all over to

Everything here has been moved to

Things that were here are now there. To have everything in one place makes things easier – at least for me – and more manageable especially as I plan for the Arctic.

Sorry if you liked it here. But come on over.

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A PhD in Jenny Gilbertson

Thank you to the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities for supporting my research in Jenny Gilbertson.

I have been awarded full funding to undertake a 3-year, full-time practice-led PhD (I will make a film and write a 30,000 thesis) supervised by Dr Sarah Neely of Stirling University and Dr Ross Birrell of Glasgow School of Art. My area of exploration will be Inside the shared space of documentarist and subject: a study of the quietly radical ideas and ethics of Jenny Gilbertson.

And thank you to everyone who provided critical support and encouragement during the drafting process of my application.

I start in October. Meantime, we will be showing Real Illuminators: Scotland’s Pioneers of Documentary Filmmaking at the Women’s Films and Television History Network International Conference at Leicester on the 18th May. This programme shows the work of early filmmakers who creatively documented the people, place and issues of their age.

Thereafter, my mind and viewfinder will be solely focused on peat – a filmic response to Jenny Gilbertson’s Peat from Hillside to Home (1932) (part of the Real Illuminators programme), which I start filming on the 25th May.


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Funding: thank you

GrefI have just been given a Dundee Visual Artists and Craft Makers Award and funding from the Centre for Scotland’s Land Futures to make a film.

This film will be inspired and in response to Jenny Gilbertson’s Peat from Hillside to Home (1932) and will study the enduring practice of cutting and burning peat in Shetland.

It will be a collaboration with Shetland musicians Joyce Wark and JJ Jamieson of Bongshang who will create the soundtrack and Joanne Jamieson who will be co-producing.

Shooting begins in May when they flaa (or flay) the peat bank and caste peats in Yell, Eshaness, Virdifield and Sandwick.

The above picture is of Best Boy Josie Kay and myself at the gref (or grave, the bottom of the peat bank) as we were doing a recce of the sodden banks.

Thank you to my funders for their financial support and to all of those in Shetland and the Mainland who are so enthusiastic and helpful as I plan this film.



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Real Illuminators


On Sunday 20th March at DCA, as part of Dundee Women’s Festival, we are screening Real Illuminators: Scotland Pioneers of Documentary Filmmaking a programme of films by early women filmmakers who documented the people, places and issues of their age.

We will be showing the following films

Peat from Hillside to Home (1932) by Jenny Gilbertson (1902-1990)

Flowers and Coffee Party at Umanak (1935) by Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982)

Beside the Seaside (1935) by Marion Grierson (1907-1998)

Challenge to Fascism/ May Day 1938 (1938) by Helen Biggar (1909-1953)

Ceylon Calling (1939) by Nettie McGavin (unknown)

They Also Serve (1940) by Ruby Grierson (1904-1940)

A Portrait of Ga (1952) by Margaret Tait (1918-1999)

The Aardvark or Ant Bear (1961) by Elizabeth Balneaves (1911-2006)

Afterwards I will be in conversation with Dr Sarah Neely of Stirling University whose interest is in Scottish cinema and has just published a book on Margaret Tait, and Jenny Brownrigg, Exhibitions Director at Glasgow School of Art who is researching and writing about early women photographers and filmmakers’ representations of life in the Highlands and Islands.

This is a very rare opportunity to see these archived films (thanks to the NLS Moving Image Archive and BFI) and to hear about these inspirational women filmmakers. Tickets can be gotten here.

(Thank you to Bryn Houghton for our logo, featuring Jenny Gilbertson.)

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Return to Sumburgh Lighthouse

I blew in with Storm Gertrude for my second artist’s residency at Sumburgh Lighthouse. It’s wonderfully wild here. The endless wail of the wind outside has stirred things up and got me thinking differently about my first few chapters.

