Margaret Tait was one of the most distinctive artist film-makers these islands have produced
Until recently one of the UK’s most shamefully neglected but wildly talented artist film-makers, the fiercely independent Margaret Tait worked entirely at the edges of both the industry mainstream and the geographical mainland, living between Edinburgh and the Scottish Orkney islands. The maker, over five decades, of over thirty shorts and one feature (the inspirational Blue Black Permanent), as well as three volumes of poetry and two of short stories, she made almost all her work without any formal funding, driven, like many of her peer group in the United States, towards a recording of the heightened, phenomenal world through close observation of her immediate environment and daily life. Through her own company Ancona Films, set up after she returned from formal study in Rome at the height of the Neo-Realist movement, she set about making what she called ‘film poems’, often quoting the Spanish poet Lorca’s claim to be ‘stalking the image’ to define both her intention and method.
Origins and Elements: On Margaret Tait’s Disappearing Trick
I. I Found a Book on How to be Invisible 
I discovered Margaret Tait in the dark: not in a bookstore, but in a cinema. At the Cinematheque in Toronto, air-conditioned in the dog days of summer, there were Orcadian visions of turf, sharing its tough fragility with and through 8mm film kept carefully in cans in a doctor’s disorderly study. It was only in 2004 that her short films, made between 1951 and 1998, were re-released into circulation, on an international touring programme curated by London’s LUX, who also released selected shorts on DVD. Prior to that, the films had lived in Tait’s house, painstakingly edited over decades into short films – yet they had also travelled, in the filmmaker’s lifetime, on a circuit that stretched from New York and Moscow. While the Orkneys are considered remote, historically they were part of a sub-Arctic shared culture trade route, something that Tait recalls in her resolute centring of herself on the main island.
Margaret Tait named her film, as Michael Romer attests, after the bottle of Quink ink that sat on her desk, and that is visible in the film on the desk of the poet Greta. In tribute, I wrote the first draft of this talk in blue-black permanent ink, paying homage to Margaret Tait’s way with words and film, her concern with how artists and humans – particularly those who are women – make their mark, and with what lasts and what passes, and how it passes through her and on to us.
Stalking the Image: Margaret Tait and intimate filmmaking practices
I used to lie in wait to see the clover open
But never saw it.
I was too impatient,
Or the movement is too subtle,
And more than momentary.
Margaret Tait, ‘Now’, origins and elements (Edinburgh: Margaret Tait, 1959), pp. 22-24.
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.
Margaret Tait. Sweet old Scottish lady who made quaint little films all her life which are interesting to look at now because – look! that’s Princes St, Edinburgh! in the 1950s!, and that’s Rose St! it hasn’t changed! and isn’t it good to have archive film of a rural life that’s disappearing, that’s almost totally disappeared now, in her films about Orkney, and it’s so nice that she made little books of her poetry and stories and published them herself, she was such a creative soul, how sweet and interesting.