By Maili Fraser, student research placement with the Moving Image Archive
This year I’ve had the privilege of doing a research placement on the new archive documentary Living Proof – a Climate Story, with director (and National Library of Scotland curator) Dr Emily Munro.
Living Proof documents and explores Scotland’s climate history and our impact on the planet. As an MLitt Gender Studies student, my research was based in a feminist and queer perspective on the climate crisis and Scotland’s historic relationship to the environment. Much of our conversations centred on using ecofeminism as a lens to examine the presence and roles of women in the archive films, and how they are presented on screen throughout the curation process. I’ve selected some films from the archive, as an extension of these conversations about Living Proof and my research on ecofeminism, that present women enjoying Scotland’s natural world.
Perhaps the biggest statement I found the documentary makes about the role of women in Scotland’s climate history is the absence of their voices; what speaks louder is the dominance of male-centred stories, films, and voices. As the film weaves through time, women’s voices become louder, feeling particularly powerful when we reach the protest footage of the late 1970s. Women’s voices have always been strong, but they have been historically silenced by the patriarchy; Living Proof documents not only Scotland’s climate crisis and the devastating impact we have had on the planet, but also an historic disregard of women’s voices in a patriarchal, industrial country that was not designed for them to thrive.
In much of the pieces of archive film that are featured in Living Proof, the women are often fulfilling traditionally gendered feminine roles; they are mothers looking after children, cooking for their husbands, cleaning their newly built homes. Looking through these films and digging further into the archive, I was particularly drawn to pieces of footage that documented women simply existing and enjoying life without these gendered implications and roles dictated by patriarchal standards. I wanted to see women of the past enjoying a day at the beach, or exploring the forests, or walking the Scottish hills in each other’s company. This kind of material was more challenging to find and took some time to search for – but it was there. This is what this list of archive films set out to be – a list of films that document women’s enjoyment of the Scottish outdoors and explore their relationship to the natural world.
In the process of finding these films, it felt essential to recognise that the person behind the camera was as important as the people in front of it. Finding material that was created by women naturally became a part of that curation process as a way of seeing the world from their perspective. I discovered a pattern of women-made films appearing in searches for amateur filmmaking material, documenting holidays and family life from the women’s point of view. It seemed to be that for women to be present in the archives they were often telling their own stories, documenting their lives and that of the other women in their lives.
This blog post documents the curation process of each of these selected films and my reasons for choosing to feature them. Footage from As Long As You’re Young, They Made the Land and On Site Torness appears in Living Proof, which is currently touring cinemas. You can find more information on screenings here www.nls.uk/events/living-proof/.
Dir. Ben H. Humble
To commemorate the 50th Jubilee of the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club, Ben H. Humble made the short film In Days of Old. In the film, the ladies of the climbing club dress up in Victorian clothing and re-enact a day of climbing at the time of the club’s creation.The women rock-climb and hill-climb together, and they are presented on screen in a way that looks joyful. They clearly value their time on the hills and with each other, both socialising and taking time to enjoy the outdoors. The National Library of Scotland is currently exhibiting Petticoats and Pinnacles: Scotland’s pioneering mountain women. The exhibition centres on women’s experiences in the Scottish mountains and their connections to Scotland as women. Petticoats and Pinnacles will run until 28 May 2022 at the George IV Bridge building in Edinburgh. To find out more about the exhibition, read here: https://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/petticoats-and-pinnacles/
Dir. Edward McConnell
As Long As You’re Young really stood out to me. The film dedicates itself to welcoming everybody to enjoy Scotland’s outdoors. The film takes us on a gentle journey across the country and places the women’s experiences as equal to the men’s. Diverse groups of young adults from different countries are shown exploring the hills and lochs – notably a group of young women set off on their own adventure from Loch Lomond. The groups of women are given space on screen for enjoying their Scottish adventures and the film emphasises that in the countryside there is nothing stopping connections between different people. The groups of young men and women meet as the narrator says, “You, Canada; Tanganyika; Norway; Malaya. No boundaries in the friendship of the young in heart and spirit. You, who meet in an ancient wilderness.” New friendships are found on the Scottish hills, the ski slopes, and the cycle paths. These welcoming messages are accompanied by beautiful images of the Scottish outdoors – the lochs, hills, snowy mountains, and green landscapes look as stunning as they do today.
