Margaret Tait was born on Orkney on Armistice Day, 1918 and died on Orkney in 1999.
She attended boarding school in Edinburgh, from age 8 to 16, followed by medical studies at the University. During the Second World War, she served at home and abroad in the Far East with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Post-war visits to France and Italy culminated in full-time study at the Centro Sperimentale film school in Rome. In the late 1940s, she worked in hospitals and undertook locum work at various places around the UK. Based mainly in Edinburgh from the early 1950’s, she moved to East Sutherland in the mid 1960s. A few years later she settled back on Orkney. Her first film was made in 1951, and her last completed in 1998. Her one feature film, Blue Black Permanent, was made in 1992. She also published three books of poetry and two of short stories (one for children) in the space of two years between 1959 and 1960.
After the retrospective of her films at the 1970 Edinburgh International Film Festival her work started to be more widely seen, and known. In 1979 she chose to enter her films Aerial, Colour Poems, Place of Work and Tailpiece, for distribution through the London Film Makers Co-op. These films were soon joined by Hugh MacDiarmid A Portrait and, in due course, by Land Makar. Her determination, or persistence, as she would say, led to the making of over 30 films, mainly self financed.
Visiting Orkney in April 2002 brought home how Tait was very much an artist film-maker.
By using images and sounds from the environment in which she lived she was closer in approach to an artist, poet, or composer, than the jobbing life so often associated with more mainstream film-making. Her work explored and revisited landscapes, sounds, and people familiar to her since childhood. Preserved neatly in albums are photographs that she had been taking since the 1930s of different parts of Orkney, such as Yesnaby which would be revisited in her film Blue Black Permanent, as well as family, outings,picnics, boats, landscapes, seascapes, snapshots. Her early photographs include aunts and uncles and her mother and father; also her brothers, whose own children will later appear in her films Happy Bees and Colour Poems. She would also film her mother in Portrait of Ga.
Tait worked on more composed photographs too, and experimented with different exposure times. Shots of her school years, during the war, and later studying in Italy, suggest she was also happy to be photographed. There is little evidence of Tait’s own appearance in her films apart from a sequence of shots in The Leaden Echo The Golden Echo and a fleeting appearance at the end of Three Portrait Sketches and an equally brief one in Happy Bees.
However, Tait’s voice can often be heard. In Orquil Burn she is the narrator, for example, and in Land Makar she is heard speaking with her neighbour, the subject of the film. She speaks to the surprised postman coming to the open door she is filming in Place of Work, reads a poem on the soundtrack of Colour Poems and is heard singing in On The Mountain. Her partner, Alex Pirie, is also glimpsed in Rose Street in Hugh MacDiarmid A Portrait and in Where I Am Is Here. In her early films there is some exploration of the documentary form, driven in part by a desire to see if it was possible to make a living through this work. This can be seen in The Drift Back, which was sponsored by Orkney Council.
Tait was a keen cinemagoer throughout her life, and had a great interest and knowledge in other art forms.
She remained a champion of Jerry Lewis, with a French appreciation of his films. Her enjoyment of Variety Theatre led her to spotting Lilane, a solo singing act with an exceptional voice, seen on numerous occasions in the theatre in the Lex MacLean Shows of the 1950s and 1960s. It is Lilane who sings Hilltop Pibroch, with words by Tait and music by Hector MacAndrew, on the soundtrack of Where I Am Is Here.
Her films have a easy use of poetry, music and painting. She made several short animated films and later integrated sequences of animation into other films, often painting and working on the film stock, this can be seen particularly in Colour Poems and her last film Garden Pieces. Shortly before her death we were corresponding about a proposed programme exploring animation in films, and one of the films she suggested, Fiddle De Dee, by fellow Scot Norman McLaren, was included in the tribute screening at The Lux cinema in London after she died.
Images recur; poppies, the garden, flowers are powerfully returned to in Garden Pieces.
In The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo, the child walking along the kerb is echoed by the walk of the poet in Hugh MacDiarmid A Portrait. Images of the sea also reappear, as sources for trading, and boats, such as the Shetland Trader and the Islander in the harbour in Aspects of Kirkwall: Some Changes or the visiting cruise ship in Colour Poems. These boats would be known to the islanders, their sailing times marking out the day. The unpredictability of the sea is evident in the powerful change in tone in the first part of Happy Bees, from the children in the garden to the view of the sea and cliffs, echoed in Blue Black Permanent‘s seas for swimming and looking at, but also for being overcome by, swept away.
