Buttquoy House was Margaret Tait’s family home and where she later returned to live (and work). In 1976, Margaret Tait filmed Place of Work (1976) and Tailpiece (1976) here.
21 May 1975: ‘I love the spaces of this house. I like to move through them. This not from sentiment, but in appreciation of their size shape and proportion in relation to the size shape and proportion of a human being (me).’ — Margaret Tait
Cruan, Norseman’s Village
Margaret Tait shared this house with her husband, Alex Pirie, until her death in 1999. The small grove behind the house featured in Tait’s last film, Garden Pieces (1998).
Is a holy place
Calmly looked at for what it is.
It is as it should stay.
Although of course
Nothing and nowhere stays as it is
……so that the particular time
of the grove being seen –
our view of it, the feeling about it,
and the sounds heard there
all have a
there and then and never again quality.
Glasgow Film Theatre
Margaret Tait presented a programme of international filmmaking as part of the Desperately Seeking Cinema season at the Glasgow Film Theatre, May – October 1988, organised by Ken Ingles.
While serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Margaret Tait was stationed in Jhansi, a city in northern India that served as a recuperation point for troops returning from Burma. After returning to Scotland, Tait wrote a novel which drew from her experiences there. Tait eventually sent off to publishers who were unresponsive, citing the current glut of war novels as cause for rejection.
‘For I planted bulbs round the Nissen hut in Derby, put up curtains in the stone room of Jhansi, scrubbed clean the bathroom ledges in Jutogh to the eternal shame of my plainsman bearer, kept a white kitten in Katugastota. With it all there was a pain, nostalgia of myself looking for my own. It was not Margaret I mourned for so much then as Margaret’s I sought, searching in the pricking light of the high mountains and in the downpour of the tropics and in the fog in England. Leaving anything behind and breaking a continuity was a pain, and taking things with me was an equal pain. Out of the tin trunk when I opened it came the same old things I had put in it. Only me, nothing of mine really. The Jhansi curtains hang here in the Rose Street studio now; but they don’t give me pain. I seem to have come to rest at last, to accept what is for me. People describe a feeling they have, as if of having lost something. I don’t remember ever feeling it to be that. I was seeking, but not for something I had lost. For something that was not there yet. For something I had never had. Something of mine – something that would be mine. And I its, I suppose.’
Margaret Tait, Post Script to Lilywhite Boys, 1959. Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.
Margaret Tait joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in 1943 and served in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia until 1946.
Kintradwell Broch was near Slow Bend, where Tait lived in Sutherland. Tait mentioned the broch a few times in her writing, saying that she felt the broch was of some significance to her.
‘And quite separately, or previously, feeling about that stretch of coast that it had something to with us, with Alex and myself; wandering to that broch alone (the Kintradwell one) I felt it, as if our ancestors had been there I remember imaging but saying it somewhere in some notebook as if it wasn’t just that.’ – Margaret Tait, 1966
Margaret Tait wrote ‘The Old Lady of Loth’ for the Orkney Herald, 10 December 1957, whilst living nearby at Slow Bend, Helmsdale.
The last person to be burned alive as a witch, in Scotland, was an old woman from Loth, near Helmsdale, in 1722. This woman had a daughter who had a deformity of the hands and feet, which caused people to say the mother had her transformed into a pony at night and then shod by the devil. The accused and condemned woman was simple-minded and so little understood what was going on that when she saw the fire prepared for her execution she smiled and held out her hands to warm them. — Margaret Tait
As with the work of many 16mm filmmakers, Tait’s soundtracks were recorded separately. Tait made great efforts to capture the precise sounds needed for her inventive soundtracks and often kept detailed notes of the recordings made.
12 Jan, 4.30-5pm, 1963: ‘record: starlings under the North Bridge on a Sunday afternoon + a little traffic and not very much other noise’ — Margaret Tait
Location of Orquil Burn (1955).
The experience of following Orquil Burn up to its source was much more than the film I made of it. Strangers asked me why I went from sea to source and not, what to them was the more obvious, the more logical direction of from source to sea. They wanted me to know beforehand where it all started, what it all is. For me it was a voyage of discovery. It was exploration. A river is well known in its busy part. You follow it up all already known. They think you can start with the source, the cause, and demonstrate the issue. — Margaret Tait, Personae (unpublished)
Margaret Tait’s studio from 1984 until her death in 1999. She purchased the building with money earned from a Channel 4 profile on her life and work in 1983.
