Glean: Focus on filmmaking, Fri 27 Jan 2023, 7pm

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Credit: Jenny Gilbertson (with Cuthbert Cayley) 1938/39, courtesy of Shetland Museum & Archive

This online event focuses on early 20th Century women filmmakers in Scotland. Chaired by Professor Melanie Bell, (Film History, School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds), whose area of expertise is in Gender and Film as well as British Cinema History, the event will discuss the film production of that period, the ethics of filming others, and caring for their work. It will also reflect on how the women filmmakers saw themselves and their motivations for making film. This discussion is with Ros Cranston (Curator of Non-Fiction Film and Television at the BFI National Archive, BFI National Archive), Shona Main (PhD researcher, University of Stirling and The Glasgow School of Art); Janet McBain (founding Curator, Scottish Screen Archive); Professor Sarah Neely (Theatre, Film & Television Studies, University of Glasgow, Dr Isabel Seguí (Film and Visual Culture Department, University of Aberdeen) and Jenny Brownrigg (The Glasgow School of Art, curator of Glean). 


Melanie Bell is Professor of Film History at the University of Leeds. She examines production histories through a gendered lens and has published widely on many aspects of women’s film history including documentary directors, costume designers, and foley artists. She uses oral histories, labour records, photographs and ephemera in her scholarship, and is especially interested in life narratives and occupational identities.   

Jenny Brownrigg is Exhibitions Director at The Glasgow School of Art. Her research interests include modern and contemporary Scottish women artists. She is curator of the exhibition ‘Glean: early 2oth century women filmmakers and photographers in Scotland’, at City Art Centre, Edinburgh, Scotland (2022 / 2023).

Ros Cranston is a Curator of Non-Fiction Film and Television at the BFI National Archive. She has a special interest in women documentary filmmakers, and leads The Camera is Ours: Britain’s women documentary makers project. She also led the BFI project This Working Life, which celebrates Britain’s coalmining, shipbuilding and steelmaking heritage on film.

Shona Main has just submitted a SGSAH-supported practice-led PhD thesis at Stirling University. A filmmaker herself, she is interested in the quietly radical ethical practice of the early documentary filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson (1902-1990) who filmed Shetland crofters in the 1930s and Inuit of Coral Harbour and Grise Fiord in Arctic Canada in the 1970s – when she was in her seventies. Operating alone and outside the film industry, Gilbertson’s DIY approach to filmmaking allowed her to take the time to attend, listen and build and sustain friendships with the people she lived and filmed with. 

 A graduate in Scottish history, and former Survey Officer for the National Register of Archives Scotland, Janet McBain joined the Scottish Film Council in 1976 at the inception of what was to become the Scottish Screen Archive. Since then she has overseen the development of the archive into Scotland’s national collection of some 35,000 reels of film and video reflecting Scottish life and cinematic art in the film century, and has been researching and promoting the history of film production and cinema exhibition in Scotland. She is the author of ‘Pictures Past – Recollections of Scottish Cinema Going’ (pub Moorfoot 1985) and contributor of essays, articles and conference papers on many aspects of film in Scotland.  In 2006 she was awarded the Outstanding Achievement in Film by BAFTA Scotland for her work in preserving and presenting Scotland’s film heritage and in 2016 was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (DLitt) from the University of Glasgow.

Sarah Neely is Professor in Film and Visual Culture at the University of Glasgow. Her current research focuses on the areas of film history, memory and artists’ moving image.  Recent publications include Between Categories: The Films of Margaret Tait – Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place (Peter Lang, 2016) and, as editor, Personae (LUX, 2021), a non-fiction work by Margaret Tait.  She is currently writing a book on memory, archives and creativity. 

Isabel Seguí is a Lecturer in Film and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Aberdeen. Her work has appeared in academic journals such as Latin American PerspectivesFeminist Media HistoriesFrameworkJump Cut, and edited collections like Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image (Balsom & Peleg eds, the MIT Press, 2022) or Incomplete: the Feminist Possibilities of the Unfinished Film (Beeston & Solomon eds., UC California Press, 2023). She is a member of the steering committee of RAMA (Latin American Women’s Audiovisual Research Network).

