> Interview: Inge Thomson & Catriona Macdonald (HippFest 2024) - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Interview: Inge Thomson & Catriona Macdonald (HippFest 2024)

The only festival in Scotland where silent films are the centrepiece is HippFest. Based in Scotland’s first and oldest cinema, the historic Hippodrome in Bo’ness, the programme features classics brought to life, such as Oliver Twist, the works of Laurel and Hardy, jazz-age flapper flicks, and films from all over the globe, all accompanied by live music.

The opening night promises the world premiere of Jenny Gilbertson’s 1933 film The Rugged Island: A Shetland Lyric. The story follows a young couple and their dilemma of whether to stay in Scotland and maintain a croft or emigrate to Australia, a scenario that is still sadly relevant to Scottish rural communities today.

This original version of Gilbertson’s silent film was rescued in the 1980s from a hen house on Shetland, covered in guano, where it had been stored due to the volatile nature of the nitrate film used. Gilbertson filmed on a 35mm Eyemo handheld camera, which could only hold a few minutes at a time, so every shot had to be carefully considered. An extremely determined woman, she undertook all elements of the filmmaking process herself and refused to be pigeonholed into the gender roles of the time. Gilbertson is considered by some to be the first woman to direct a feature film in Scotland.

The Rugged Island: A Shetland Lyric has a brand new music commission by composer and multi-instrumentalist Inge Thomson and renowned fiddle player Catriona Macdonald, which will be performed live at the film’s premiere. SNACK spoke with both artists to find out more.

Why is Jenny Gilbertson a name we shouldn’t forget?

Inge Thomson: She was a female filmographer in the 1930s – back then it was a fight to be a female anything in a man’s world, let alone operate machinery and do anything technical, so for that she’s absolutely awesome.

Catriona Macdonald: I actually met her in the 1980s. She had this really beautiful soft face and really white hair, sitting there talking about her incredible journey that she made to Greenland in her 70s [where she stayed for 13 months to make documentary Jenny’s Arctic Diary. It was so awe-inspiring, thinking, wow, do women actually do those things?

This film captures the beauty and hardships of the islands with an incredible intimacy. How much did you use your own experiences growing up in Fair Isle and Shetland?

Inge: It was immediately nostalgic for me because I grew up on a croft and everybody on Fair Isle is attached to a croft. The actual practices of land management haven’t changed much at all, although we don’t harness ponies to plough the land anymore. Crofts are quite small, so there’s still an awful lot of handwork, for instance peat cutting, of which there’s a brilliant scene in the film. You can see he’s really skilled at it – and it still happens in the same way with the same tool he uses, a tushkar.

Catriona: I have been a fiddle player since I was a young child and was taught by one of the very well-known older fiddle players and collectors from Shetland, a man called Tom Anderson. I’m bringing my traditional string-playing aesthetic for that. For various reasons, the fiddle is the main instrument in Shetland and has been for centuries, more so than song, which is in some ways quite unusual.

How far have you reached beyond traditional Scottish or Celtic music and instruments for this piece?

Inge: The film is very rooted in the Shetland traditions. The tunes and heads and riffs I’ve kept quite close to the traditional forms. Getting Catriona in to be my co-collaborator was important because she’s a very spirited Shetland fiddle player who conveys stories within her playing. She also plays in the AEAE tuning, which in Shetland is called ‘the ringing strings’ and is evocative of place. For me, it immediately grounds it in Shetland.

Catriona: If you know anything about trad music and Shetland, that sound instantly takes you there. Shetland music is my life, my practice – everything is based on that. It was really interesting for me to come in on this female filmmaker’s work, because I was one of the first female players that started playing in the 1980s in Shetland; it had been seen as a very much male kind of tradition. That’s part of my PhD, recovering women’s role in the musical tradition and culture. Working with Inge on this is fantastic – she has a really contemporary viewpoint on things, and my part as the fiddle player is to be a sort of central point she can work her compositional magic around. 

Inge: A lot of what I do relies on new technology and electronics and live manipulation, so there is a small touch of that, but it can’t be anything that pulls it out of the time. I have used some elements to draw on atmospheric things, like rumbling wind.

Catriona: We also wanted to take it somewhere fresh so that it doesn’t just become a pastiche. I was surprised, when I watched it, at how contemporary that period of time is – Jenny’s captured a special part of Shetland life. There was a period of interest in photography at the turn of the century, but in this period between the wars you don’t see lots of photographs or interactions. There is one actor, but the rest are real people – that was Jenny’s filmmaking, to get in there and really live the life, from within the community.

You can watch The Rugged Island: A Shetland Lyric and its brand new music accompaniment online or in-person at HippFest on 20th March. HippFest 2024 runs 20th till 24th March hippodromecinema.co.uk

You can see the accompanying talk about Jenny Gilbertson for free on YouTube youtube.com/@FalkirkLeisureandCulture

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