Angus MacPhee was taken from his home at Iochdar, in the very north of South Uist, to Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital, just outside Inverness, suffering from some form of schizophrenia. There he remained for 50 years until he was returned home as part of the care-in-the community programme in the mid 1990s. Many people who knew him felt that this length of incarceration was, put simply, not necessary. The worst effects of his illness burned themselves out after a few years and Angus, one of the more able and capable inmates at Craig Dunain, was working anyway, largely unsupervised, on the hospital's farms.
But as a result of circumstances, Angus remained for the larger part of his life in this hospital. He turned to one of the skills, one of the crafts, that was practiced by the crofters of South Uist – weaving grass. At home this was an entirely practical skill – used to make rope, harness, and other articles that the crofters, living in a subsistence economy, learned in order to make ends meet, to make things work. But for Angus it became something else – a lifeline in order to reconnect himself with a lost past and everything it represented.
More extraordinary still, Angus began to use this craft in entirely new ways. No longer simply making ropes, but making fantastic garments, sun-burst hats, swallow-tailed suits, and even a representation of a stray cat he had befriended in the hospital grounds. This burst into creativity is what places Angus MacPhee's work in the company of other Outside Artists, other Artists Extraordinary.
One other way in which Angus's creativity went beyond the relatively straightforward craft of island rope-making was in the materials he began to use. When marram grass – the muirineach – wasn't available, he used the grasses that he found in the vicinity of the hospital. Later he experimented with other materials – sheep's wool that had snagged on the barbed wire fences around the farm and, even, leaves. The slipper above is one of a set made using leaves from trees in the hospital grounds. Now faded and wrapped in acid-free paper at Joyce Laing's gallery in Pittenweem in an attempt to preserve it from the inevitable process of decay, its shows Angus experimenting freely, not only with the form but also with the very material used in his work, in a heroic attempt to preserve his integrity, personality, and culture in an environment that was, inevitably, highly institutionalised.