Dir. Dr Iain Dunnachie
Iain Dunnachie documents his family’s summer holiday in Scotland in Family Choice, as they discuss where they would like to go this year. The film opens with shots of the women and girls of the family and hears their opinions first. The mother and daughters have the strongest opinions of where they should go, and the decision seems to lie with them – their mother persuading them to stay at a lovely, quiet spot in Pitlochry for the weekend. Although entitled Family Choice, the mother seems to take the leading role in the film. We see her knitting in the peace and quiet of the lochside, enjoying gathering wildflowers, and playing with her children. It is lovely to see her relaxing and enjoying the countryside. However, the narrator later refers to the girls and women of the family as ‘the weaker sex’ as they enjoy a slower approach to the cold water on the beach – reminding us that patriarchal values are still entrenched in Scottish society, even in a lovely documentation of joyful family life.
Dir. Mary Field
Mary Field was a filmmaker with a special interest in nature and the natural world. With Percy Smith, she produced a series of films called Secrets of Nature (1922 – 1933). A separate project, They Made The Land was one of seven documentary films made for the 1938 Empire Exhibition. Field directs this informative short film that tells us the stories of the land and the farming techniques of the time. There are few women in this film – we only glimpses into their roles on the farms. Interestingly, the narrator refers to the women as ‘strong’ and ‘handsome’ – certainly a change from the ‘weaker sex’ description of Family Choice. Handsome, too, are the images of the landscapes and of the farmers working the land with the help of the horses and their farming technology. The narrator mentions that when it comes to the land, ‘every foot is precious, every foot must be cared for’, summarising the approach of these farmers, and identifying the importance of looking after our environment. However, it is interesting to hear of the narrator’s enthusiasm for beef farming while simultaneously emphasising the need to care for the natural world – making this film even more fascinating to look back on from the perspective of the 21st century.
Dir. David Sime
Call of the Campsies takes us on a lovely walk through the Campsie Fells on a sunny day with the Scottish Countryside Club. Beginning in Milngavie, we follow the walkers on their day out. The slow pace of the film lets us take in the surroundings with them – the colours of the hills are especially striking. I chose this film for this list as the women in it look like they are having a great time walking, chatting, and stopping every so often for a sit down and a cup of tea on the grass. They are really connecting with one another and themselves out on the Campsies – many of the archive material of hillwalkers is often of just men enjoying this connection with the environment and with each other’s company. I also found the clothing particularly interesting in this film. Many women are wearing similar long coats, and scarves on their heads. Some of the women are dressed in long skirts and boots; some in kilts; some look rather masculine in their trousers and tweed blazers, with their hair tied up and rucksacks on their backs.
Dir. Unnamed – two women in the film.
In finding films with women at the focus, there appeared to be a pattern of amateur family holiday films appearing repeatedly – seemingly if women wanted to be documented, they had to do it themselves. Here, two women go off on their holidays to the Scottish Islands, leaving their families in the cities for a remote adventure of their own. They visit friends across the country before getting on the boat to the islands, where they spend time camping, walking, and exploring the countryside. The Road to the Isles is another film that stood out to me due to the absence of men – they are mostly shown in the background of shots, only occasionally as the focus. There is some beautiful scenery in this film too, particularly of water. The sea looks so blue and inviting, and the women look very much at peace walking along the sand on the empty beach. The women took time to document their surroundings in each location, as well as each other interacting with the natural world. The slow pace of the footage and the long shots of the landscapes demonstrate the care they put into documenting their holiday.
Dir. Don McLachlan
Documenting a group of young girls on a fun trip away from home with their local Brownies group, A Brownie Pack Holiday includes a beautiful sequence of the girls visiting the beach. They help each other get ready in their swimming costumes and caps before they all run towards the water, holding hands in a long line. When in the water – which must be freezing cold – they can be seen skipping and singing, getting covered in sand, and practicing swimming and diving. The whole film feels nostalgic and youthful, but the sequence on the beach feels particularly joyful and playful as the girls look so delighted to be playing and swimming in the sea. I wanted to include this film in the list for that reason; it feels important to see girls be themselves and have a lot of fun together.
