Marsali Tayor takes a look at Shetland’s rich film history
We’re lucky to live in a place that’s seen as a bit different. From a film point of view, it means that visitors brought their cameras with them – and so there’s a good hoard of relatively early films of Shetland life.
The earliest extant footage of Shetland is from around 1922, a 3-minute film of ‘The Arrival of the Mail Steamer in Lerwick.’ [Scottish Screen Archive no. 0259] This three minute film shows the steamer being pulled alongside the pier, with boats in the harbour in the background.
Once we move into the 1930s, there’s a lot to look at. One visitor, for the 1932 launch of the first Lerwick lifeboat, the Lady Jane and Martha Ryland, was the Duchess of Montrose, a keen amateur film-maker. Her footage, in ‘Trip to Skye, Orkney and Shetland’ [SSA no 1928] includes scenes of the harbour filled with the herring fleet, the dig at Jarlshof, Hillswick, sheep, ponies and women carding and spinning. Also from the 1930s is ‘Missionaries’ [SSA 4977] an eight minutes film which shows the work of church missionaries throughout Scotland, including a short clip of Weisdale Missionary Church.
The Johnson family films [SSA 1311], preserved in the Scottish Screen Archive, include footage of several family holidays in Shetland between 1930s and the 1950s – family members golfing and bowling, an Orkney/Shetland inter-county, shots of Lerwick, a Shetland pony and, intriguingly, “The Evasive Patient, a comedy involving nurses in the Scottish Isolation Hospital in Lerwick, including Rosemary Baxter’s mother, and a patient.” One golfer is identified as Sister Morrison; perhaps they had family here.
The largest amateur film collection of this era is by a native: John Harold Johnson shot four reels in Shetland around 1932-3 [the J H Johnson Collection, SSA 2729], showing life in Lerwick: the harbour activity, fundraising for the Hospital, and Up-Helly-A’. A separate film [SSA 2730] includes the visit of HMS Rodney, seabirds and a football match, possibly an inter-county.
Unfortunately, all these films are only available to view by appointment at the Scottish Screen Archives in Glasgow – they’re not yet on-line. One early ‘home movie’ you can see here in Shetland, at the Fetlar Interpretative Centre, is a film found in Brough Lodge, including family shots of their car being winched aboard the ferry, and Lady Nicolson and her sister dancing down the front steps.
However, the best films of Shetland – and I’m not sure that’s just ‘from this era’ – are by local film-maker Jenny Gilbertson, and some of these can be watched on your computer, through the Scottish Screen Archive website. The easiest way to find them is to go to her biography, and click on the list of films.
Jenny Brown (she married John Gilbertson in 1934) was born in Clydeside in 1902. She was originally a teacher, but then went to London to do a secretarial course. She got interested in film when she saw an amateur film about Loch Lomond, and decided to make educational films she could take around schools. She came to Shetland in 1931, and the Scottish Screen Archives has a short clip of her riding at Grocken, Hillswick, with Betty Edmonton [SSA 6908].
The first film she made was A Crofter’s Life in Shetland, 1931 [SSA 0981], and it’s 46 minutes of pure delight. It was filmed around the croft of a Jamieson family in North Roe. It takes the viewer right through the crofting year, starting with the spring ploughing – achieved using a variety of animals, including a horse and cow yoked together, a team of four ponies, a carthorse and a single cow. There’s peat work, the hay work, the sheep. There’s a sequence in Lerwick, with cars squeezing through the lanes, and a child carrying water. The Yell ferry seems to have been a fishing boat. There’s a poignant shot around the voe, with every croft surrounded by tended rigs. The real stars, though, are the animals: the pony that’s not going between the shafts of that cart, the cat and kitten helping with the spinning, the dog hiding among the sheaves, the bald, ugly fledglings – and, oh, the cloud of seabirds on the cliffs does make you realise how they’ve dwindled.
Brown took the film to show John Grierson, head of the General Post Office Film Unit. The GPO was then part of the Civil Service, and Grierson’s unit was set up partly to make films for training purposes, but also to communicate the work of the GPO to the public. Like the British Rail film unit, it employed professional writers, directors, actors and camera operators. Grierson was so impressed by Brown’s film that he paid £40 her next six, all shot in 1932.
