Murray Grigor: “Obituary: Margaret Tait”


As poet, artist and above all film-maker Margaret Tait realised her vision of the world across many of the artificial boundaries in the arts.

She was born in Orkney in 1918; her family sprang from a long line of seafaring merchants and as with most islanders her childhood had its share of drowning. The surrounding beaches lured children to swim and splash amongst the rocks but malignant undertows could often without warning sweep them out to sea.

A death-beckoning ocean would remain a powerful force in Tait’s work and provide the armature for her first feature film, Blue Black Permanent, made in 1992 when she was an energetic 71-year-old. It would be the climax to a long career producing a series of imaginative short films in many styles but from a single vision.

Margaret Tait on set of Blue Black Permanent, 1992. Courtesy of Orkney Library and Archive.

After qualifying as a doctor in Edinburgh during the Second World War, Tait studied at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia in Rome in the early Fifties. It was the height of Italian Neo-Realist cinema and she was able to see at first hand how Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti brought life in grim war-torn Italy to the screen on minimal budgets. In Perugia in 1952 she made The Lion, the Griffin and the Kangaroo with Peter Hollander, a free-flowing documentary on the old Etruscan city.

When she returned to Orkney in 1952 she made A Portrait of Ga – a moving visual dialogue between daughter and mother. Her technique of counterpointing shots won from a free-ranging camera with spoken memories compelled her to seek funding for a portrait of Scotland’s national poet Hugh MacDiarmid. Despite launching an impressive subscription appeal to Scottish institutions and to the good and the great, she received not a single penny and made the film defiantly without any funding whatsoever.

Margaret Tait, Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait, 1964. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

Perhaps as a result Hugh MacDiarmid, a Portrait (1964) captures with much wit and art the awkward essence of the man. Shards of his flinty poems, read by the poet himself, are set against scenes of MacDiarmid teetering along an Edinburgh kerbside or chucking pebbles down a hill. In its intense nine minutes it questions what more one could conceivably learn from an hour-long television documentary.

Throughout her life Margaret Tait remained defiantly independent and was most critical of the sponsored documentary which up until 20 years ago was practically the only way a film could be funded in Scotland. For Tait, and her partner the writer Alex Pirie, the well-crafted short films produced by the Films of Scotland Committee, on which the veteran documentary producer John Grierson sat, were anathema.

She once lured Grierson to view some of her work in the studios of Ancona Films, as she called her company in Edinburgh’s then drab Rose Street. He never forgot the experience. When Tait unspooled Orquil Burn (1955), the heavens opened and soon a syncopated patter of raindrops fell from a leaky roof to accompany the stream’s slow progress to the sea.

For a time in the Sixties Tait lived near Helmsdale, in Sutherland, close to ruins of villages abandoned in the Highland Clearances. The head of a Cheviot surveying a desolate landscape from the window of an empty croft was a pivotal moment in her expansive The Big Sheep (1966). The title was perhaps also chosen to evoke Tait’s love of American cinema embodied in titles like The Big Sleep. I well remember a hilarious evening when Margaret and Alex extolled the comedies of “Doctor” Jerry Lewis to two American film-makers who had tried to convince them of the importance of “Doctor” Grierson. Well, at least Margaret Tait was a real doctor.

Margaret Tait, Rose Street, 1956. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and LUX.

Perhaps one of her earliest films, Rose Street (1956), reveals best the soul of her eye. Compare this short portrait of an Edinburgh back street with any British documentary of the day. Children’s voices and street songs rise up against the drab bleakness of the place as a shifty man edges into a dingy shop to buy his prophylactics. It was in such short essays that Tait will be best remembered. Without any funds from any source she succeeded by turning her economies to advantage without compromise and so retained her artistic probity and vision.

Appropriately I had first seen her films in an art gallery run by that irrepressible cultural commando, Richard Demarco. A retrospective of her films at the 1970 Edinburgh Film came as a revelation to most British critics. Now with a chance of funding it was a surprise to many that what Tait most wanted to make was a feature film.

Margaret Tait, Edinburgh Arts, 1972. Courtesy of Richard Demarco.

It took over 20 years for her dream to be realised and, with much energy and courage, Barbara Grigor produced Blue Black Permanent in 1992. The central role was played most movingly by Gerda Stevenson, who justly won a Scottish Bafta award for best actress. This grief-laden film met with much international success and rounded off the career of Scotland’s most independent film-maker. When the veteran action film-maker Sam Fuller saw Blue Black Permanent at Edinburgh he called it a poem. And that pleased Margaret Tait immensely.

Margaret Caroline Tait, writer and film-maker: born Kirkwall, Orkney 11 November 1918; married 1968 Alex Pirie; died Firth, Orkney 16 April 1999.

Originally published in The Independent, 12 May 1999.