There’s always something about people from outside making films or art about the islands that makes me feel a little on edge before engaging with it. The phrase ‘the first Gaelic x’ – in this case feature length cinematic documentary – is almost always one to be eyed with caution. It’s either lovely or painful to watch with very little middle ground, though there’s definitely a your mileage may vary element. There’s often an unfortunate tendency to romanticise island life, to create a picturesque and elegiac vision of a ‘lost’ way of life. This film is not that. (An Iorram is a boat song, more precisely, a rowing song, to keep the rowers in time. A work song, so more practical than romantic, but no less lovely for it.) If anything this a film which uses the past – recordings made across the mid twentieth century by field workers from the School of Scottish Studies – to contextualise the present. There’s a particularly lovely sequence, where the archive recordings talk about how they used to build lobster pots on Mingulay, contrasted with some young fishermen sitting together in a shed hand repairing their modern lobster pots – the technology has changed but it remains part of the same continuity. There’s also a horribly sad sequence of oral histories of the clearances – greed, exploitation, sectarian violence and dehumanisation – over pictures of abandoned crofts. I could certainly have done with some more contemporary fishermen telling their own stories in Gaelic, but I appreciate that the point of the film was to tell a story solely with the audio archive and modern imagery and consider that both to be a worthy aim and a well realised one. The film avoids the temptation of trying and failing to be all things to all people and there is in fact a nice little aside in the film where two modern fishermen are talking to each other over the radio in Gaelic to remind the audience that this is still a living language for those working in fishing both at sea and on land.
The film is beautifully shot, just gorgeous camera work. I haven’t previously encountered director/cinematographer Alastair Cole’s work and I was a little surprised to find out that he’s originally from New Zealand rather than from the islands. There’s a care and attention to detail in the camera work that speaks of long familiarity and affection. It was shot over three years, which explains it somewhat, but I see that the director has made films about minority languages in several other cultural contexts so it’s equally likely to be skill and experience in not exoticising or patronising his subjects and maintaining a light touch. (I know from experience that it’s easy to make the islands beautiful in Summer but it’s a much more impressive to capture that beauty in mid-Winter and mist. The colours are rich and vibrant, when it is all too easy to make them washed out and grey.) I was reminded a little of Polaris another documentary film – though a short one – about the Scottish fishing industry, though that one was about the east coast industry and the migrant workers that now come halfway around the world to work in it. (A shared thread between both films, some of the oral histories were recollections of former herring girls and their experiences of freedom and struggles with culture and language differences in the different fishing ports of the east coast including the Broch – A’ Bhruaich being the Gaelic for Fraserburgh where Polaris is set.) I’ve seen quite a few observational style documentaries over the last few years and this is definitely one of the better examples, the oral histories and images have clearly been carefully curated to create a narrative through line while allowing the film to seem to unfold entirely naturally.
I need to take a moment here to express the my appreciation for Aidan O’ Rourke’s excellent scoring work here. It feels organic, stitching together traditional pieces with new compositions, never overwhelming the archive recordings – seeming to weave itself into them in places – nor getting lost under the actuality of the contemporary scenes, helping to tie past and present together into a coherent whole. In one interview I read with the director, he expressed the hope that they’d be able to screen the film with a live band performing the score and I hope that eventually comes to pass. One of the last concerts I saw before the first lockdown back in March 2020 was a screening of From Scotland with Love with King Creosote – and friends – performing the score live and I think this film would really benefit from that kind of experience.