Research Note 10: Orkney Library & Archive

Orkney Library & Archive, Kirkwall Photo: Jenny Brownrigg (2022)

The photography of Dr Beatrice Garvie (1872-1956) has come to my attention solely through the ongoing meticulous work of artist and researcher Fiona Sanderson. Sanderson had come across Garvie’s photographs through her own connection to North Ronaldsay, Orkney. As part of her time on the island as the community doctor in the 1930s and 40s, Garvie had photographed Sanderson’s grandmother ‘Jenny South Ness’. Sanderson has, over several years, presented her ongoing research as part of a number of events including ‘Holm Sound’ (Episode 7: BLØM, 2022); and XPoNorth’s podcast series ‘Unforgotten Highland Women’ (2022). As an artist involved in a ‘Culture Collective’ project in North Ronaldsay, Sanderson has also introduced Dr Garvie and her work to North Ronaldsay schoolchildren. As part of her  research, Sanderson has contacted Garvie’s family, and, through her own connections with North Ronaldsay, the families of those in the photographs. This has allowed Sanderson to work collaboratively to name and caption, when not noted in Garvie’s own captions. Sanderson also recognises the ethical issue of use of the photographs in further public platforms such as exhibitions and events, asking permission as some may not wish to have photographs of family members shown. This research approach is also echoed in Shona Main’s work with Jenny Gilbertson’s early films in Shetland, asking communities to name those beyond the central islanders involved.

Like Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004), who lived with the MacRae sisters in North Glendale, South Uist for five years in the early 1930s’, Dr Garvie also lived in the community she was photographing for 15 years from the 1930s to ‘40s. As can be noted through the work of Shetland filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson who also, latterly as a teacher, lived and worked in the community she had documented, this sustained period of immersion allowed for a full understanding and recording of the changing seasons and their impact on the island.  For Gilbertson,  ‘A Crofter’s Life in Shetland’ (1931) was filmed over the period of a year, showing seasonal farming and fishing cycles. Seasons can also be perceived in Garvie’s work through the types of farm labour she photographed. The weather is also apparent, for example, in one sequence  of unloading the boat ‘The Earl Sigurd’, with snow lying on the pier in the foreground. As Sanderson points out, Garvie as a doctor is likely to be the only woman photographer to have taken photographs of the babies and children she brought into the world, there is a sense of time passing in her photographs of the children beginning to grow up, from babies into toddlers. Dr Kenneth Robertson, a physician in South Uist from 1956-1981, is a later example of a doctor in Scotland photographing the community they served.

Garvie captured communal work in North Ronaldsay, from re-roofing the baker’s shop, to repairing the unique wall that encircles the high shore line around the island, keeping the seaweed-eating sheep on the foreshore. Her photographs really have a unique sense of ‘place’, with the lighthouse, as a main landmark, often discernible in photographs where she has focussed on farm work, such as of a woman scything. There are several sequences of activities relating to ‘tangle work’, such as men and women piling up kelp in heaps; and then placing these in ‘kilns’ on the shore to set light to. A handwritten description on the back of one of the photographs reads:

‘Tangle stacks. Tangle is collected from the beach during winter… left on this ridge of stones above the beach – about July is forked into circular shallow pits… and burned, becoming lumps of dark grey material. This is shipped to Grangemouth Chemical Works.

As I have noted before, some of the male photographers of this period were keen to perpetuate the idea of island Scotland as a romantic and remote location, however Garvie’s description firmly links the labour of the islanders to Scottish industry, on this occasion, in Grangemouth. As we see later, the boat and the plane, also recorded in Garvie’s photography, link up North Ronaldsay to Orkney mainland and mainland Scotland. Jenny Gilbertson’s film ‘A Crofter’s Life in Shetland’ also shows modernity and tradition living side by side in this period.

