Sarah Neely: “The bits of ourselves we leave behind: an essay in fragments”


This essay takes its title from Margaret Tait’s own writing. It is structured as a kind of a collage—with extracts from a soon to be published academic book of mine,[1] placed alongside fragments of Tait’s writing, and descriptions of some of the more ephemeral objects in the archive, many of which are not always easily explored through traditional academic frameworks.

Margaret Tait, filmmaker and poet, was born in 1918 in Kirkwall, Orkney, on the first floor of the town’s only tenement building, a building which stands across from the St Magnus cathedral. Tait died in 1999, on Mainland Orkney, in Norseman Village, in Cruan, the house she shared with her husband Alex Pirie. It was also the house where she filmed her last film, Garden Pieces, which was completed in 1998.

In her obituary written for Tait, Gerda Stevenson, the actor who played the central character Greta in Tait’s feature film Blue Black Permanent, 1992, refers to Tait as a ‘beachcomber artist’—for her experimental spirit, and way of always searching and looking for what might be found.[2]

Tait’s favourite beach to scour for bits and pieces was at the Brough of Birsay, a tidal island situated off the west mainland of Orkney. When the tide is out you can cross over to the island, or, as Tait did, search for bits of treasure hidden in the rock pools scattered across the causeway.

From these endeavours, Tait created a series of found object collages to which she gave the title ‘these fragments’. Two examples of Tait’s collages (pictured below), feature objects assembled on scraps of thin plywood, each roughly 16 by 12 inches.

Tait’s found object collages – No. 1, The Moon in a Sliver of Glass

No. 1, The Moon in a Sliver of Glass, a tinfoil moon lies between two slips or slivers of clear fragments of sea glass, hovering a few inches above a curve of rusted barbed wire. Further down below, lying on a pound coin-sized dried leaf, Tait’s initials, MCT, are spelled out in tiny bits of wire.

Tait’s found object collages – No. 2, Aspiration

No. 2, Aspiration, dated 1989, features more rusted barbed wire, this time intertwined with blades of dried seagrass, huddled together in a nest-like formation. Hidden inside the nest is a train ticket to Jhansi, dated 1945.

Margaret Tait on the SS Winchester, 1946. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and Orkney Library and Archive.

Margaret Tait trained first as a medical doctor and went on to  join the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1943, serving in India, Sri Lanka and Malaya until 1946. Although Tait demonstrated an interest in photography very early on, her experiences during WWII intensified this impulse. Tait’s experiences overseas fueled her desire to express herself creatively, and her time there formed the basis for a number of scripts and stories she would later develop. The most conspicuous output was a novel, The Lilywhite Boys, which drew from her experiences being stationed in Jhansi, a city in northern India that served as a recuperation point for returning troops.

From The Postscript to the Lilywhite Boys, 1959, unpublished manuscript

I planted bulbs round the Nissen hut in Derby, put up curtains in the stone room of Jhansi, scrubbed clean the bathroom ledges in Jutogh to the eternal shame of my plainsman bearer, kept a white kitten in Katugastota. With it all there was a pain, nostalgia of myself looking for my own. It was not Margaret I mourned for so much then as Margarets I sought, searching in the pricking light of the high mountains and in the downpour of the tropics and in the fog in England. Leaving anything behind and breaking a continuity was a pain, and taking things with me was an equal pain. Out of the tin trunk when I opened it came the same old things I had put in it. Only me, nothing of mine really. The Jhansi curtains hang here in the Rose Street studio now; but they don’t give me pain. I seem to have come to rest at last, to accept what is for me. People describe a feeling they have, as if of having lost something. I don’t remember ever feeling it to be that. I was seeking, but not for something I had lost. For something that was not there yet. For something I had never had. Something of mine – something that would be mine. And I its, I suppose.

Tait worked from her studio on Rose Street in Edinburgh from the 1950s until the mid 1970s, when she returned to Orkney and lived and worked for the remainder of her life. In addition to her one feature-length film, Tait made over thirty short films, across a great many styles and genres: from hand-painted animated films, to intimate portraits, to what she called her film poems. After Tait’s death, many cans of film were transferred from her studio in Orkney to the Scottish Screen Archive in Glasgow, delivered by her husband Alex Pirie.

