Remembering Scotland’s film poet Margaret Tait

On the 100th anniversary of her birth, we pay tribute to the go-her-own-way filmmaker Margaret Tait, the first Scottish woman to direct a feature film, and the visionary behind a large but underseen body of work.

Updated: 17 November 2021

By Georgia Korossi

Margaret Tait

“Ultimately there’s only movement. Nothing else.” – Margaret Tait, from the poem ‘Light’ (The Hen and the Bees: Legends and Lyrics collection, 1960)

One of avant-garde film’s best kept secrets, Margaret Tait was a fearless independent artist working across film, art and poetry. With 1992’s Blue Black Permanent, she was the first Scottish woman to direct a feature film, yet her work was scarcely seen in Britain during her lifetime – even as she developed a small but dedicated following among the international artists’-film community.

Born in Kirkwall, in the Orkney islands, in 1918, she studied medicine at Edinburgh University and served in India, Sri Lanka and on the Malay peninsula during the Second World War, as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps. After the war, she returned to Britain and it was through her work as a physician that she was able to finance her art practice.

In 1950 Tait moved to Italy where she stayed for two years and studied filmmaking at the Centro Sperimentale di Fotografia in Rome. While witnessing the neorealist movement’s groundbreaking use of real locations, Tait practiced her own authoritative filming style influenced by the poetic cinema of Jean Vigo.

Where I Am Is Here (1964)

On her return to Scotland in 1952, Tait started writing poems, influenced by the likes of Lawrence, Lorca, Rimbaud, Rilke, Emily Dickinson and Hugh MacDiarmid. By 1954 she established her own production company, Ancona Films, in Edinburgh’s Rose Street, where she rented her studio. She became friends with members of the Rose Street poets, including MacDiarmid, about whom she made a film.

All but three of her 33 films from 1951 to 1998 were self-financed, with Tait remainly fiercely determined to develop her own independent style. When Scottish documentarian John Grierson offered her work on the condition that she follow his filmmaking rules, she naturally refused. She was also an innovator of film credits design, using cut-up paper, drawings and plastic letters.

Here are 10 films that defined Tait’s filmmaking style.

A Portrait of Ga (1952)

A Portrait of Ga (1952)

Made in Orkney shortly after Tait returned home from Rome, A Portrait of Ga is a hypnotic and deeply personal short documentary about her mother. Tait draws upon her youth and homeland by focusing on the details of her mother’s lifestyle: her daily routine, the cut of her teal-colour dress, her energetic walks, unwrapping a sweet, and smoking cigarettes. It’s an abstract work of portraiture with voiceover by Tait herself, which reveals her love for the place where she was brought up.

Calypso (1955)

Calypso (1955)

Calypso is one of the films Tait made between 1955 and 1970 using the process of direct-on-film animation and resembling the 1920s French avant-garde film movement ‘cinéma pur’ (pure cinema). It presents a beautifully animated, colourful movement of shapes and lines. Tait hand-painted each frame directly onto 35mm film in rich colours, showing dancing figures accompanied by calypso music.

The Drift Back (1956)

The Drift Back (1956)

With a soundtrack by local musicians, Tait’s documentary about the return of expatriates to the island of Wyre was one of her few films to receive financial support. Made as part of the Orkneys’ rural cinema scheme, The Drift Back follows the return of two families to Wyre – ironically in search of work – following the depopulation of the islands for the mainland.

Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait (1964)

Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait (1964)

Comprising close-ups and still lifes, this is an intimate portrait of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who was 71 at the time. As it follows his daily routine, it’s so humble and sensitive to his local friends and the surrounding architecture that it becomes a treasurable record of his life at home and on the streets of Edinburgh. Though Tait largely distanced herself from the masculine and pub-oriented environment that the Rose Street poets thrived in, this film benefits from its first-hand access to the places where MacDiarmid drank.

Where I Am Is Here (1964)

Where I Am Is Here (1964)

The idea started with a six-line script, but Tait’s aim with Where I Am Is Here was to make a film that echoes with time and memory. It’s a haunting work of another era, built from a number of recurring everyday subjects in postwar Edinburgh: tower blocks, women walking, a man on duty cleaning the snow from the streets, bonfires, newspaper headlines about a builders’ strike. It shows her attachment to Italian neorealism’s use of locations. We also get a glimpse of Tait’s figure reflected in a mirror while filming, accompanied by Hector MacAndrew’s wonderful music for her poem ‘Hilltop Pibroch’.

Aerial (1974)

Aerial (1974)

One of Tait’s most alluring pictures, Aerial is the definition of poetry cinema. Drawing from her background as a scientist, it narrows the gap between art and science by bringing together images of nature’s elements (earth, water, air and fire) accompanied by piano notes, natural sounds and the presence of man, children and birds.

Place of Work (1976)

Place of Work (1976)

An exploration of a place with a lifelong connection for Tait, Place of Work is a study of her childhood garden and family home, filmed over a five-month period. Her focus on sound is magnificent – car engine, dog barking, children’s voices – and her use of rock’n’roll music works as a contrast to the feeling of confinement, reenacted by shots of a bee trapped indoors. Towards the end, Tait paints the outdoors with immersive shots of flowers and trees partnered with the sound of Scottish bagpipes.

Tait made Tailpiece in the same year, a 10-minute film conceived as a concluding piece to the longer Place of Work, which captures the echo of an empty house after moving out.

Land Makar (1981)

Land Makar (1981)

Starting with harvest, Land Makar (‘makar’ is a Scottish word for poet) is divided into seasons. The main character, Tait’s farming neighbour Mary Graham Sinclair, is filmed driving a tractor on the fields of an Orkney croft, going about her daily activity on the land and talking about “the beauty of a work day”. Tait started filming this place in 1977, observing the hard labour and activities that define the land. With Sinclair, she also explores the rarely told story of women and land labour.

Blue Black Permanent (1992)

Blue Black Permanent (1992)

Tait’s first and only feature length film, Blue Black Permanent is a meditation on natural circles and childhood. Financed by the BFI, it spans three generations of an Orcadian family where the film’s central character, daughter Barbara, attempts to unravel her memories in order to accept her mother Greta’s mysterious death. Tait distances herself from domestic life, which we often see in her short films, and places nature, with its roaring waves and transformative power, at the heart of her picture.

Garden Pieces (1998)

Garden Pieces (1998)

Tait’s last film before her death in the spring of 1999 is a triptych of contrasting moods, a vibrant live-action/hand-drawn portrait of a garden. With an original score by John Gray, the first part is a round-the-garden shot. The second depicts a number of drawings and etchings on bright colour background, using colour-grading filters, and the third part is a near scientific close-up of a garden full of poppies accompanied by the piano sounds of Craig Gerrard.

It’s a confident work that brings to mind the work of experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. The final scene observes a black cat meowing at the sound of the flapping wings of birds.

A season titled Rhythm and Poetry: The Films of Margaret Tait, took place at BFI Southbank throughout October and November 2018 as part of a nationwide celebration of filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait’s centenary.

The season was a coordination between the BFI, LUX Scotland, University of Stirling, and Pier Arts Centre. 

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Originally published: 24 October 2018