One of the key aspects of Garvie’s style is her ability to catch ‘movement’. Her photography often captures a ‘live’ rather than staged, activity. She has made no effort to edit or to ask for the action to be repeated or frozen, for the benefit of the camera. The hands of those working the land are often a blur. In one  photograph, she captures a man throwing a rope to the incoming boat. His body is in a diagonal, with the black of the boat’s hull providing a backdrop for the water droplets cascading from the rope to be seen against. As well as the movement of the subject, when seeing an activity in photographic sequence, such as the tangle work, Garvie’s own movement as a photographer becomes apparent. She ranges round the point of focus, photographing up close, then moving behind to photograph the same activity at a distance. Sanderson is currently working with Garvie’s relatives to identify the type of camera she used. From the low angle of the camera looking up, as was synonymous with the period, it looks likely that that camera was held at waist height.

A second aspect to note in Garvie’s style as a photographer is that her compositions often revolve around strong shapes. This may be the distinct curve of a furrow connecting up to horses and plough in the foreground, or placing the large stone circle of a shallow pit on the shore as the immediate focus in the photograph, with the islanders burning kelp in another pit, in the far distance. This sense of shape also comes into her pictures of children. In one, a triangular composition is dominant; a large triangular wooden frame is echoed by the triangle of a mother’s body (who is sitting perched within it), which in turn frames the baby, dressed in white, that she holds in her lap. These shapes and her liking for the abstract is also followed through with unusual cropping in her framing of the subject. A young boy on top of a gate post is framed from just below his shoulders down. This, and Garvie’s innate understanding of perspective, sets the triangle created by his legs echoed by the chimneyed end of a cottage in the distance.  In looking at Garvie’s photography as a whole, in the 500-strong collection of photographs, these are not unintended compositions but a preference for strong and unusual compositions.

This is carried through to Dr Garvie’s aerial work. Orkney Archive holds the Gunnie Moberg (1941-2007) collection where, in Moberg’s work such as ‘Stone Built’ (1979, Stromness Books & Prints), Moberg took photographs from an airplane of Orkney’s archaeological sites and stone structures, including the ‘seaward wall’ of North Ronaldsay. It is pleasing to think that in the same archive, Dr Garvie is a forerunner to Moberg. Garvie photographed aspects of an aerodrome being built on North Ronaldsay and the excitement of island events such as the first Royal Mail flight in 1939 linking up the UK to North Ronaldsay. Again drawn to abstract shapes, Garvie also photographed North Ronaldsay, Kirkwall and Caithness by air, the shape of the white wing  sometimes visually echoing that of an island peninsula. In compositions that focus soley on dark and alternating light strips of fields with the dots of the haystacks, her aerial work is at its most sublime.

Just as the women photographers Violet Banks and Margaret Fay Shaw kept their work in photograph albums, the holdings at Orkney Library & Archive show that Dr Garvie kept the majority of her work in albums too. However, whereas Banks’ albums were only found through the sale of the dresser that they were kept in, Sanderson discovered that the accession of the albums had begun following the death of Dr Garvie, with North Ronaldsay islanders asking Garvie’s relatives for the return of the photograph albums. Their importance as an archive of a generation of islanders, to their families, is a key part of these works.

The  forthcoming exhibition ‘Glean: Early 20th Century Women Filmmakers and Photographers in Scotland’, at the City Art Centre, Edinburgh, (12 Nov 2022-12 March 2023) will feature the work of fourteen women. A selection from Dr Garvie’s work will add important co-ordinates, those of North Ronaldsay and Orkney, to the breadth of locations these fourteen women worked in. Furthermore, Dr Garvie’s work brings with it a distinct style and approach to recording a Scottish community over a prolonged period of time in the 1930s and 40’s. Sanderson will be developing an event as part of this exhibition programme.

