Peter Todd: “The Margaret Tait Project”


Margaret Tait was born on Orkney in 1918 and died on Orkney in 1999. Her first film was made in 1951 and her last completed in 1998. She made one feature film, Blue Black Permanent in 1992. She published three books of poetry and two of short stories, one of which was for children.

Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

In his article, ‘The Long Light Days of Margaret Tait’, in 1972 Robert Shure quoted from her poems, while more recently, Ute Aurand, and Alex Pirie, have created a kind of collage leaflet/booklet of materials, quotes, poems, bits of articles, bits from the publicity sheets Margaret Tait compiled for her films, or a combination of these. This approach, perhaps for the moment, allows those new to her work to form their own thoughts. Like editing a film, or selecting works for a film programme, or poems for a book, choices are being made. As more people come to view the work and write about it, so new combinations, choices, and readings will emerge, but, for the moment, l will follow the collage approach. Therefore following a short introduction you will find a newly created chronology, a filmography, and a bibliography together with a couple of poems so that those interested can use them as tools and follow up as they choose.

The Margaret Tait Project aims to seek to preserve Margaret Tait’s film work and ensure it is in distribution and to organise a touring film programme and accompanying publication. It is administered by the distributor of her films LUX, with the support of the Scottish Screen Archive [now National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive] (which holds Margaret Tait’s film materials which it is working on cataloging and assessing technically), and Scottish Screen. There will be a retrospective of the films of Margaret Tait at the Edinburgh Film Festival in [2004]. An edition of selected poems is planned by the Orkney Press. The three Film Poems programmes (Film Poems, Film Poems 2 Moments/Histories/Feelings, and Film Poems 3, of which the first and last include work by Margaret Tait amongst others) play at the National Film Theatre, in March 2003. The British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection based at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design holds an artists’ file on Margaret Tait, while the British Film Institute Reuben Library holds many of the published articles on her and her work.


Women under bushels,
Extinguished lights,
Women poets
You never had a chance, had you?

They either dressed you in blue stockings
Or put you in the kitchen.
You could be gracious
or gossipy
or good cooks
“Motherly,” Or, if not that, then “manly,” they insisted,
Never strong, feminine, yourselves,
Not that, never that,
Never women, poetesses,
Beings and doers in your own right.

Margaret Tait, Subjects and Sequences, 1960

As a film maker I think it is important to show films, so I have been involved over the years in curating programmes, some of which have toured. These have included a sequence exploring the relationship between film and poetry, Film Poems (1-3), and Garden Pieces. The first Film Poems programme included two of Margaret’s films, Aerial (1974) and Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait (1964), while Garden Pieces, on the theme of the garden covering almost 100 years of cinema, took its name from Margaret’s film of the same name which was in the programme. These programmes have drawn upon artists’ films, archive films, and documentaries. Most of these programmes have also featured one of my films and I see the process of programming as part of the work of making films. Seeing how the different films work together, finding and looking for new possibilities, readings, and thoughts for the future. Seeing how audiences respond. They have also brought, often to new audiences, a range of work and also a way of programming. Margaret’s films have played a key part in most of these programmes and her early support, she was a generous and supportive letter writer, was most welcome. Also her determination, or ‘persistence’ as she might say, to get her films made, she made over 30 films mainly self financed, is an example of how ‘to get on with it’.

Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

Visiting Orkney in April this year and seeing the places where she had been raised and lived, it brought home how much Margaret looked an artist film maker, a maker of film poems. Her engagement with images and sounds, and where she lived, was more like one often finds in looking at the life of an artist, poet, or composer, than the jobbing life so often associated with film making. She explored and revisited landscapes and sounds and people in her films which had been familiar to her since childhood. In the 1930s, preserved neatly in photograph albums, are photographs she took of different parts of Orkney like Yesnaby which would be revisited in Blue Black Permanent, family, outings, picnics, boats, landscapes, seascapes, snapshots. There were more composed shots too, and some experiments with different exposure times. From some photographs of school years, during the war, and later studying in Italy it seems she was happy to be photographed too.

Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

She made several short animated films and later integrated sequences of animation (often painting/working on the film stock) into other films, in particular Colour Poems and her last film Garden Pieces. She seems to have reworked and reused bits of film and sequences and in one case included the whole of an earlier film Rose Street, in a later, On The Mountain. Her voice is sometimes in her films, for example in Orquil Burn she narrates the film and in Land Makar she speaks to her neighbour, the subject of the film, she speaks to the surprised postman coming to the open door she is filming out of in another, and reads a poem on the soundtrack of Colour Poems. She commissioned music for some of the work (e.g. Where I am is Here, Garden Pieces) while others use chosen recordings. Her partner, Alex Pirie, is there in some of the films, glimpsed in Rose Street, with Hugh MacDiarmid, and there in Where I Am Is Here, and sometimes on the credits (e.g.. ‘Produced by Alex Pirie’) on Where I Am Is Here.

Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

The work she puts in to editing her films will perhaps come to be more acknowledged as with her experimentation, including as has already been mentioned with her animation. Shortly before her death we were corresponding about a proposed programme exploring animation in films and one of the films she suggested, fellow Scot Norman McLaren’s Fiddle De Dee was included in the tribute screening at The Lux cinema in London after she died. She was a keen cinemagoer throughout her Iife, and having studied film making in Rome after the WWII was very knowledgeable about cinema amongst other arts.

Her films are unique, also a record of a certain period, particularly of Edinburgh and Orkney, but also Sutherland. In some cases also a family history. The information supplied below is presented as a start, which can be added to as those who take an interest in Margaret’s work, some coming from her poetry, from one or more of her films, from an interest in Edinburgh or Orkney, or for any other reason, publish their own thoughts and views. Apologies for any mistakes which hopefully will be corrected in future. Updated information will be published from time to time on the Lux website.


Material things are only tools
Or they’re nothing.
Food is a sort of tool,
Fire a warming tool,
And paint-brushes, pencils, cameras, books
ll tools of a kind For making a life
Or lives.
But too much food is a poison,
Comfort a permanent anaesthetic,
And too many paint-brushes, cameras, books
Waste away as toys.
A tool has the feel of a user’s hand on it
If it’s a real tool.
A tool that is fully used
Gets a bloom on it
From its own essential-ness

Margaret Tait, The Hen and the Bees, 1960


See here.


1918, 11 November
Born Margaret Caroline Tait, Kirkwall, Orkney. Parents Charles Tait (d.1967) and Mary Isbister Tait (d.1964), brothers Maxwell (1917-1979), William Isbister (1920- ), John A.S. (1922- 1990), Harald I. (1924-1958). Family home in Broad Street, Kirkwall

Kirkwall primary school

‘Permanent’ address, Buttquoy House, Kirkwall, re school years, university, war years, post war

Esdaile School, Edinburgh

Taking photographs of family and friends and places, Scapa, Eynhallow, Skaill, Ingsay, Redbanks, Longhope, Skara Brae, Yesnaby, Eday, Kirkwall

Experiments with different exposure times for several photographs (interiors, two self portraits)

Studies medicine Edinburgh University. Staying at 59 North Castle Street, Blacket Place, Bank Street, Cambridge Street

Qualified in medicine, MB.CH.B, at Edinburgh University

BSc, Edinburgh University. Joins the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), serves in UK

Serves in India. Visits Kashmir, Agra, Delhi

Serves in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Subsequently compiles photo album of visits to Kashmir, Agra, Delhi, Kandy

Serves in Johore, Malaya, visiting Singapore

1946, 26 March
Sailed home from Singapore on the ‘Winchester Castle’ April on Orkney. Visits Adelaide Petersen, Stavanger, Norway. Working in Bristol (hospital duties). To Edinburgh, living at Ormidale Terrace, no. 46 where “I was an ex—service H.P. (House Physician) at “Sick Kids” – Royal Hospital for Sick Children”

Summer holiday in Paris, and then Italy visiting Florence, Assisi, Perugia, Venice, Como, Milan

Visits Lake District. Lives in London staying at 36 Parliament Hill NW3 while “job—hunting”. Working in Shoreditch, living at 93 Shepherdess Walk. In the USA. Visits Washington DC (with parents). July home on Orkney

Locums in South of England including spell as assistant to uncle’s practice, Windlesham, Surrey. Living at Holly Cottage, School Road, Windlesham 1949 July/August locum in Pontrhydyfen, Glamorgan

April returns to Perugia. Studies at Universita Italiana per Stranieri

Studied film at Centro di Cinematographia, Rome, Italy

Founds Ancona Films with Peter Hollander, Rome, Italy

Tenant at 91 Rose Street, Edinburgh (until 1973), The Rose Street Film Festival, August

Locums UK

1955, August
2nd Rose Street Film Festival, Edinburgh. Films screened: Calypso, A Portrait of Ga, Happy Bees, Orquil Burn, The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, by Margaret Tait, Sometimes a Newspaper, and Shapes, by Peter Hollander, Affisioni (Posters) by Luigi Bazzoni and Mario Fenelli and, Dimitri Works in Black Wax.

