Revisiting Shetland and Jenny Gilbertson’s early films


Ten days in Shetland: long stretches in the archives; soup with Jenny Gilbertson’s daughters; two community screenings; conversations with people my research has led me to as well as people I’ve been speaking to intermittently all my life. This has brought a whole lot of light and colour to my research.

On the boat north I met Jenny Brownrigg, the curator of Glasgow School of Art who is on research leave. She is writing an extended essay on three women photographers and filmmakers in Scotland in the 1930s, MEM Donaldson, Margaret Fay Shaw and Jenny Gilbertson, examining how they represented the rural and island communities where they lived and worked. She had arranged her Jenny Gilbertson trip to catch our community screenings. She didn’t just bring another mind interested in Jenny Gilbertson but another pair of hands and a lot of fun.

tapeFour days at the Shetland Archive let me complete my inventory of what is in the Jenny Gilbertson boxes. Amongst the things found were sound files from Coral Harbour (see image: “7 month old baby MANITUK breathing, making a few sounds, hiccups (card playing background)”), the score for Rugged Island and the instruction manuals for her cameras in the 70s. Between the visit to her daughters and a delve in boxes full of Canadian slides not yet seen, my hope of finding more photographs was fulfilled. I found photos of Jenny and Johnny with Evelyn Spice Cherry as they filmed Prairie Winter in Saskatchewan; of their early and later family life; by the tent in Stenness where she filmed Seabirds of Shetland; her filming with Cuthbert Cayley in Hillswick; Johnny before he went to war. These are helping me to see the story and the book. They are also making me ask more questions.

Joanne Jamieson of Shetland Moving Image Archive’s lifelong enthusiasm for the filmmaker began when Jenny Gilbertson came to her primary school in Sandwick to show one of her Arctic films. Joanne did all the ground work for the two screenings of Jenny Gilbertson’s films whilst Scottish Screen provided copies of the films (they are now called the Moving Image Archive but it’s too confusing to call them this when talking about the Shetland Moving Image Archive). The first, Rugged Island, was screened the Shetland Museum and Archive. We played the sound version with Kenneth Leslie-Smith’s score and narration by Philip Godfrey.

makkinThe second screening was at the Hillswick Hall. Stuart and Kathy Hubbard of the Shetland Film Club projected the film to a full house of around 95 people. With all the films being silent, the audience felt free to whisper and laugh as they recognised and remembered the people and things in the films. I’m usually find it hard to thole people speaking during a film but this was mesmerising because it was evidence of its meaning.

“They wouldna have eaten fish wi’ a knife and fork.” “That’s Meenie or Lily. Wan or da idder.” “That’s my grandfeider.” “Look at yon, putting da wool o’er the left hand.” “Moothie, they called her.” And regarding the chaos and frustration of caaing (gathering the sheep) into the crö (sheep pen): “I tink hit’s a good job yon was a silent film.”

Allowing people connected to a film – whether by person, land or experience – to narrate the events seen is a fascinating practice. You bear witness to an act of remembering, relocating, indeed the return to a time and a people whose presence had faded. Do this with a group and these narratives become multi-layered, veering off in different trains of consciousness then suddenly re-joining. And numerous other dynamics become evident: you feel some resistance, the need for reassurance, the struggle of some memories to keep up.

We researchers came away from that night in Hillswick buoyed because we’d got more than we wanted and had a splendid time doing it. But what did the people tied in some way to these films feel like? What was it like to reconnect through a screen with dear ones, long dead? After they laid their heads on the pillow, did they still see their grandfather at the cattle sale? How long after such a stirring return to the the way things used to be, did they reconcile with the now?

Urafirth PSEarlier that day Joanne, Jenny and I had met Davie a’ Hammar. He’d been taught by Jenny Gilbertson at Urafirth Primary School and after seeing Rugged Island came to visit us in the archive to tell us he knew someone who could identify the crew of the Maid of Thule, the fishing boat in the film. He offered to show us around Hillswick so we met with him as the sun started to dip. We saw the school at Urafirth (see image), Braehead (the Gilbertson family home), the Heads of Grocken, Eshaness Graveyard where the Gilbertsons are buried and Heylor, to the ruins of the crofthouse – the set – Johnny Gilbertson built for Rugged Island. It’s an ideal location: magnificence, simply framed; land and water, uncomplicated by too many lines; beauty, moderately abridged. It was a day without as much as a breeze, and as we sat, the still of the water reflected the still the moment. That’s when my gaze fell where Jenny Gilbertson’s had fallen. That was when I could feel her and her time.

Thanks to Ann and Helen, Joanne, Jenny, Brian, Blair and Angus at Shetland Archives, Davie a’Hammar, Stuart and Kathy, the people of Hillswick and beyond, and the folk I will never be able to thank enough, Mary and Les and The Sinclairs.

This post was published on the now defunct WordPress blog ‘Jenny Gilbertson: a biography’ on October 22, 2015. I have consolidated my blogs to keep things together and more manageable.

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