With thanks to Fiona Sanderson, and to Lucy Gibbon and Colin Rendall at Orkney Library & Archive.

‘Doing Women’s Film and Television Histories III: Structures of Feeling’ Conference

Doing Women’s Film and Television Histories III: Structures of Feeling

The Third International Conference of the Women’s Film and Television History Network: UK/Ireland, 18-20 May 2016, Leicester, UK

Conference Organisers: Vicky Ball (Senior Lecturer in Cinema and Television Histories, De Montfort University), Melanie Bell (Associate Professor in Film and Media, University of Leeds), Laraine Porter (Senior Lecturer, Film Studies, De Montfort University)


This conference was organised by the Women’s Film and Television Network (UK and Ireland) [1]. The aims of the network are to research and disseminate women’s ‘participation in screen media’ and explore the roles of women in the industry, ensure ‘that women’s work is recognised in the writing of screen histories’, to ‘encourage new approaches to film and television that are sensitive to gender, class and race’ and to have ‘an impact on the teaching of screen media in schools and colleges.’ [2]

‘Structures of Feeling’, the tagline of the conference title, refers to Raymond Williams’ work [3] around the suppressed narrative; the real, lived experience which is part of culture but not recognised in the mediated history and hegemony of that culture. With presentations referring to key statistical analysis from primary research of the AHRC-funded project, ‘Calling the Shots’  [4], including the findings that ‘in 2015, women constituted just 20% of all directors, writers, producers, exec-producers, cinematographers and editors on 203 UK films in production during 2015’ ,  [5] the conference’s exploration and assessment of diverse narratives, histories and contributions by women in a male dominated industry was both timely and necessary.  Further analysis from ‘Calling the Shots’ details that ‘74% of films with a woman director also had a woman producer’, [6] highlighting that if a woman is employed in a main role, she is likely to recruit more women to other key roles in the crew. Of those women employed in key roles,  in terms of numbers of BAME women in 2015, the report found that only ‘7% of women were of Black, Asian, or Ethnic Minority identity, making BAME women less that 1.5% of all personnel’.


If one statistical pillar of the conference was the initial findings of ‘Calling the Shots’, the other was ‘Patterns of Discrimination Against Women in the Film and Television Industries’ (1975), a report commissioned by the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) Union’s Committee of Equality. The conference chose to commemorate its 40th anniversary of publication, with presentations by Frances Galt (De Montfort University, Leicester) who gave an excellent historical context to the report and Barbara Evans (York University, Toronto), an original member from the London Women’s Film Group who was key in getting ACTT to agree to the role of a paid woman researcher to conduct the research and write the report. A screening at the conference of the film, ‘The Right Place: Women in West London Film Laboratories, 1960-2000’ (Dawson, A & Holmes, SP, 2016), intriguingly uses film footage of the researcher, Sarah Benton, in a meeting with male and female workers,  the union and shop stewards, discussing the place of a crèche in the workplace to allow women to continue to work, after having families. Benton meets with resistance to the idea, both from male and female workers that are present, who believe that the ills of society are down to mothers at work and therefore away from the home, who are not having an influence on their children growing up.

'Open Door' excerpt, Barbara Evans' presentation: ‘Breaking the Pattern, The Struggle for Equality in the Film and Television Industry’

‘Open Door’ (1965) excerpt, Barbara Evans’ presentation: ‘Breaking the Pattern, The Struggle for Equality in the Film and Television Industry’

'Open Door' (1965) excerpt, (Barbara Evans Pictured, both in film clip and in person), ‘Breaking the Pattern, The Struggle for Equality in the Film and Television Industry’

‘Open Door’ (1965) excerpt, (Barbara Evans pictured, both in film clip and in person), Barbara Evans’ presentation: ‘Breaking the Pattern, The Struggle for Equality in the Film and Television Industry’