Living in Edinburgh, East Sutherland, Kirkwall

A Poet In New York, sequence of pictures based on Lorca’s poem exhibited as a small independent show at 91 Rose Street, during the Edinburgh Festival

Living at Slow Bend, Helmsdale, Sutherland (until 1973)

Living at Buttquoy House (until 1975) Marries Alex Pirie, 9th December

Retrospective at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

Moves to Aith, Sandwick, Orkney Work exhibited at the First Festival of Independent British Cinema, February, Bristol. Mike Leggett and Annabel Nicholson visits Orkney, September, (Buttquoy House).

Tour of South West England organised by Mike Leggett. Screening at London Film Makers Co-op

Poet With a Camera, Spectrum, BBC Scotland arts series, 30 minute programme about her work. Work screened at Third International Festival of Avant-Garde Film, London Late 1970s to 1990s a small number of showings at the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney. Aerial, Colour Poems, Place of Work, Tailpiece, enter distribution with London Film Makers Co-op (listed in Distribution Supplement no.3)

Work screened at 3rd International Festival of Film and Television in the Celtic Countries, Wexford, Ireland

Margaret Tait; Film Maker, television documentary directed by Margaret Williams televised with Where I am Is Here, Channel Four Television

1984, March–1999
Orquil Studio. A place of work

Films By Margaret Tait, compilation, transmitted on The Eleventh Hour by Channel 4, includes Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait, A Portait fo Ga, Colour Poems, and Aspects of Kirkwall; Some Changes

Living at Cruan, Firth, Orkney

Ute Aurand visits Orkney

1998, July
Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait, and Aeriel, included in the film programme Film Poems, National Film Theatre, London, which subsequently tours

1999, 16 April
Dies at home, Firth, Orkney

1999, 4 July
A Tribute To Margaret Tait, film programme, Lux Cinema, London

2000, 26 April
Visionary Histories: Maya Deren, Marie Menken, Margaret Tait, film programme, Lux Cinema, London May. Alex Pirie deposits films and negatives with the Scottish Screen Archive [now National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive].

2000, October
Retrospective with three programmes of short films, Places of Work, Land Makar, Film Poems, and Blue Black Permanent, National Flm Theatre, London

Garden Pieces included in a film touring programme taking the name Garden Pieces.

Compiled by Peter Todd with thanks to Alex Pirie, November 2002.


Aurand, Ute, ‘Margaret Tait’, Margaret Tait Film Tour Programme Brochure, Berlin: Ute Aurand, 1994.

Aurand, Ute, ‘Die Filmpoetin Margaret Tait ist gestorben’, Film, No. 6, 1999, pp 4-5.

Bell, Gavin, ‘A Reel Visionary’, The Scotsman, 27 September 2000, p.14.

Cook, Ben, and Todd, Peter, ‘Margaret Tait’, National Film Theatre Programme Booklet, October 2000, pp 34-35.

Crichton, Torcuil, ‘Film Honour for Orkney’s Movie Poet’, Sunday Herald (Glasgow), 17 September 2000, p.10.

Curtis, David, ‘Britain’s Oldest Experimentalist . . . Margaret Tait’, Vertigo, No.9, Summer 1999, pp 62-63.

Grigor, Murray, ‘Margaret Tait’, obituary, The Independent, 12 May 1999, p.6.

Krikorian, Tamara, ‘On the Mountain and Land Makar: Landscape and Townscape in Margaret Tait’s Work’, Undercut, No.7/8, Spring 1983, pp 17-19.

Leggett, Mike, ‘Margaret Tait’ in A Directory of British Film & Video Artists, edited by Curtis, David, Luton: John Libby Media/London: Arts Council of England, 1996, pp 190-192.

