Between Categories

The Films of Margaret Tait: Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place

by Sarah Neely (Author)
©2017 Monographs XIV, 322 Pages


Margaret Tait – filmmaker, photographer, poet, painter, essayist and short story writer – is one of the UK’s most unique and remarkable filmmakers. She was the first female filmmaker to create a feature-length film in Scotland (Blue Black Permanent, 1992). Although for most of her career Tait remained focused on the goal of making a feature-length film, her most notable and groundbreaking work was arguably as a producer of short films. The originality of her work, and its refusal to accept perceived barriers of genre, media and form, continues to inspire new generations of filmmakers.
This book aims to address the lack of sustained attention given to Tait’s large body of work, offering a contextualisation of Tait’s films within a general consideration of Scottish cinema and artists’ moving image. Furthermore, the book’s grounding in detailed archival research offers new insights into Scotland (and Britain) in the twentieth century, relating to a diverse range of subjects and key figures, such as John Grierson, Forsyth Hardy, Hugh MacDiarmid, Lindsay Anderson and Michael Powell.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Figures
  • Introduction
  • Tait rediscovered
  • Biography
  • Hammering it out: Tait, Grierson and filmmaking in Scotland
  • Tait and independent filmmaking in Scotland
  • The invisibility of women filmmakers
  • Working methods and approach
  • Research on Tait
  • The categories
  • Chapter 1: Portraits
  • Film portrait: History and definitions
  • Margaret Tait’s film portraits
  • Sewing the ‘inner threads’: Three Portrait Sketches (1951)
  • Experimentations at home: A Portrait of Ga (1952)
  • The Partiality of a Portrait: Hugh MacDiarmid, A Portrait (1964)
  • ‘Portrait of the Land or Mary Graham Sinclair’: Land Makar (1981)
  • Kent Faces and other unmade films
  • Women Artists, self-portraiture and the amateur: A Place of Work (1976) and other films
  • Chapter 2: Poetry
  • Film poem: History and definitions
  • The poetry of Margaret Tait on page and screen
  • Collecting images, adapting poetry: The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo (1955)
  • Palindromic Cinepoetry: Poetry and experimentation in Palindrome (1964)
  • ‘Poetry of Presence’: Where I Am Is Here (1964)
  • Poetry in Things: Aerial (1974)
  • ‘A Kind of precision which holds it together’: Colour Poems (1974)
  • Lorca’s influence on Tait’s approach to film: Tailpiece (1976)
  • Chapter 3: Sound
  • ‘On the level of music’: The inherent musicality of Tait’s films
  • ‘The voice of the landscape’ in Tait’s films
  • The asynchronous soundtrack: On the Mountain (1974)
  • Tait and collaboration: Garden Pieces (1998)
  • Music and the hand-painted films: Calypso (1955), Painted Eightsome (1970) and John MacFadyen (1970)
  • Chapter 4: Place
  • Production and exhibition in local communities
  • Collaborative filmmaking in Italy: One is One (1951) and The Lion, the Griffin, and the Kangaroo (1952)
  • Local films for local audiences, the Orkney Magazine film: The Drift Back (1956)
  • Local film production and exhibition, and the ‘tough’ crowd: Rose Street (1956)
  • For the love of the place: Caora Mor: The Big Sheep (1966) and Splashing (1966)
  • ‘with the people you have, place you have’: A Pleasant Place (1969)
  • Place-time: Between time and space
  • Same camera, different place: My Room (1950/1) and These Walls (1974)
  • ‘What surrounds a child’: Children and place in Happy Bees (1955) and Orquil Burn (1955)
  • ‘The circular shape of it all’: Tait’s approach to production and the Aspects of Kirkwall films
  • ‘Spirit of a Place’: The ‘persistence of spirit’ in Blue Black Permanent (1992)
  • Conclusion
  • Unmade/Unrealised
  • Tait’s legacy
  • ‘Grows nowhere else but here’
  • Bibliography
  • Resources
  • Works by Margaret Tait
  • Books
  • Essays
  • Anthologies including Tait’s poetry
  • Works on Tait
  • Archives
  • Other relevant collections
  • Selected filmography
  • Index
  • Series index