Evans in her presentation ‘Breaking the Pattern, The Struggle for Equality in the Film and Television Industry’  outlined the situation in the workplace where women were confined to the lesser skilled roles, often secretarial, lower paid jobs, which Evans described as creating ‘sexual ghettoes’. Reasons given for women not being able to enter predominantly male domains including camera or sound work, included that the equipment was too heavy for women to carry. Evans illustrated her presentation with clips from a discussion of ACTT women activists, for BBC’s ‘Open Door’ programme in 1965, including Evans herself, to tell this story: ‘Many women were doing housework on the job… often a substitute wife or mother’ for the male bosses. The action of getting a paid female researcher was key, as many women felt intimidated to speak at union meetings or assemblies without fear of heckling. One of the ‘Open Door’ excerpts was intriguingly a satirical re-enactment of the battle between women and men around equal pay in the workplace, with women playing both gender roles. This creative approach to engaging with issues of inequality was also highlighted in Rachel Fabian’s (California) paper ‘What are We Left With?: The London Women’s Film Group and the Legacies of 1970s’ Collective Media Production’, where Fabian referred to London Women’s Film Group’s ‘The Amazing Equal Pay Show’, (1974), which was a film looking at the place of working class women in a capitalist society and worked with the Women’s Street Theatre Group,  to lampoon issues of inequality through using the language of carnival, street theatre and pantomime.

Slide from Rachel Fabian's presentation: 'What Are We Left With? The London Women's Film Group and Legacies of the 1970s Collective Media Production', featuring 'The amazing Equal Pay Show' (YEAR), London Women's Film Group

Slide from Rachel Fabian’s presentation: ‘What Are We Left With? The London Women’s Film Group and Legacies of the 1970s Collective Media Production‘, featuring ‘The Amazing Equal Pay Show’ (1974), London Women’s Film Group

This is only one route through the conference, given its session structure of running up to four strands of panels to choose from. My own attendance had been thanks to association with Shona Main’s ‘Real Illuminators’ film programme, along with Dr Sarah Neely (University of Stirling), which presented eight short films [7] by early women film-makers in Scotland, predominantly in the field of documentary. Particularly resonant for this programme and area of research, was our meeting Barbara Evans, one of the first to research and write about Shetland filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson, in the Women Film Pioneers Project. Also of key interest, was the presentation by Sarah Hill (University of East Anglia), on the Women Amateur Filmmakers in Britain archive collection, digitised by East Anglian Film Archive, part of the University of East Anglia. Hill showed a selection of films from 1920s’-80s’ including animations by Sheila Graber and Joanna Fryer.

Slide from Sarah Hill's presentation: '(In)visible Women? Researching Amateur Women Filmmakers', image of 'Make-Up' (1978), Joanne Fryer

Slide from Sarah Hill’s presentation: ‘(In)visible Women? Researching Amateur Women Filmmakers’, image of ‘Make-Up’ (1978), Joanna Fryer

Slide from Sarah Hill's presentation: '(In)visible Women? Researching Amateur Women Filmmakers', image of 'Make-Up' (1978), Joanne Fryer

Slide from Sarah Hill’s presentation: ‘(In)visible Women? Researching Amateur Women Filmmakers’, image of ‘Make-Up’ (1978), Joanna Fryer

Dr Kate Dossett’s (University of Leeds) keynote, on the AHRC funded Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures’, chronicled the role of the women’s library or archive from the Fawcett Library, set up by the London Society for Women’s Service in 1926, to current day archives and libraries, including reference to Glasgow Women’s Library, and a focus on Feminist Archive North, with materials on Vera Media and Leeds Animation Workshop. June Givanni also presented on her Pan African Cinema Archive collected over her 30 years working as a curator gathering film work by women directors from Africa and the diaspora. She is currently focusing on what type of an archival space architecturally can be created for this independent archive.

