I recently caught the last half hour os so of The Maggie, a black and white movie from the middle of the twentieth century.
It tells the story of a Clyde Puffer, an old-fashioned steamboat, and its wayward captain, who contracts to carry a cargo for a wealthy American from Glasgow to one of the western islands.
It’s one of those tales, where the sophisticated and worldy urbanite is confounded, and converted, by his experience of the feckless, but happy islanders he encounters. Comparisons cry out to be made: not least with Local Hero, the 1983 film based on an original script by Bill Forsyth and starring, not so much Burt Lancaster, as the village of Pennan near Nairn, and the beach at Camus Darrach, just north of Airsaig.
If there was a BAFTA for Best Supporting Beach, Camus Darrach, from Local Hero would get my vote, though, the beach, in The Beach might get a nomination! Best Supporting Village, for me, would go to Pennan rather than to Brigadoon, the eponymous village in the Gene Kelly 1954 musical – the same year as The Maggie, in fact. Here too an American urbanite is won over to Highland life. This is the most fanciful imagining of the Highlands, being shot in the Hollywood Hills. Primarily a love story, not a cultural one, the juxtaposition of Manhattan with Brigadoon though, carries the recognition that there is a different pace to life, and a different expectation of it between the deeply urban and the deeply rural.
In fact, when we start to look around there have been a shedload of films on this theme, a fascination not just with islanders, but with the people and culture of the Scottish western seabord and its islands, from Whisky Galore (1949) to The Whicker Man (1973). The earlier of these two was based on a Compton Mackenzie story, itself based on an actual incident on Eriskay, and became so iconic that it was spoofed in a TV advert. Once again, the sophisticates, in this case the government excisemen, are outwitted by the islanders who steal and hide the alcoholic cargo of a foundered ship.
One sub-strain of this genre has been films about St Kilda. I had the pleasure of visiting St Kilda in 2009, although I didn’t make landfall, being too sea-sick by the time we arrived even to sit up vertically, let alone stand. I slept like a babe though, in the gentle swell of Village Bay overnight, and stayed upright for the passage between Boreray and Stac Lee next morning, though after that I was horizontal during the force eight gale that chased us all the way back to the Butt of Lewis.
The earliest film about the island that I have seen is in a recent BFI collection. First released in 1928, but probably filmed, at least in part, during 1923, A Trip to St Kilda was made to promote tourism to the island, and follows a Glasgow steamship, and its party of trippers, from the Clyde to Oban, Skye, and beyond. Coming in to Castle Bay at Barra the view seems almost the same as that on the current TV series set there, only a bit jerkier, and soundless, and in black and white!
More famous, and what got me noticing this type of film in the first place, is Michael Powell’s The Edge of The World. Set on Hirte, but filmed on Foula, in the Shetlands, this tells the tale of change coming to St Kilda, which had been evacuated a few years before. I didn’t see Powell’s 1936 film until more than forty years later, when it was shown on TV, back to back with his documentary about the making of it, Return to the Edge of the World. This was made in 1978, by which time John Laurie was old, but still enthusiastic, and many of the original cast and crew had passed on.
Between these two Powell, by then working with Emeric Pressburger, had made I know Where I’m Going, set on the fictional isle of Kiloran, but filmed on Colonsay. This wartime romance, for me, is stolen by the amazing Pamela Brown, who makes the story, and the rest of the cast irrelevent whenever she is ‘on stage’. In this film the urbanite is socialite Jean Webster, played by Wendy Hiller, off to marry a rich businessman who is renting the island. Befogged at the ferry crossing though, she waits for a storm to break in the company of the Laird of the island, down to earth, and impoverished, played by Roger Livesey, with whom, of course, she falls in love.
In contrast to these romances, the 1983 film, Ill Fares The Land, tells a more gritty version of the evacuation of S.Kilda. I have a copy, burned onto dvd, presumably from a video home recording, for it still has the early eighties adverts. In many ways these have aged more obviously than the film itself. What were we thinking of, dressing like that? That gritty realism though seems more of a dark fantasy than a true reality. To portray the islanders as isolated may be partially true, but there is a rather patronising air to the film, showing them also as being quite ignorant of the outside world, which I doubt they were. Fulton Mackay features here, as well as in Local Hero, released in the same year, two stories in similar settings, but in quite different tones.
What appeals to me about many of these films, is their almost co-incidental use of Scots Gaelic – a language that I had a brush with, until my video player conked out and I could no longer access the fifty or so episodes of Speaking Our Language. The Edge of the World, curiously, did not feature it, probably because on Foula there would have been none spoken. Of course, I can now listen to Radio Nan Gaidheal, and watch the Alba TV channel, which is where, by chance, a couple of weeks ago, I caught the last half hour or so of The Maggie, a black and white……