Am Bratach No. 231
January 2011

Anyone remember the Highlands & Islands Film Guild (1946-1970)?
by Ian Goode

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The recent exploits of Tilda Swinton, Mark Cousins and associated devotees in dragging the Screen Machine around the Highlands as part of a pilgramage during the summer of 2009, attracted a lot of media attention. The Screen Machine continues to perform a very important and beneficial role in providing cinema to the communities of the Highlands and Islands. But what preceded all of this? The history of cinema has been written, mainly as an urban phenomenon, but what does this exclude in a country like Scotland, where the geography extends a long way beyond the Central Belt?

The formation of the Scottish Film Council in 1934 led to the suggestion that a form of mobile cinema should be made available to tour rural areas and exhibit films periodically in different villages. The development of 16mm technology and film distribution, especially during the Second World War made such initiatives feasible and emerged against a background of concern about the potential effects of the commercial cinema on the growing audience in the cities. Bodies such as the Scottish Educational Film Association, formed in order to respond to the 1932 report, The Film in National Life, conducted by the Commission on Educational and Cultural films that argued for the “recognition of film as a powerful instrument for good or evil in national life”.

This instrumental use of film is demonstrated during the Second World War through the evacuees film scheme organised by the Scottish Film Council and the Ministry of Information which ran mobile cinema shows in rural areas for audiences of evacuated mothers and children in addition to the local communities. This scheme and the film provision of ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), which also went to the key strategic rural areas, were the forerunners of the post-war Highlands and Islands Film Guild.

The Guild, initially based in Edinburgh before moving to Inverness, was formed in 1946 and aimed primarily to improve the educational, cultural and recreational amenities available to rural communities by organising the exhibition of films on a non-profit-making basis. This involved a fleet of mobile cinema vans and recruited operators who would take cinema to communities in the Crofting Counties.

The rural cinema operators were key figures who made arduous journeys in often difficult weather to reach the destinations which would be made into what the secretary of the Guild Tom Morris termed “the wee cinemas”. Morris describes how, in the early years of the Guild, the isolated setting of Eshaness in Shetland, provided a special example of its appreciation. “The hall there stood in the middle of what was almost a peat bog and there was no access road. The problem was a simple one — no road, no film. The Shetlanders love a challenge: a common saying among those descendants of the hardy Vikings is “Say du nawthin,” but that does not mean they do nothing. The men set to, carted stones and rubble, dumped it into the old track and so made their road, (whilst the women, equally anxious and willing to forgot their knitting and attended to the refreshments). In a day and a night the job was done and George Horne, the Guild’s first operator, drove his van up for the show”.

The operators developed close and fondly remembered relationships with their audiences which would also often make their own special journeys to see the film show. Local communities would also assist with publicising the films, preparing the halls and running the shows.

The halls varied from village halls, drill halls, Nissen huts to private houses and required a process of conversion and improvisation in order to create the exhibition space. These were not the well-heated and plush conditions of the picture palace and these cinemas’ existence depended in the early years on generators for power. For many people this type of cinema and its home-made characteristics offered them their first experience of film.

Programmes were aimed at a family audience and would consist of a Pathe newsreel, a cartoon, the main feature film and a trailer for the next film. Local amateur films were sometimes included in the programmes too and the Guild also showed films in schools.
So far, respondents have mentioned the crow of the cockerel that introduced the Pathe newsreels, the film of the coronation, A Queen is Crowned, war films and Westerns and films about Scotland such as Whisky Galore. The national archive in Edinburgh also mentions less familiar films such as The Baking Secrets of Elizabeth Craig which was produced to promote Brooke Bond tea. But it is the experience of watching films and being involved in this type of exhibition films that outweighs what was seen. It seems that the films sometimes interested one of the local sheep which are said to have appeared in some halls! The arrival of the Guild operators was a community event and in certain areas would be followed by a ceilidh. Not everyone approved, and I have been fortunate to receive a copy of a poem/limerick about the experience of watching the films in the village of Gairloch. Amongst the cast of characters described is the disapproving Free Presbyterian minister. The appearance of the Guild and the leisure pursuits available to rural communities in the post-war years certainly affected church attendances. The reaction of the Churches of Scotland to these developments is an important part of the history that I want to assemble.

If I can gather enough artefacts connected with the Guild it might be possible to put on a travelling exhibition. Certainly, one of the cinema vans used by the Guild is still with the family of its operator.

Please tell me what you can remember about the Highlands and Islands Film Guild — I am interested in all memories, however fleeting or fragmentary — as part of the audience, or as a helper to the operators, or as part of the would-be audience — who were not allowed to go.

The history and memories of the Highlands and Islands Film Guild are important to Scotland, and should be recorded and documented while it is still possible for us to do so. I would be very grateful to hear from anyone who can remember the Guild and would be willing to share their memories with me and others. Please contact me by telephone, letter or e-mail: Dr Ian Goode, Department of Theatre, Film and Television Studies, Gilmorehill Centre, 9 University Avenue, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, G12 8QQ. E-mail: Tel: 0141 330 3809.

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