Slide from Dr Kate Dossett's presentation, image 'Vera Media'

Slide from Dr Kate Dossett’s presentation, image ‘Vera Media’

Doing Women’s Film and Television Histories III: Structures of Feeling’ conference was  inspirational in its content and approach, tackling key themes from a variety of different perspectives, roles, geographies and histories. For example, the first Plenary, ‘Costume, Women, Work and History’ had a costume designer and supervisor (Lezli Everitt, Costume and Training Skills, BECTU Learning Organiser), academic (Tamar Jeffers McDonald, University of Kent) and curator (Keith Lodwick, V&A Museum) contributing, allowing the spectrum of discussion to range from the actualities of the workplace, to academic framing and then questions of exhibition. As the conference was looking at aspects of power and power holders, predominantly being ascribed in examples in favour of the male domain, a key presentation by Gina Marchetti ‘The Feminine Touch: Chinese Soft Power Politics and Hong Kong Women Filmmakers’, provided an interesting case study in the navigation of soft power by women filmmakers including Ann Hui, in securing financial backing and box office success.

The delegates and contributors were from diverse ages, points in their career and experiences which allowed for all contributions to be recognised and acknowledged as significant to the continuation of the field. And again in the sense of the ‘continuity bible’, referred to in several presentations including Lezli Everitt’s, as a trade device to track change and make note of what has occurred, the conference ephemera, notes, discussions, further reading, conversations with other delegates and presentations on key projects, will continue to have an impact on evolving lines of research investigation. It was announced that the next conference will take place at University of Southampton in 2018.

Jenny Brownrigg (May 2016)


[1] WFTHN is one of the results from the AHRC funded project ‘A History of Women and Work in the British Film and Television Industries 1933-1989’

[2] From delegates’ pack materials.

[3] ‘The Long Revolution’, Williams, R (1961)

[4] ‘Calling the Shots’ is led by Dr Shelley Cobb & Prof Linda Ruth Williams, University of Southamption, with partners including BFI, BECTU and Women in Film and Television UK. The project supports a Research Fellow (Dr Natalie Wreyford) with two PhD students.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Real Illuminators’ film programme, curated by Shona Main, is as follows: ‘Peat From Hillside to Home’ (1932) Jenny Gilbertson; ‘Flowers and Coffee Party at Umanak’ (1935) Isobel Wylie Hutchison; ‘Beside the Seaside’ (1935) Marion Grierson; ‘Challenge to Fascism / May Day 1938’  Helen Biggar; ‘Ceylon Calling’ (1939) Nettie McGavin; ‘They Also Serve’ (1940) Ruby Grierson; ‘A Portrait of Ga’ (1952) Margaret Tait; ‘The Aardvark or Ant Bear’ (1961) Elizabeth Balneaves.

'Real Illuminators' logo, designer Bryn Houghton, at 'Doing Women's Film and Television Histories III: Structures of Feeling' conference, Leicester, 2016

‘Real Illuminators’ logo, designer Bryn Houghton, at ‘Doing Women’s Film and Television Histories III: Structures of Feeling’ conference, Leicester, 2016

Further notes of reference from conference:


Nightcleaners, Part 1’, Berwick Street Film Collective (1975)

‘Prairie Women’, Barbara Evans (1987)

‘Women Amateur Filmmakers Trailer’, EAFA Amateur Film,

‘Daughters of the Dust’, Julie Dash (1991) (reference from June Givanni presentation)

‘A Dry White Season’, Euzhan Palcy (1989) (reference from June Givanni presentation)


Women Film Pioneers Project (reference from Barbara Evans)

British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound 1927-1933 (reference from Sarah Neely)

The Boudica Film Fund

Women On Boards 40:40:20 campaign

Women 50:50 campaign for at least 50% representation of women in parliament, councils and public boards


‘Gender meets genre in postwar cinemas’, Christine Gledhill, (2012)

‘Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas Past and Future’, edited by Christine Glehill & Julia Knight (2015), University of Illinois Press.

‘Notes on Women’s Cinema’, edited by Claire Johnston (1973)

[Article], ‘The Amazing Equal Pay Show’, London Women’s Film Group 1974 / Publishers Spare Rib, Aug 1975.

