Margaret Tait, film-maker. Died April 16, 1999, aged 80.
The Primula Scotica grows in only a few northern coastal regions of Scotland. You have to go a long way to find it, and even then, it might elude you. This tiny wild flower, a symbol used by Margaret Tait in her film Blue Black Permanent, encapsulates the essence of the film-maker herself, an intensely private person with a unique vision, firmly rooted in her native Orkney.
At the age of nine, Margaret was sent away to boarding school in Edinburgh. The feeling of isolation and dislocation in being uprooted at such an early age, undoubtedly reinforced her intense identification with her native Orkney.
The first time we were to meet, when I happened to be working in Kirkwall, her elusiveness prevailed — she cancelled. Seventy-three years of age, she was at the early stages of casting her first full-length feature film Blue Black Permanent: I had read the script and loved its qualities, so well described by Fay Weldon after viewing the completed work: “A very beautiful film, patient and haunting, about the grief of generations, and the edges where the sea and the land meet.”
I was aware of Margaret as a film-maker from Channel 4 and BBC profiles of her work, and was interested in the fact that she — herself a poet — had filmed her own portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid.
When we were finally introduced, I found Margaret inscrutable to begin with, gradually warming to a cautious reserve. Her Orcadian sky-grey eyes observed me, I felt, with a somewhat clinical detachment, perhaps sharpened by her early training as a doctor. (During World War Two she served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and then as a locum, finally renouncing her medical career for film.) “The film-making was beginning to take up most of my time, and I began to think I wasn’t safe to be at large as a doctor,” she once told me, with her inimitable wry humour.
As I got to know Margaret, while we worked on Blue Black Permanent, I discovered her great warmth, and her many contradictions. She was passionate and cool, mistrusting and giving, explicit in her judgement, yet loved ambiguity. Her humour was wicked — she loathed sentimentality and pretension, both of which abound in the film industry.
Her horizons were broad, but she was rooted in her native Orkney. Its stone, its water, its air were part of her, so powerfully expressed in Blue Black Permanent, particularly that last unforgettable sequence as the camera relentlessly searches the shore, to the sound of a lone voice singing.
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, (named after the street where she lodged while training as a film-maker at the Centro Sperimentale di Photografia in Rome). Every inch of floor was covered in leaning towers of dusty film-reel cans — her life’s work.
She spoke hardly a word, but generously gifted me with signed copies of her own fascinating books of prose and poetry which she published herself during the ‘50s when she lived and worked in Edinburgh. After a few minutes she ushered me out of the building, discomfited by the invasion, albeit at her own invitation, of her deeply personal space.
Yet she was hungry for feedback. Only a few weeks ago, Margaret sent my family a video of her most recent work, “Garden Pieces”, three short film poems, as she described them, with wonderfully inventive music by John Gray. Her accompanying letter asked keenly for our response.
Looking at these pieces again tonight, I see the beachcomber artist, the searching, experimental spirit, so quintessentially Margaret, and a poignant sense of her own mortality: the camera circles round a summer garden, lush with life, seeking shadows within the light, pausing momentarily as it passes over an empty chair.
Margaret made over 30 films, many of which have been screened internationally, and among film cognoscenti she has the reputation of being a true original. As the critic Regina Cornwall said of her work: “Her style is her own, with its careful framing, often exaggerated through reframing; her associative editing, and quiet and gentle pace. It has its own kind of order.”
Her husband and soulmate, Alex Pirie, told me of Margaret’s last moments. From her window that morning, at home in Orkney, she had been watching children splashing in a puddle outside. She and Alex were discussing a recently published article on the work of George Mackay Brown, when she quietly slipped from consciousness. Although Margaret was no follower of religion, the time and place of her peaceful death on the day of St Magnus, patron saint of Orkney, are, like her life work, a statement of belonging.
Originally published in The Orcadian, 17 May 1999