detail about MacPhee’s life, mentioning the war time service as a member of the Lovat Scouts in the Faroe Islands that might have brought about his psychological crisis. He tells us much about the treatment of the mentally ill in the isolated areas of the Highlands and Islands during the last century, showing too in the book’s final chapters, how there was more than a close connection between the lives of Angus Macphee and Adam Christie.
And in doing this, Roger performs a similar act of alchemy to the hewer of stone and weaver of grass. In much the same way as he did in his book, Calum’s Road, he takes a simple fact story about an isolated individual and gives it the power of myth, providing – what is essentially – local history with a rich universality. Those who appreciate his work will have a unique opportunity to gain a measure of the man’s talents over the next while. Not only can they read The Silent Weaver, but also see him at Wordplay in the first week of September when this book is to be published. Both those living in Shetland – and elsewhere in Scotland – have much to learn from the way he goes about his work.
The Silent Weaver: The Extraordinary Life Of Angus MacPhee, by Roger Hutchinson, is published by Birlinn, £9.99.
D S Murray