This month I will be writing up the first part of my research and to mark this milestone here is Jenny’s entry to her diary, exactly 85 years ago to the day, not long after she arrived in Shetland to start filming A Crofter’s Life in Shetland. She sailed in with the Sunniva on 22nd Thursday 1931 and, before going to Heylor to film the crofters, spent a few days in Lerwick – staying at the Grand Hotel, I believe – to film Up Helly Aa and Lerwick life.

She describes, on the 3rd February, how a boat, the Rum Summer had moored up at the fishmarket at Lerwick Harbour. She describes how it was reported that a fight had taken place on board resulting in one of the men getting a black eye. She also refers to the practice of storing rum on board under the “King’s seal” and how a fine of £100 is imposed if the seal is broken. Lerwick at that time was supposedly a ‘dry’ town, so the sailors’ natural need for rum would have been thwarted until the got to ‘wet’ Norway.

Curiously, she suggests there is a better drink than rum? There’s a fair few in Shetlanders, where rum supplies are known to get worrying low, who’ll find this notion difficult to fathom.


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Jenny Gilbertson at Inverness Film Festival

There is a rare opportunity to see Jenny Gilbertson’s first and last films at Inverness Film Festival 2015.

A Crofter’s Life in Shetland (1932) and Jenny’s Arctic Diary (1978) will be screened after Clavel (2pm) on Sunday 8th November at Eden Court.

Tickets can be gotten here.

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Revisiting Shetland and Jenny Gilbertson’s early films


Jenny and Joanne at Heylor.

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.”

Asking or maybe just 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 image and 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.

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Jenny Gilbertson, a study of her films (1932-34)

Hillswick 15Oct15 showShetland Moving Image Archive, Scottish Screen, Shetland Film Club and myself have teamed together to hold two screenings of Gilbertson’s early films with the hope of being able to identify the people and places that featured in these films.

There are

Sunday 11th Oct 1.15pm (for 1.45pm start) – 4pm at Shetland Museum and Archive, Lerwick for a screening of Rugged Island

Thursday 15th Oct 7 pm (for 7.10pm start) – 10pm  at the Hillswick Hall for a screening of Cattle Sale, Da Makkin o’ a Keshie, In Sheep’s Clothing, Scenes from a Croft Life (also known as From Hillside to Home– apologies for the error in the poster) and A Crofters Life in Shetland. And if we’ve time the first few scenes of  Rugged Island.

In my research I have been trying to piece together information about the making of these films so we’re hoping these events yield all sorts of information and stories about Jenny Gilbertson, these films and the cinematic making of history in and around Hillswick in the 1930s.

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Jenny Gilbertson: how she lived her life and got her shot

When I saw the Shetland documentary filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson’s film Rugged Island I was 36 and went home to ask my mother who was Jenny Gilbertson? She was surprised I was asking. “That’s Heather and Ronas’ granny.” I had had no idea this small Shetland woman who had given me bread and jam as I sat on her wall at Exnaboe aged 8 was one of the first female documentary filmmakers in the world.

I have since learned there is more to her than just being a female first. She was unique in that she did everything (from camera to direction to editing to distribution) herself. Moreover, living amongst her subjects and in her characteristically slow, gentle way, she captured times, places and people – first in pre-war, pre-oil Shetland, and then in the North West Territories of Arctic Canada – that soon after forever changed.

Jenny Gilbertson’s films span the 30s to the 70s and show a deep empathy and profound respect for those who toiled with the land or the ice for survival. That she was staying with and filming the Inuit people 720 miles North of the Arctic circle whilst in her seventies is evidence of the spirited way in which she lived her life and got her shot.

I am writing this book as a thank you to Jenny for helping me find my own way – and my own time – in making films. And I am writing it to correct a wrong. If you read into the history of documentary filmmaking you are unlikely to find mention of her name or her work. Whether this was because she was an outsider or a woman, I don’t yet understand. But 25 years after her death it’s a good time to study her life and how she honestly but beautifully documented the meaning of ordinary faraway lives.

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