In 1950 Margaret Tait studied Italian at The Italian School for Foreigners in Perugia and met later collaborator Peter Hollander whilst studying there. Tait and Hollander shot their film The Lion, The Griffin and The Kangaroo (1952) there. The film largely promotes the School, depicting life as a student, with a soundtrack which features an octet by composer Ulysses Kay.
Margaret Tait often held film screenings in the places she lived and worked. While living at Slow Bend in the 1960s, she organised a few film shows here at Portgower Hall.
‘A nice response to the films. I gave them a programme of The Lion, the Griffin and the Kangaroo , Hugh MacDiarmid, A Portrait , The Drift Back  and The Big Sheep . Takings £1.19.6 in the afternoon. All seats were full in the evening. Couldn’t use quite the full length of the hall as the screen wasn’t big enough.’ — Margaret Tait in a letter to her husband, Alex Pirie, 27 December, 1966
Princes Street Gardens
Edinburgh played a very important role in Margaret Tait’s life and work. She was sent to Edinburgh for boarding school in the 1940s, obtained a degree in medicine from the University of Edinburgh in 1941, and later established her film studio on Edinburgh’s Rose Street. Several of her films feature Edinburgh as a subject. She also wrote at some length in her diaries about her experiences of living in the city. In many ways, Edinburgh served as Tait’s muse.
16 August, 1976: ‘I used to like an 8 a.m. walk through Princes Street gardens – a misty air of expectancy on a sunny morning, with a few visitors off the early trains looking dazed.’ — Margaret Tait
Richard Demarco Gallery, Monteith House
In the 1970s, Richard Demarco, a friend of Tait’s, invited her to exhibit her work at his gallery in Edinburgh. She also took part in poetry readings held at the gallery.
From 1950–1952, Margaret Tait studied filmmaking at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, a period greatly influenced by Neorealist approaches to cinema. Tait filmed Three Portrait Sketches (1951) and began Calypso (1955) whilst in Rome.
In the 1950s and 60s, 91 Rose Street was home to Tait’s production company Ancona Films. It was here that Tait held the annual ‘Rose Street Film Festival’.
During the Edinburgh Festival last year, we put on a show of short films here at 91 Rose Street. All sorts of people came to see it, among them the children of Rose Street. Rose Street is a rather tough street and I know the children just came up in the first place because it was a free show. But some of them came several times and watched apparently with great interest the several shorts which we showed. — Margaret Tait
Film location for Blue Black Permanent (1992).
Margaret Tait lived at 93 Shepherdess Walk from 1946 to 1948 while working as an assistant medical doctor in a local practice. In her spare time, she wrote scripts and short stories reflecting on her time serving the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War. She also wrote about her new life in London.
‘In a London pub – any pub – we find an ordinary lower middle-class crowd. The camera elbows its way through the crowd to the glass partition between the public bar and the saloon bar, until we can see through the decorated glass into the saloon bar.’ — Margaret Tait, unrealised film script, Galatea was Luckier, circa 1947.
Margaret Tait joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) in 1943 and served in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia until 1946. She arrived and left from Singapore.
‘I could just make out that the coastline receded into a bay, and I could see the headland at the westernmost side of the bay, and the cliffs on the east side where John and I walked one day.’
‘After dinner then I watched the water breaking from the bows, and was touched once more by the heartbreaking beauty of being at sea.
A curious thing happened today. As I was standing by the rails watching Weligama I thought I saw brown and red butterfly fly passed. I remarked on this to a signals officer standing near: then he saw one too, a yellow one. Then another flew down, it seemed from the deck above, and a fourth seemed to come out of a lifeboat. About 6 in all flew out from the ship and out to see. I suppose some butterflies must have come aboard in harbour and laid eggs and these had just hatched out. I suppose they might as well spend their one day of life at sea as anywhere else. Perhaps of course there is an entomologist on board who has been letting loose his collection.’
Margaret Tait, “Journal of Seven Days at Sea,” 12 December 1945
Margaret Tait lived here in the 1960s. The house was a half-way marker in many ways; firstly, as a geographical midpoint, lying on the road Tait travelled between Edinburgh and Orkney, but also as a chronological midpoint between Tait’s life in Edinburgh in the 50s and 60s, and Orkney, where she lived until her death in 1999. It was here that Tait completed her films Splashing (1966) and Caora Mor: The Big Sheep (1966). She also worked on some of her hand-painted films here.
