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


Sarah Neely

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.

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Chapter 1: Portraits


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So there I was in Margaret’s kirk, her studio, in an old Orcadian church. But the most beautiful hours we shared together were watching all the films I hadn’t seen – in her dark-green painted small living room with a golden framed screen, the size of a painting … the most beautiful cinema! A moving painting!

— UTE AURAND, filmmaker, on her visit with Margaret Tait. (2004, p. 54)

Although Tait’s work is occasionally discussed within the context of documentary, as mentioned in the previous chapter, Tait was dismissive of documentary, preferring to view her work as ‘a film equivalent of portrait painting.’1 Particularly early on in her career, the portrait film was a major focus of her work. As a student in Italy, she made Three Portrait Sketches (1951). On her return to Scotland in 1952, she made the portrait of her mother, A Portrait of Ga (1952). It was around this time that she also began experimenting with the idea to create a number of film portraits of people living in Orkney. A few experimentations were undertaken, but the film provisionally titled Kent Faces was never completed. There is also her film portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid (1964), and less obviously, Land Makar (1981), a film following the seasonal progression of an Orkney croft and its inhabitant, Mary Graham Sinclair, a film which Tait later acknowledged as another one of her portraits.

This chapter will examine...

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