Angus McKay, Queen Victoria’s piper, went insane ‘over study of music’. He was admitted to the Crichton Royal from Bedlam when he was 43 years old. ‘His most prominent delusion is that her majesty is his wife and that Prince Albert has defrauded him of his rights’ (Crichton case notes)
Let it be noted (in copperplate), Angus McKay
is a gentleman to watch. The stoutest furniture
is firewood to him; a mattress, within a day,
he’ll disembowel. He has been known
to drink his own urine; to spit, shriek, howl
and hoot like an owl:
though this last
does not appear
in his case notes from Bedlam –
“hooting and howling” in southern parts
being thought not
abnormal for a Scot.
Nevertheless, there is enough on his native ground
to amaze and perplex his keepers.
Fuck it! Angus McKay has done with them all.
He eases himself into the rivercold waters of the Nith
across which lies Kirkconnell Wood
and his freedom. At that moment
(to which the record is blind)
no body being found, never mind
something catches his eye – a sudden flurry and a bird
with two necks intertwined; one black, the other –
bodiless – a shimmering Islay malt brown.
Angus McKay watches, mesmerised
as the cormorant lifts its white-cheeked head
till its brassy twin – the eel – the lifting with it,
unwinds like a flailing clef and falls, bit by bit,
into perfect darkness.
This, thinks Angus McKay, is how
the bagpipe has devoured my life.
He lies on his back, drifting downstream,
shadowing the black bag of a bird through flanges of light,
past two gracefully disinterested swans. The eel rages still –
the cormorant’s neck rising and falling
in a helpless hiccup. Up ahead, the bird will calm,
its neck settle again on its shoulders –
but there, the quicksand waits to welcome Angus McKay,
sipping him, limb by limb, into its dark and clammy hold.
That evening, owls will keen – in Gaelic –
from Kirkconnell Wood, where Angus McKay
perches, pale and dripping.
Will a soul never find peace? he asks.
Oh, where has my plump little lover gone –
and what’s become of that shit, Prince Albert?
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2008. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editors in 2008 were Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor.
From his collection inspired by the former mental asylum which now houses Crichton Campus in Dumfries, this is the story of one inmate, who had been Queen Victoria’s piper before going insane. McKay believed he was the queen’s husband, and had been tricked out of his marital rights by Prince Albert. Given the subject, this poem might have been remorselessly miserable, but Tom Pow adds flashes of mordant wit to relieve the tension, and in so doing captures, we suspect, a morsel of the piper’s original personality. The evocation of the river where McKay meets his end, and of his eagerness to find oblivion, is the tenderest of epitaphs.
For reasons that are still hotly debated, a ‘trade in lunacy’ swept through Europe in the nineteenth century. The Crichton Institution for Lunatics, one of Scotland’s handful of Chartered Lunatic Asylums, was established in 1839 and ran for roughly 150 years. It is now the site of Crichton University Campus, where I work for Glasgow University. In the 19th century, the Crichton was one of the most enlightened hospitals of its time, with an international reputation. Dr. William Browne, Physician Superintendent at the Crichton Royal between 1838 and 1857, was the first collector of Art Extraordinary (patient art). One of its most famous patients was Angus McKay, Queen Victoria’s piper, who, it was noted, could “hoot, howl and shriek like an owl”. Most of the poem is true, apart from Angus’s resurrection.
My collection, Dear Alice – Narratives of Madness (Salt 2008), from which ‘The Last Vision of Angus McKay’ is taken, explores the spectrum between madness and extraordinary (imaginative and emotional) experience and so it includes poems of “signs and wonders”, visions, the surreal, the chancy and the contingent. My chosen epigraph for Dear Alice is Blake’s (from Proverbs from Hell): “Everything possible to be believ’d is an image of truth”.