In Da Makkin o a Keshie, 5 mins [SSA 1552], Brown shows us the complete process, from Gideon cutting the corn to carrying the first load of peats home. In Sheep’s Clothing, 1932, 10 mins [SSA 1129] again shows the process from raw material to finished item. Mrs Jamieson takes us from caaing and rooing the sheep through carding, spinning and knitting to selling her jersey. Scenes from a Shetland Croft Life [Peat, from hillside to home] 6 mins, [SSA 0980] again stars Mr and Mrs Jamieson, making it look easy. A Cattle Sale, 3 mins [SSA 0989], Seabirds in the Shetland Isles, 9 mins [SSA 1128], and Young Gannet, 3 mins [SSA 0990] can’t be viewed on-line.
Grierson then advised Brown to make a story-documentary, and the result was the first Shetland fiction-film: The Rugged Island – A Shetland Lyric 1933, 56 mins [SSA 0991]. It’s listed as non-fiction, and follows the story of Andrew and Enga, who quarrel over the chance to emigrate to Australia. The film has a lot of footage showing the hard work of the crofting and fishing lifestyle, but the lovingly-evoked families are fiction. John Gilbertson stars as Andrew and there are other familiar faces from her earlier films. Part of the filming was done at Tinna, a roofless house in Heylor that Brown helped repair. A version with sound – a spoken commentary, in a BBC voice, and rather over-the-top orchestral music – was released in 1934. This one’s now available on DVD, along with a film about Eriskay.
Grierson himself made a film in Shetland in 1934: Granton Trawler. This follows Isabella Greig who is engaged in dragnet fishing off the Norwegian coast. He apparently used it as a teaching film to analyse movement photographically, and to talk about sound – the sound of the film was created later in the studio.
Jenny Gilbertson ran a hosiery business from 1940-47, then returned to teaching. She continued to make Shetland films. Northern Outpost, 1940, 16 minutes [SSA 0773], made by Gilbertson and C J Cayley, has more wonderful bird and animal shots, but also looks at boat work throughout the isles: fishing, ferries, freight. The SSA website also allows you to see a few minutes of The Shetland Pony, 1965-69, 31 mins [SSA 1130], with stallion Baccus being unenthusiastic about the boat trip to Mousa, and Florin arriving at a scattald.
People of Many Lands (BBC, 1967) was filmed with her friend Elizabeth Balneaves. Some of the footage for this is preserved in the SSA as ‘Gilbertson Stock Shots’ – mostly of fishing. She also travelled to Canada and Alaska, making a number of films there: Big Timber (1949), Among the Clouds (1952), Jenny’s Arctic, part 1 (1971), Jenny’s Dog-Team Journey (1975) and Jenny’s Arctic Diary (1978). Her final film was Rovdehorn, 13 minutes [SSA 3023], blending 1965 footage of the arrival of the Norwegian government’s gift of a small car-ferry with her own 1988 commentary.
Jenny Gilbertson’s films inspired Lerwick man G Theo Kay. His films, given to the SSA by his daughter, are mostly from the 50s, but include black and white footage from 1934 onwards. Shetland and Fair Isle Scenes, 1934-55, 14 mins [SSA 1617] shows shots of island life, including the first baby girl to be born there for twenty-one years. Shetland – a few aspects 43 mins [SSA 1616], includes footage of the fishing boat Liberty at work, a regatta, Kay’s own yacht Soldian and the Foula Reel. Alas, you can see only short clips of these online.
Returning to the 30s, Shetland’s best-known feature film is The Edge of the World, 1937. Like The Rugged Island, it’s a fictional love story with a factual background – this time, the evacuation of St Kilda. The Edge of the World was directed by Michael Powell, and filmed mostly on Foula, with shots of other Shetland locations. It starred Niall MacGinnis, Belle Chrystall and John Laurie, now familiar to everyone as the Scottish one in ‘Dad’s Army’. The story is based on a true story from St Kilda, although all references to Gaelic heritage were removed, and the fictional island keeps the name of Hirta. Michael Powell wrote a book about the filming, 200,000 feet on Foula. There was a follow-up in 1978, Return to the Edge of the World, a documentary in which Powell and some crew members return to Foula.
