Blog written by Gordon Park, Film Curation student at the University of Glasgow
As part of my MSc Film Curation course I have been undergoing a placement with the Moving Image Archive at the National Library of Scotland. The outcome of my placement will be two screening events at Kelvin Hall that focus on Scotland’s islands. By showing work from some of Scotland’s most revered filmmaking talent, including Margaret Tait (whose centenary is being celebrated this year), I hope to raise questions about how we regard island life.
I began by thinking how I could challenge the images of Scotland’s islands that are in heavy circulation. These are the images that come rushing to mind when someone evokes the mysticism and romanticism of the islands. They’re also images largely taken by outsiders, people who venture to the islands for a holiday, or to make a film and they almost always implicitly compare the life on the islands to the life in the cities. I began to look for films that approached the islands with an awareness of their outsider voice. When trawling through the moving image archive catalogue, I discovered so many films that talked of the magic of the land and the unknowability of the seas that surround it. But within these trademark films, I found a few that took a different, more exciting slant and these are the films that make up the event.
The first of these films is Pride of Islands, the film from which the event gets its name. Made by Oscar Mazaroli, one of the most influential photographers of Glasgow in the 20th century, the film is a dazzling and futuristic hop around the outer and inner Hebridies. Connecting the beautiful land of the islands (which are shot operatically from the skies) not to myth and legend, but to the hands of people who live within their communities. Interest in the way islanders have shaped and created their geographies dominates the film, with talks of “the smooth patina of Orkney’s expertly worked land.” The film ends on the birth of a new human island, the oil rig. Whilst the images of the islands may seem familiar, they are given an uncanny sense of foreignness by Frank Spedding’s haunting score.
Another vital filmmaker represented in this screening is Margaret Tait. Whilst born in Orkney, Tait was raised in Edinburgh. In The Drift Back, she charts her own return to Orkney through following a family from Yorkshire who are also making the journey north. They move to the little island of Wyre in the Orkney archipelago. By challenging the way we think of the typical tide of movement from the islands to the mainland, the film reveals an author who is wonderfully interested in the varied joys of island life. The family is not compelled to move because of some romantic notion of Scottish countryside but because of the industry and community that it contains. And whilst parts of Orkney remain deeply underpopulated, it was recently voted as the best place in the UK to live.
Finally, I selected Highland Laddie, in which an unseen narrator cosmically transports our hero across Scotland’s Highlands and Islands when he decides to leave his wife Flora for the city. The film was made to dissuade people from moving south and playfully challenges typical images of rural migration. It celebrates the process of modernisation and the industries within Scotland’s most remote communities. The development of hydro-electric power on Skye is highlighted along with the birth of new forests at the hands of forestry workers. These changes are not represented as a series of disappearances or breaks with the past but as the natural evolution of a thriving community.
In using the images we expect from outsider filmmakers in innovative ways, the films become valuable sources for challenging the ways the islands are sometimes represented in mainstream film. In the end, the films promote exciting and inventive renderings of remote communities. The films have cinematic qualities and make an exciting starting point to discuss island representation. Showcasing these films might not transform an audience’s view of the islands, but it can promote debate about the role of the outsider in influencing the way we think of island life and if such a position can have value.
Pride of Islands screens on Wednesday 27 and Saturday 30 March at Kelvin Hall. For information and to book, visit
https://www.nls.uk/events/kelvin-hall or call 0845 366 4629.