‘Slow Bend at this point is somehow the centre of the world’ — Margaret Tait’s diary, 1966
Film location in Happy Bees (1955) and Blue Black Permanent (1992).
The Rose Street poetry scene
Tait’s film portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid, was shot at various locations on Rose Street, including some of its popular pubs. At the time, Milne’s bar and the Abbotsford were important meeting places for the Rose Street poets, for which MacDiarmid was leading figure. Although Tait never considered herself part of the Rose Street poetry scene, she played an important role in artistic expression of the period.
Margaret Tait describing her reasons for not joining in with the crowd: ‘All very nice and Milne’s bar ish and Abbotsfordish. But I’m not up to it at present, not equal to it.’ – Margaret Tait, diary, 14 Oct 195
‘Dr Tait is ploughing a lonely furrow, but she has set a process in motion which is bound to develop.’ — Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Intimate Film Making in Scotland’, 1960.
Location in A Portrait of Ga (1952).
Margaret Tait filmed here in the 1970s and lived nearby at East Aith, the house she shared with her husband, Alex Pirie.
‘I have been filming this beautiful place over the years, taking in many of the human activities which alter and define how it looks. The croft of West Aith, the subject of the film, is worked in the old style, and has tethered cattle, unfenced fields, flagstone roofs on outhouses. Mary Sinclair, who works West Aith, keeps it going single-handed (with willing help from neighbours). She seems to see the wild creatures on her land as living there in equality, but is not at all sentimental about them.’ — Margaret Tait on her film Land Makar (1981)
Film location in The Drift Back (1956), one of the few films Margaret Tait made with funding from the Orkney Education Committee’s Rural Cinema Scheme.
‘Last winter, I made a short film in the form of a news magazine, for the Orkney Education Committee, about two families who had decided to drift back to Orkney. George Tait and his family returned to Ingsay in Birsay after some years of farming in Aberdeenshire. Neil Flaws went to Habreck in the island of Wyre. Habreck is where he was born, but he trained as a blacksmith and worked in the naval base of Lyness and then went away to Halifax in Yorkshire, where he had a good job with a firm of welders. His Irish wife, Alice, was a nurse in Halifax. Their two children, John and Sheila, are Yorkshire-born.
A brother of Neil’s and a cousin, have farms in Wyre too. There are eight farms in the island – all now occupied – and a population of 38, seven children at school, and four younger children not yet at school.
It is the island where Edwin Muir spent his early childhood – at the farm of The Bu, close to Cubbie Roo’s Castle, and in his Autobiography he gives a warm picture of Wyre. It is a warm island, well worth drifting back to. The farmers of Wyre are active and prosperous. The island is fertile, and rewarding to farm. They have difficulties of their own, the chief of which is transport. Men are all right in small boats, and so are children, but some of the women would rather be able to step on to a steamer from a pier when they go into town. But on Wyre there is no pier, only a jetty for small boats.
The lack of a pier is almost the only thing the Wyre people complain about. One was to be built, and then the “credit squeeze” stopped it. It’s a business loading farm produce from a small jetty on to small boats and then transferring it all to the steamer lying outby, particularly when there are cattle, sheep and pigs to go. They have a big coal cobble now for this sort of thing, and even tractors have come ashore in it. (Every farm in Wyre has at least one tractor, but there are no cars to go along the few miles of public highway.)’
Extract from Margaret Tait, “Two Way Drift,” 1957. Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive
From Margaret Tait’s notes on the filming of Blue Black Permanent (1992): ‘[primula scotica] grows nowhere else but here,’ Tait said if it isn’t in bloom they can film and intercut it later.
‘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.’ – Gerda Stevenson, “The late Margaret Tait, film-maker — an appreciation”
This map explores various locations where Margaret Tait lived and worked, through her service with the Royal Army Medical Corps in South East Asia, film education in Italy, and return to Scotland where she lived between Edinburgh and Orkney.
Photographs, videos, film stills, writing and other archival documents provided generously by Orkney Library and Archive, LUX, British Film Institute, National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive, Richard Demarco, and Stills.