‘Aftershocks of the New: Feminism and Film History’, Patrice Petro (2002), Rutgers University Press.


University of Illinois Press (reference from Professor Emiritus Michelle Hilmes), interested in women’s histories, in particular submission on women’s involvement in sound period.

Trade Union:



Film Archives UK

Institute of Amateur Cinematographers library, at East Anglian Film Archive, University of East Anglia


Beatriz Azurduy Palacios (1952-2003), Bolivian motion picture director (Isabel Segui, University of St Andrews presentation)

Elizabeth Haffenden (1906-1976), costume designer (reference from Tamar Jeffers McDonald presentation)

Beatrice ‘Bumble’ Dawson (1908-1976), costume designer (reference from Tamar Jeffers McDonald presentation)

Dr Heather Norris Nicholson, University of Huddersfield, archive film and changing amateur visual practice. (reference from Sarah Hill’s presentation)

‘Women and Film’ event, Edinburgh Festival, 1972

Third Eye Film Festival’ 1983 (Reference June Givanni presentation)






Two recent articles: Helen Biggar (with Shona Main) and Michael Barr (at RSA New Contemporaries)

‘Challenge to Fascism: Glasgow’s May Day’ (1938), Helen Biggar, by Main, S. & Brownrigg, J, 1.5.16 Map Magazine online.

Film still, Challenge to Fascism/ Glasgow's May Day (1938) by Helen Biggar. Willy Gallacher, CPGB, MP for West Fife,speaking at Glasgow Green. Photo courtesy of Billie Love Historical Collection.

Film still, Challenge to Fascism/ Glasgow’s May Day (1938) by Helen Biggar. Willy Gallacher, CPGB, MP for West Fife,speaking at Glasgow Green. Photo courtesy of Billie Love Historical Collection.

FREE CULTURE! Review of Michael Barr’s work inspired by book on Cuban culture policy, Jenny Brownrigg, April 2016, Cuba50, online

'FREE CULTURE!', Michael Barr (2016) Photo courtesy of artist

‘FREE CULTURE!’, Michael Barr (2016) Photo courtesy of artist

Documenting 1930s’ Scottish Highland and Islands life- M.E.M. Donaldson, Jenny Gilbertson and Margaret Fay Shaw

Research note 1: Jenny Gilbertson- Shetland research visit, October 2015.

Heylor, Shetland.

Heylor, Shetland- one of the locations for ‘Rugged Island’ (1932) Jenny Gilbertson.

Thanks to research leave from The Glasgow School of Art, I have three months away from my role as GSA Exhibitions Director, to work in depth on one piece of written research. I will be looking at Margaret Fay Shaw (1904-2004), Jenny Gilbertson (1902-1990) and M.E.M. Donaldson (1876-1958), in particular their photography or filmmaking from the 1930s’, a period where all three women were independently documenting different aspects of Scottish Highlands and Islands life, having moved to live with the communities they were witnessing.  My aim is for these posts to serve as an introduction or notebook to my research and as an aid to help record, excavate and edge closer to the key points to write about.

As an early career researcher, this is the first experience I have had of working alongside other researchers on the same subject. I am incredibly lucky to be part of a motivated group of women all inspired by Shetland film maker Jenny Gilbertson– Shona Main, a writer and film-maker currently working on a biography of Gilbertson; Dr Sarah Neely, University of Stirling, who has written in particular about Gilbertson’s later work in the Arctic; and Joanne Jamieson from Shetland Moving Image Archive who is writing about Gilbertson and working to gather all Gilbertson’s films in the archive. I have been impressed by and grateful for their openness in sharing their knowledge and field work.

My first research visit has been to Shetland and the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick (thanks to Brian Smith, Blair Bruce and Angus Johnson), to look through their material on Jenny Gilbertson. This resource has mostly been gifted by her two daughters Helen Thomson and Ann Black who live on Shetland.