These very short films were made to demonstrate the different activities for girls and young women offered by the Scottish Girls’ clubs. This is one of the few films where we don’t see any men on screen – the only male presence is through the narration of the film. Girls Club Appeal opens with a wonderful recording of a large group of young women singing Loch Lomond on the loch’s shore, smiling and laughing together in song. The narrator describes, “There is no lovelier spot in all broad Scotland. Young women from the city come here to rest and recuperate” as the women are shown waving from their boats on the water. The young women from the city evidently enjoy and value this time away in the countryside in the company of other young women, where they can appreciate a change in pace from their busy city lives and take time to slow down in the natural world.
Dir. Alistair Stewart and Mike Sharples. A co-production by Torness Film project in conjunction with Film Work Shop Trust.
This film had the biggest impact on me out of all of the archive films on this list. It documents a movement of peaceful protests against the construction of a nuclear power station at Torness, near Edinburgh. Among footage of musicians, demonstrators, and families gathered, we hear speeches crying out against the building of the power plant. What is so striking about this film is the similarity to the current arguments around the climate crisis; from listening to these speeches, we feel the same frustration that nothing has changed. The anger in their voices is echoed across the decades until now. One passionate woman delivers an exceptionally powerful speech. She exclaims, “as I came up the road over this lovely countryside, and I saw the sea gleaming out there and all this lovely grass, and I really got a lump in my throat because I think of this rotten industrial system, this great capitalist system that can build a monstrosity on this beautiful coast!” In between the gentle moments of peace as a Beatles song is playing, the reality of the protester’s desperation can be felt. Those same feelings of anger and sorrow at the capitalist system that is destroying our natural world continue today, and we can understand that very little has changed in the decades since this film was made.
Dir. Nan Taggart
To The Western Isles is one of two Nan Taggart films featured on this list. Taggart was a Scottish amateur filmmaker who took after her mother, Nannie Taggart, in documenting family life after they moved from Aberdeenshire to rural Deeside. It felt significant to show not only films with women in them for this list, but to purposefully include women filmmakers; women’s visual perspectives on the earth are important, especially when women’s art has been historically undermined. In this film, Taggart documents a holiday on the Western Isles – she traces the route on a map in between pieces of film from each place they visit – Mallaig, Skye, Kyle of Lochalsh, Stornoway, Barra, Tiree, and Iona. She alternates between showing the map, her family, the landscapes of each place, and close ups of small details of the isles. Plants, flowers, birds, and animals are carefully shown, beautifully detailing summer island life.
Young Mothers’ Club is another film that features almost exclusively women, as it documents a group of mothers going on a trip from Glasgow to the coast on a coach. It’s a very short film, but it features plenty of lovely shots of the women smiling and looking at the camera; before they get on the bus, and as they are on their journey, they smile at the person filming and at each other. There is a wonderful moment of a young girl on her tricycle, as she is delighted to be filmed cycling round and round in circles. When they arrive, the women get to work on setting up tents by the seaside, where they light a fire, play games, and enjoy each other’s company. Although short in length, this film captures a lovely couple of moments for these women and some of their young children as they take advantage of a trip away from the city to the peace of the seaside.
Dir. Nan Taggart
A later film of Nan Taggart’s, On St Kilda takes a look at a boat trip out to the abandoned island of St Kilda. The group of explorers consists of mostly men, but there are some women with them too as well as Taggart capturing it all from behind the camera. There are close ups of similar curiosities in To The Western Isles – Taggart continues her fascination of small details with close ups of small wildflowers, birds, grass, plants, and small creatures like mice, that have continued to grow and thrive without the presence of people on the abandoned island. Her style of filmmaking is recognisable across these similarities, and her ability to recreate the atmosphere of a place through the moving image. The group explore, walk, and eat together, and we also see a lovely shot of a woman singing and playing guitar upon a dyke. Her landscapes are impressive – beautifully capturing an incredible place that continues to fascinate anyone who visits.