Margaret Tait, Splashing, 1966. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive.

Then began the often complicated task of restoring and preserving Tait’s work. Almost all of Tait’s catalogued films were made available through the Archive, with the exception of a few which were missing. During my research, some of these films were found in a garden shed behind Tait and Pirie’s house in Orkney, including Splashing, from 1966, featuring Alex Pirie’s two children and some of the other younger Tait relations. There was also A Pleasant Place, made in 1966, which was scripted by Alex Pirie, and is one of Tait’s few fictional short works. And finally, Palindrome, made in 1964, a filmic palindrome that builds to a centre point before reversing back to where it began.

Other films were uncovered too: short untitled films, even fragments of films, which Tait kept and regularly maintained with an eye to make use of them at some point. Before taking the films to the archive, I made a list of the rough contents.

Some of Tait’s film fragments stored in a biscuit tin.

Boxed from Orkney September 2010

Small green tin – title ‘Doorway’ original (looks like street scene in Italy)

Yellow cine-kodak super-k panchromatic – title ‘First roll ever shot’

Ferrania – 30m/16mm – title ‘My Room – Via Ancona 21’

Silver tin  – Kodachrome – title ‘Edinburgh – Original’

Yellow box – Kodachrome – title ‘The Royal Mile’, Edinburgh – ‘original’

Yellow box – Kodachrome – title ‘Princes Street’, Edinburgh – ‘original’

Small tin – calypso from hand painted neg

Med tin – garden pieces

Med orange plastic – tailpiece

Med orange plastic – garden pieces

Med orange plastic – hugh macdiarmid: a portrait

Small orange plastic – the leaden echo and the golden echo

Med tin – a portrait of ga

Large orange plastic – colour poems

Large orange plastic – place of work

A number of Tait’s diaries and notebooks before their transfer to Orkney Library and Archive.

During my research, Tait’s husband passed on a great number of Tait’s notebooks and diaries to me, all of which are now held by the Orkney archive, and are currently in the process of being catalogued. The contents range from intimate personal reflections to drafts of essays and developmental notes for her films. Going through them was an enjoyable and sometimes intense process. Some of the contents greatly informed my academic book on Tait and some of the entries I felt compelled to write down for no particular reason at all, other than that they resonated with me along more emotional lines than academic ones.

Jan 4, 1997 projected Place of Work (to self only)

Jan 2, 1977 ‘No callers. Finished and wore grey shirt and ‘vest’. Dramatic day outside. colourful sky. a loch frozen in waves.

April 5, 1941 Thomas came for coffee. In afternoon we had a walk to Mermaid’s Cave. I found a pearl in a mussel but Thomas lost it!

A selection of Tait’s notebooks.

Dec 1948 [Notes after viewing My Darling Clementine (dir. John Ford, 1946)]: wonderful shots of that desert (is it Arizona?) that the country near Jhansi used to remind Trevor of [3].

Tait was particularly intrigued by the idea that there was some kind of persistence of a spirit that might remain within a particular place. It is something that was a preoccupation of hers from very early in her life. Writing in a notebook in 1983, Tait recalled an uncanny experience reading Malcolm Lowry’s short story ‘Present Estate of Pompeii’,1959, and discovering that they had shared a similar sensation in front of Stazione Termini in Rome:

Margaret Tait diary, white with watercolour flowers on cover, 1983, pp. 10-11

Reading Lowry about the strange sense of alienation produced by travel somehow salves or balms sensations of that kind I had so often – I remember, in Rome, was it in ’47 or was it, in fact, in ’50, stopping in mid-piazza of the Stazione Termini, struck by ‘what am I doing here’ – ‘what do I think I’m doing?’ etc – I think it was ’47 – first visit – and it was who was I to think that I was there with any sort of logic supporting me? What the hell was I doing? (Perhaps, since I’m sure it must have been ’47  – August – the shade of that feeling lingered around until the following year, to be picked up by Lowry himself (the story set in summer ’48). Do we leave bits of ourselves behind? Or if it was ’50 then he left the feeling behind and I picked it up. And the other thing, of a sort of nostalgia even for something you don’t like, if it’s ending.