'Rugged Island' photograph holder, Shetland Museum and Archives.

‘Rugged Island’ photograph holder, Shetland Museum and Archives.

These important holdings include Gilbertson’s correspondence over her lifetime, both personal and professional;  the interpretation material she wrote about her work including autobiographical notes and film synopsis; press cuttings, in particular relating to her later filming in the Canadian Arctic with the Inuit; reflections and references from others about her work including a recommendation from her peer, filmmaker Elizabeth Balneaves (1911-2006), a letter and review of her early work by John Grierson (1898-1972) and feedback from the teachers and pupils of the schools she personally toured her films to; ephemera from film screenings and lecture tours that she undertook including some posthumous material; photographs from both her family and professional life, the latter including photographs from her early lecture tour to Canada in 1934-5 as well as from the period in her seventies and eighties living at Coral Harbour and Grise Fiord filming the Inuit; reference material she had compiled relating to subjects that interested her, both historical and contemporary; some of her film outlines and drafts, including a radio play ‘Busta House’ (1955) and essays she sent to magazines; and raw material including 35mm negatives from ‘Rugged Island’(1932) and ‘Prairie Winter’ (1934) as well as sound reels of recordings made in Coral Harbour and Grise Fiord. Shetland Museum and Archives have begun the process of cataloguing this collection.

The importance of the archives has been threefold – to see how Gilbertson saw herself and her work, through her own words and through others; to gain insight into her motivations for filming; and to understand the conditions she had to navigate as an independent filmmaker throughout her career, including those with the film and TV industry.

Screening of 'Rugged Island' (1932) at Shetland Museum and Archive. Photo: Joanne Jamieson

Screening of ‘Rugged Island’ (1932) at Shetland Museum and Archive. Photo: Joanne Jamieson

During the time I was in Shetland, Shona Main along with Shetland Moving Image Archive’s Joanne Jamieson, staged two screenings of Gilbertson’s 1930’s films (11 & 15 Oct 2015). The first in Lerwick at Shetland Museum was a screening of ‘Rugged Island’ (1932), the sound version with original score by Kenneth Leslie Smith. The second, to a packed village hall in Hillswick, where Gilbertson and her family had lived, showed her first film ‘A Crofter’s Life in Shetland’ (1931) alongside a number Gilbertson went on to make and sell to Grierson and the G.P.O. Library: ‘Cattle Sale’ (1932), ‘Da Makkin o’ a Keshie’ (1932), ‘Peat From Hillside to Home’ (1932) and ‘In Sheep’s Clothing’ (1932).

Site visit with David Anderson to Hillswick. Heylor and Eshaness

Site visit with David Anderson to Hillswick, Heylor and Eshaness.

As well as showing these films, the aim of the screenings was for Main and Jamieson to find out and record from the audience if they knew the locations and people within the films. They did this following the screenings by going through the films again and using them as an ‘aide memoire’ to prompt discussions on who it was and where it was in different scenes. This proved to be a successful method, in particular leading to a subsequent site visit with David Anderson (Davie a’ Hammar), a member of the audience from the Lerwick screening who had been taught by Gilbertson at Urafirth Primary School. He drove Shona, Joanne and myself around Hillswick and Eshaness areas before the second screening, to locate the croft and ruined cottage that Gilbertson’s husband Johnny Gilbertson had worked on, at Heylor, for part of the ‘Rugged Island’ (1932) set.

Joanne Jamieson and Shona Main at Heylor, with the croft in background from 'Rugged Island' (1932)

Joanne Jamieson and Shona Main at Heylor, with the croft in background from ‘Rugged Island’ (1932)

The experience of this research visit to Shetland has been immersive – from the darkness of the film screenings where people and places came to light, to the richness of material in the archives. I had not contended for the feeling of exhilaration that results from the first connections to occur through research, source material, conversation and of being out in the landscape on the trail of Jenny Gilbertson.