Leggett, Mike, ‘The Autonomous FilmMaker: Margaret Tait Films & Poems 1951-76’, unpublished article, 1979.

McKibbin, Tony, ‘Scottish Cinema: A Victim Culture?’, Cencrastus, No. 73, 2002, p.25- 29.

Macneacail, Aonghas, ‘primula scotia at yesnaby’ (for Margaret Tait: 1918-1999.), poem, The Orcadian, 17 May 1999.

Moir, Jan, ‘First Person Highly Singular’, The Guardian, 31 March 1993, pp 8-9.

Orcadian, The ‘Three Jubilee Film Shows’, The Orcadian, 22 September 1977.

Petrie, Duncan, Screening Scotland, London: British Film Institute, 2000, pp.164-5, p.168.

Pirie, Alex, ‘Margaret Tait Film Maker 1918-1999: Indications Influence Outcomes’, Poem Film Film Poem, No. 6, 2000, pp 1-12.

Redding, Judith M. and Victoria Brownworth, ‘Margaret Tait’ in Film Fatales, Seattle: Seal Press, pp 109-111.

Shure, Robert, ‘The Long Light Days of Margaret Tait’, Umbrella, published by Richard Demarco Gallery, Vol. 1 No. 2, March 1972.

Sparrow, Felicity, ‘Garden Pieces’ in the programme notes for ‘Garden Pieces: A Touring Programme’ on the theme of the Garden, doubles as Poem Film Film Poem, No. 9, February 2001, pp 1-2.

Stevenson, Gerda, ‘The Late Margaret Tait, Film-maker: An appreciation’, The Orcadian, 17 May 1999.

Sussex, Elizabeth, ‘Margaret Tait, Filmmaker’, The Financial Times, 9 September 1970.

Sussex, Elizabeth, ‘Margaret Tait’, obituary, The Guardian, 13 May 1999, p.22.

Tait, Margaret, ‘A Few Notes about Film and Poetry’, Poem Film Film Poem, No.2, November 1997, pp 4-5.

Tait, Margaret, ‘Garden Pieces, Their Slow Evolution’, Poem Film Film Poem, No. 5, December 1999, pp 1-3.

Tait, Margaret, The Hen and the Bees: Legends and Lyrics, poems, Edinburgh: M.C. Tait, 1960

Tait, Margaret, Subjects and Sequences, poems, Edinburgh: M.C. Tait, 1960.

Tait, Margaret, Lane Furniture: A book of Stories, Edinburgh: M.C. Tait, 1959.

Tait, Margaret, Origins and Elements, poems, Edinburgh: M.C. Tait, 1959.

Tait, Margaret, The Grassy Stories: Short Stories for Children, Edinburgh: M.C. Tait, 1959.

Times, The, ‘Margaret Tait’, obituary, The Times, 28 May 1999, p.31.


Compiled by Alice Fraser.

November 2002. With thanks to Alex Pirie, LUX – Ben Cook, Scottish Screen Archive – Janet McBain, Scottish Screen – Alan Knowles, British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection – David Curtis, BFI Reuben Library, Sarah Christian, Alice Fraser, Jeanette Sutton.

Originally published in The Media Education Journal, Issue 33 (Spring 2003), pp. 27-30.

Peter Todd is a film maker and curator based in London. Todd has produced various projects that present and explore the work of Margaret Tait, including a major retrospective of Tait’s work at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (2004), and an international touring programme entitled Subjects and Sequences in partnership with LUX. The accompanying book Subjects and Sequences: A Margaret Tait Reader (LUX, 2004) was co-edited with Benjamin Cook (Director, LUX) and together they also produced a DVD of selected films by Tait. In 2002 Todd received Scottish Screen Exhibition Development Award funding for research on Margaret Tait with a view to preserving and making available her work. In 2006 he was funded by Pier Arts Centre, Stromness Orkney in regarding developing the collection to include work by Margaret Tait including 16mm prints and DVDs. Todd has presented Tait’s work at BAFICI Buenos Aires, MoMA New York, MIFF Mumbai, Tate Modern London, Pier Arts Centre Stromness and Portgower Village Hall Sutherland (with Sarah Neely) amongst others. In 2018 he curated the season Rhythm & Poetry; The Films of Margaret Tait at BFI Southbank London.