Tait’s notion that her experience in the piazza may have been deeply connected to the past and to Lowry’s own feelings of alienation in that place, reflects a sense of the kind of reverberation of place that is explored in many of Tait’s films. This is certainly true in relation to her feature film Blue Black Permanent, 1992. In the film, Tait makes a number of references to Lowry. It also is significant that the locations selected were of personal importance for the film—from the cliffs at Yesnaby to the Mermaid’s Cave on the northeast coast of Mainland Orkney.

Blue Black Permanent (newspaper clipping). Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and Orkney Library and Archive.

Tait’s notebook, 1956, p. 86

Reading about Rilke & his sense of the importance of the dead – It’s not so much the dead as dead who are important but the dead as existences which have occurred. That a thing once happened has happened for always. We are the result of people who once lived – a sort of accumulation of the centuries of heredity, evolution, and through records. People who have died young remain complete for us – we see them whole.

A compositional shot list for Blue Black Permanent, courtesy of the Estate of Margaret Tait and Orkney Archive.

From Personae, by Margaret Tait, 1959, unpublished manuscript

People describe a feeling they have, as if of having lost something. I don’t remember ever feeling it to be that. I was seeking, but not for something I had lost. For something that was not there yet. For something I had never had. Something of mine – something that would be mine. And I its, I suppose.

I keep thinking of a poem which comes in lines and constructions. I keep thinking of some sort of thing which will take its form in the formation on page. But it’s probably a film I’m thinking of, really. 

Think in a shape; think in a rhythm. It is something other than thinking; only, don’t reject the rhythm, don’t refuse the shape. When it comes, for you, seize it. It doesn’t do to take something else instead and hope to make something of it, believing it will be more yours because you decided to make it. It’s not that. It’s when it comes, take it, it’s not pick and choose. It is, simply, reply, respond and when it is yours. Leave the rest alone: it is there all right, it won’t waste and it is even related to you in a way. But your own rhythm is for you.  If you are a poet it is for you to reverberate, drum, relay, send messages with, write life certificates with. And love with, whether you are a poet or not a poet your own is for you to love with. Woman, man, place, light, flower, work.

Margaret Tait, Perugia 1952. Courtesy of the Margaret Tait estate and Orkney Library and Archive.

I would like to write a poem carefully laid in place like the table in candle light with rowan jelly matching some other browns. I would like to lay it out square and simple and set in what is needed, completing it in a roundelay. The eye goes round and round it, receiving.  The mind reads. Hear the soft sound of the flame of the candle, watch the exact formation of a word.

I like carelessness too, if there is such a thing. I think I like it. But not carelessness in what needs care, not slipshodness, not triviality, not unseriousness about a poem.

There is a kind of poetry which is essentially incomplete. Any attempt to complete and form it to known ends ruins it. It is not slipshod to revere that incompleteness – that PROMISE. It is the substance of poetry rather than the made thing. It is not really literature: it is the raw magic. It has to go on as it came in, be relayed whole (that is, incomplete) for it is food and will be sustenance of growth.

[1] Neely, S. (2016). Between Categories – The Films of Margaret Tait: Portraits, Poetry, Sound and Place. Oxford: Peter Lang.

[2] Stevenson, G. (1999). ‘The Late Margaret Tait, Film-maker – An appreciation’, The Orcadian, 20 May, p. 10.

[3] While serving in the Royal army medical corps in India, Tait became close with another doctor, Denis Ap Ivor, also known as Trevor, a Welshman who later established a reputation as a modernist composer.

Originally published as Sarah Neely, “The bits of ourselves we leave behind: an essay in fragments,” MAP Magazine, No.37: Footnoting the Archive (2016). Courtesy of Sarah Neely.