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Between Categories

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 4: Place


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Tait’s films impart a deep sense of place. Like many filmmakers using 16 mm, such as Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Guy Sherwin, Peter Todd, etc., the places Tait films are often places where she lives and works.1 They are places she explores with her camera at different intervals of time, sometimes across many years.

Tait’s compulsion to film the world around her was also shared by other Scottish women in the earlier part of the twentieth century, namely, Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889–1982) and Jenny Gilbertson (1902–1990), although both of these women made films which are more clearly aligned to documentary traditions. Many of Gilbertson’s and Hutchison’s films were made during their travels to the High Arctic. Gilbertson, who was born in Glasgow, also made films while living in Shetland, one of which caught the attention of John Grierson who purchased it for the GPO Film Unit. Although Hutchison and Gilbertson were perhaps more interested in film’s ability to document, their films are still remarkable for their nuanced representations of place (Neely, 2014). As Lucy Reynolds (2004) writes in relation to Tait’s work, the ‘scale is human, less an attempt to encompass the breadth of the landscape as to focus on its many surfaces and textures’ (p. 60). Whereas many ethnographic exploration films of the ‘Far North’ rarely revealed the filmmakers’ hand in production, Hutchison and Gilbertson are far more open in their role as filmmaker, often...

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