Images of the social, the communal, politics or the political feature in Tait’s films. North Sea oil, No Uranium signs in shops and the crowd of demonstrators filling a street with their presence. There are banners against proposals to drill for Uranium on Orkney and the Greenpeace boat, Rainbow Warrior, at harbour. Tait records the changing landscape of Kirkwall in Aspects of Kirkwall Some Changes, filming parades and events, like those dignitaries seen coming out of an event during the St.Magnus Festival (the composer Peter Maxwell Davies is seen in the group) and the old soldiers marching in Colour Poems. Her images show the changing seasons for example in Land Makar,or the winter scenes of Aerialand , Where I Am Now . The largely treeless Orkney landscape is both wide open and intimate in Portrait of Ga, Land Maker, and Orquil Burn. Tait records family, people, buildings such as the croft of Land Makar, and the former family home of Buttquoy House in Place of Work and Tailpiece, now divided into flats.
On most of her films Tait used a 16mm clockwork Bolex camera with fixed lenses. Her final camera, a Bolex with a zoom lens, was used on her last film, Garden Pieces.
She also moves between the fixed camera on a tripod in Rose Street to the drifting, breathing, and intimate hand-held camera that mark immediacy and engagement in Portrait of Ga and Hugh MacDiarmid a Portrait. The work Tait put into editing her films, each one evolving, will surely come to be more acknowledged. This process involved editing then projecting the work in progress, invariably to Alex Pirie, and then working on it again. She often reworked and reused bits of film and sequences, and in one case included the whole of an earlier film, Rose Street, in the later On The Mountain.
Tait sometimes commissioned the music for her films, notably from Hector MacAndrew for Where I am is Here and from John Gray for Blue Black Permanent and Garden Pieces. She used the ambient sounds of voices, of radio and the sounds of builders diggers and lorries in Place of Work.During the working process, Tait edited the picture first, and added the sound afterwards, a technique she had learnt in Rome. Alex Pirie has described how, when working on The Big Sheep the musician John MacAskill, who was playing the pibroch on Lament for Donald of Laggan fitted his sequence to required duration on the third attempt for the already edited film. The films were edited on a single track picture sync, with dubbing work and film processing done at studios in London. Tait’s medical training probably helped when writing the detailed production notes she sent accompanying them.
The flurry of activity around the 2 Rose Street Film Festivals of 1954 and 1955, which Tait organised, and the publishing of her books of poetry and short stories in 1959 and 1960 was followed by consistent film work through the 1960s and 1970s, including the first of her longer films, Where I Am Is Here. After Land Makar in 1981 periods of serious illness caused her to concentrate her energies her ever-evolving screenplay, Dark Waters. The outcome was the realisation of her long-held ambition to direct a feature film, made was in 1992 under the title Blue Black Permanent. Finally there was to be the slow gestation of her last film, Garden Pieces.
Many of the films seem to just emerge in their own time and space, with images and sounds blending or changing as if they were somehow always like that…formed without the unnecessary, the clutter of things. This is found both in her short films like Portrait of Ga or longer ones such as Where I Am is Here. Tait’s films seem so fresh that it is as if they had just been created. Her skill and experience in editing made this possible, as it had when she collected the original images and sounds to use; revisiting and selecting material. The amount of work that went into her films could be seen physically at her place of work, as the actress Gerda Stevenson wrote in her tribute; “She drove me one day, in the back of her rattling small van, down a winding Orkney seaside road, to the old kirk which was her work-base, the hub of Ancona Films…Every inch of floor was covered in leaning towers of dusty film-reel cans – her life’s work”. Also in her studio would have been the unrealised projects, like the feature length script, The Lillywhite Boys, unpublished stories and poems, and probably film images and recorded sounds that may or may not have been used at some point.
The films can stand for themselves, but the person behind them lived in the real world and shared the experiences of others.
Margaret Tait’s films are a record of a certain period, of a family, of Edinburgh and Orkney, each of them a repository of her memories and imaginings from all the phases of her life. At the same time, several of her films could have been made elsewhere, in other specific places, so Orkney and Edinburgh have been lucky, but the experience of it would have been hers.
Peter Todd, January 2004.
With thanks to Alex Pirie and Sarah Christian.
Originally published by LUX Online
Peter Todd is a film maker and curator based in London. Todd has produced various projects that present and explore the work of Margaret Tait, including a major retrospective of Tait’s work at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (2004), and an international touring programme entitled Subjects and Sequences in partnership with LUX. The accompanying book Subjects and Sequences: A Margaret Tait Reader (LUX, 2004) was co-edited with Benjamin Cook (Director, LUX) and together they also produced a DVD of selected films by Tait. In 2002 Todd received Scottish Screen Exhibition Development Award funding for research on Margaret Tait with a view to preserving and making available her work. In 2006 he was funded by Pier Arts Centre, Stromness Orkney in regarding developing the collection to include work by Margaret Tait including 16mm prints and DVDs. Todd has presented Tait’s work at BAFICI Buenos Aires, MoMA New York, MIFF Mumbai, Tate Modern London, Pier Arts Centre Stromness and Portgower Village Hall Sutherland (with Sarah Neely) amongst others. In 2018 he curated the season Rhythm & Poetry; The Films of Margaret Tait at BFI Southbank London.