Of Shetland interest, even though it wasn’t filmed here, is the 1954 Norwegian film Shetlandsgjengen ‘The Shetland Gang’. It was released in English as Suicide Mission, and many of the original Shetland Bus men, including Leif Larsen, played themselves.The Norwegian version was released on DVD in 2009, and there are also clips of a bomber raid on a boat at sea on youTube.
The GPO and PR weren’t the only organisations with professional film units – the Methodist Church had its own Mission Film Unit, and in 1953 it produced the 45 minute Simmer Dim, ‘the story of modern Methodism in the isles, interwoven with the lives of its people.’ As well as showing church-goers and their ministers, it includes Lerwick regatta and swimming off the pier, nautical lessons at the Anderson, ploughing with horses, rooing sheep and a host of other snippets. It can’t be watched on-line, but, along with Gilbertson’s Rovdehorn, is one of the films the new Shetland Moving Image Project has been taking around the halls to publicise their work of finding and preserving film in Shetland.
Colour film was now becoming affordable, and so we have the first colour films of Shetland. There are several films about Fair Isle shot in the 1950s. In 1951, Theo Kay filmed the work that goes on at the Observatory: Fair Isle, 14 mins, [SSA 1618]. Fair Isle Cuts 1957, 44 minutes [SSA 3266] is clips showing a variety of island activities. Fair Isle – a glimpse of life on a lonely island, 51 mins [SSA 2892], was filmed by Valerie Thorn, and can be watched on-line. It shows fishing boats in a swirl of seabirds, the Lighthouse men unloading barrels of oil, the clarity of the water, puffins on the cliffs and the opening of the new pier.
Now a myth to spoil. 1963 saw the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor. The idea of birds ganging together to attack a small town is based on a Daphne Du Maurier short story, and I got the idea from somewhere that the gull sequences were filmed in Shetland. Certainly, that movie alerted my cats to the idea that the TV was worth keeping an eye on; I remember black Isis making a beautiful pounce to the place where the seagull flying across it would have come out. The Shetland filming is a good story – but it doesn’t seem to be true. According to a website on the filming of The Birds, the gull shots were done on Santa Cruz island, and at the San Francisco dump.
However, that same year saw a visit from the Lighthouse Boards’ ship Pharos VIII, with a camera on board, and this 14 minute colour film gives a wonderful view of the work of the ship. It includes footage of Sumburgh, Jarlshof, Skerries, Bressay, Whalsay, Eshaness and Muckle Flugga.
Now we were getting really popular. Shetland 1967, 25 minutes [SSA 1286] was filmed by Gilbertson’s friend Elizabeth Balneaves, presumably as they were working together on the BBC People of Many Lands, and the SSA credits give the names of people featured in it: Archie Poulson skippering his boat, Laurie and Kathleen Leask working with sheep, Robert Bruce and his wife taking ponies to Mousa. Christopher Mylne shot two documentaries on Shetland: Vikings of Shetland 1969, 10 minutes , which can be seen on-line, and Fair Isle – the happy isle, 1970, 29 minutes [SSA 4327].
Flying Scotsmen, a 1975 TV documentary directed by Keith Alexander for BBC Scotland, includes archive footage of the early Orkney and Shetland air services. Hugh Miles came On the Track of the Wild Otter in the early 1980s (with the help of Bobby Tulloch, who was himself involved in a number of wildlife documentaries). Bill Forsyth’s gentle comedy Local Hero (1983) was apparently based on Sullom Voe and Ian Clark – the nearest we’ve got to Hollywood.
And what happened to the ‘Fair Isle Sailing Race’, the ‘third longest offshore race in Europe’, which was filmed in 1971 [SSA T1391]?