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This book is the result of over a decade of research into the life and work of Margaret Tait. As a consequence, it draws from and reworks a number of chapters and articles that I have previously published, including the following: ‘Stalking the image: Margaret Tait and Intimate Filmmaking Practices’, Screen, 49/2, Summer 2008, pp. 216–21; ‘Contemporary Scottish Cinema’, in Neil Blain and David Hutchison (eds.) The Media in Scotland (Edinburgh: EUP, 2008), pp. 151–65; ‘Demons in the Machine: cinema and modernism in twentieth-century Scotland’ (co-authored with Alan Riach), in Jonathan Murray, Fidelma Farley and Rod Stoneman (eds.) Scottish Cinema Now (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009), pp. 1–19; “Ploughing a lonely furrow”: Margaret Tait and “professional” filmmaking practices in 1950s Scotland’, in Ian Craven (ed.) Movies on Home Ground: Explorations in Amateur Cinema (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009), pp. 301–26. The research was supported by small grants from the Carnegie Trust, as well as an AHRC Early Career Fellowship. I’m also very grateful to the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Stirling and the Stirling Centre for Scottish Studies for supporting this publication.

My research into Tait actively began in 2005 when myself, Ian Goode, and Mitch Miller and Johny Rodger from The Drouth magazine, organised a day-long event on Tait’s films that was held at the Glasgow Film Theatre (GFT). Since that time, the work has benefited from discussions with a great number of other friends and colleagues, including Sarah Smith (who delivered a course with me on Tait at the GFT in 2010), Maeve Connolly, Lucy Reynolds, Leonora Hennessy, Jane Sillars, Karen Boyle, Alan Riach, Alison Miller, Kirsten Norrie, Jen Birks, Freda Churches and Maggie Sweeney. The research would not have been possible without the support of the various organisations connected to Tait’s work, including the Orkney Archive (Alison Fraser, David Mackie, Lucy Gibbon and Sarah MacLean), National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive (Janet McBain, Ruth Washbrook and Kay Foubister), and LUX (Ben Cook). I ← vii | viii → am also indebted to the great number of champions of Tait’s work – Ali Smith, Glasgow Women’s Library, the Pier Arts Centre, Scottish Poetry Library, Anne Colvin, and many others. Special thanks should also go to the people I met and/or corresponded with through my research on Tait who also became friends, including Gerda Stevenson, Annabel Nicolson, Michael Romer, Ute Aurand, and Peter Todd and Sarah Christian. Their insights into Tait’s work underpin much of this book. As with the collection of Tait’s poetry and writings, which I edited in 2012, I have depended a great deal on Peter Todd’s rich knowledge of Tait’s work, and have benefited from his advice and feedback.

I’m grateful for the support of Tait’s family in Orkney, but also my own family too – my mother, a keen photographer who is also an admirer of Tait’s films, and my father, a retired academic who lent an empathetic ear during some of the rough patches of the writing process, as well as my husband, Bob Anderson, and dog, Lefebvre, who were a comfort throughout.

I would like to dedicate this book to Tait’s husband, Alex Pirie, who sadly died during the final stages of this book’s completion. Alex was a continual source of support and was immensely generous with his time and knowledge. He also became a dear friend over the years. His loss will continue to be felt, but like Tait’s films, he will always remain a great source of inspiration to me. This book is in memory of him. Thanks also to Daniel Sellers for casting an attentive eye over the manuscript in its final stages.

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The title for this book, Between Categories, is borrowed from a musical composition of the same name written by the modernist composer Morton Feldman, in 1969. Tait’s work was inspired by a great variety of artists, poets and musicians. Her interests in the moving image were diversely spread across topics such as the works of poetic filmmakers like Yasujirō Ozu and Ingmar Bergman, the comedies of Jerry Lewis, and the popular American television series Ally McBeal (Fox 1997–2002). Similarly, in regard to music, Tait, an avid radio listener, favoured a great range of genres and forms, from traditional pibroch to classical and modernist music. Feldman was a constant favourite of Tait’s. Considering Tait frequently likened her approach to filmmaking with musical composition, it is not surprising that comparisons can be made between the two.

In an interview with Tait’s husband Alex Pirie, from 2006, he refers explicitly to Feldman’s title as a way of describing Tait’s own position as a filmmaker:


XIV, 322
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (October)
poetry and film experimental film artists’ moving image Scottish cinema British cinema
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XIV, 322 pp., 30 coloured ill., 13 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Sarah Neely (Author)

Sarah Neely is Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Stirling, where she is a member of the Centre for Scottish Studies and the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies. Her research stretches across a range of areas in film and media studies. Recent work has focused primarily on Scottish cinema and artists‘ moving image. In 2010–11 she was awarded an AHRC Early Career Fellowship Grant to help support her research on Margaret Tait. She is the editor of Margaret Tait’s Poems, Stories and Writings (2012).


Title: Between Categories