The first completely fiction film to be shot here was Devil’s Gate, which kept the residents of Aith and a good bit more of the west side thoroughly entertained for the winter of 2002. Sarah arrived in October 2001 to start checking out locations and searching for props, and the whole crew and actors arrived in early January. Osla set up a canteen in the hall, and a number of local people worked for them along at the Vementry crofthouse that was their main set. It’s a shame they didn’t get a local driver for their big lighting lorry, but their own driver did learn not to treat the Vementry road as the M25 after he’d had to be pulled out of the ditch twice … or was it three times? They filmed for three weeks, and kindly let Aith pupils have a guided tour of the set. That was an education about the care that goes into even a low budget movie. The previously empty crofthouse looked like someone’s granny had left it twenty years before, even to the wallpaper (carefully peeled from another room in the house) and the old-fashioned cocoa tin. Two of our pupils were child-versions of the stars, Laura Fraser and Callum Blue. I was in it myself, with two lines as a barmaid – there’s no distinction in that, nearly everyone out wast was in it somewhere. The filming ended with a Vementry bonfire that could be seen in Aith, and a big party in the Hall. After that, most of them vanished again, leaving ‘tidy-uppers’ behind until the Nesting Up-Helly A. I remember that, because they joined our squad as themselves. The act involved a lot of shouting on not-working mobile phones, some very bad wigs and, of course, the burning of the croft house.
In short, Devil’s Gate did demonstrate what a good thing a film industry could be for the isles. There was money coming in locally, through catering and hospitality, and it gave us all something to do and speak about through the dark, cold days of January – as someone said later, ‘It was the shortest winter it’s been for years.’
It gave us all so much fun that it feels a bit churlish to say the finished film maybe wasn’t very good … However, it’s now out on video – I wasn’t planning to buy it, but if anyone actually cares what happened in the end, and understands who the character with the furs was, feel free to tell me.
2004 saw the much funnier Lowrie dines at Hillsook, starring Ewan and Stuart Balfour, the Hillswick Hotel and a very beautiful old car. This was filmed by the Yell Film and Media Group, with music by Steven Spence.
Recently, it feels like you can’t move for people with a tripod. Everyone comes here: Antiques Roadshow, Time Team, Coast, Extreme Archeology. A round of applause, please, for Val Turner’s tactful way of explaining to the Big Experts that they’d been had by the Yell folk’s sense of humour, just as they were getting all excited about a religious procession route marked by white stones.
In 2006, the late Elma Johnson co-starred in the mad comedy mockumentary with John Shuttleworth (Graham Fellowes) in It’s Nice up North. And instead of creeping about at dawn in camouflage gear for his Wildlife Diaries, why didn’t Simon King do what the natives do, and watch otters at the Toft Ferry Terminal?
The first Screenplay, Shetland’s own Film Festival, was in 2007, and it launched a number of local film-makers on their big screen career. Adult participation included the group Bigger than the Bag, a 35 minute documentary from Dave Hammond, moving image contributions from Karen Emslie and Hilary Seattle, and short films on various topics by Jono Sandilands and Daniel Gear, Philip Taylor and film-students Simon Massey (his graduation film) and Jonathan Bulter. Also at Screenplay… was the world prepared for Maddrim Media? Maybe not, but it got them, Stallionhead, Baked Beans and all. Roseanne Watt’s Masks went on to become a youTube hit, and was shown at the Rob Knox Film Festival in London. Maddrim Media were also short-listed at last year’s Discovery Youth Screen Festival in Dundee. This year, a production company from London is coming up to workshop with them, to make a film about poverty and deprivation in Shetland.
A number of people are working professionally with film in Shetland: Dave Hammond (Shetland Sail and Film / Burnt Candle), Robert Lowes (Digital Engineering), Liz Musser in Fair Isle and Colin Smith (Flavour Productions).
And now Shetland’s first big feature film, Between Weathers, co-starring that Aith actress Marnie Baxter? (And a few others). Well, I’m still hoping it’ll go ahead, so that I can have the fun of being Granny-in-Charge for a week or two, while she’s filming in Fetlar…