The first feature-length film directed by a Scottish woman didn’t appear until 1992.

That was Margaret Tait’s first (and only) full-length, Blue Black Permanent. Despite a public output since the post-war period, it took decades for Tait to release a feature.

Tait was known for her film poems, taking on a well-entrenched Scottish literary tradition to produce something visual and newly cinematic. Her subjects ranged from her mother’s life on Orkney (A Portrait of Ga), poet peer Hugh MacDiarmid (Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait) to the elements themselves (Aerial).

“There is no narrative and no argument, it seems more like a musical theme conjured out of the whole rather than presented as point to be taken,” Tait said of Aerial. Perhaps this lack of conventional narrative and rejection of surface-level meaning hindered her audience out of the gate, yet equivalent experimental and avant-garde film produced throughout Europe and the USA at the time saw at least a modicum of critical and academic interest.

The Herald: Still from Aerial (1974)Still from Aerial (1974) (Image: Margaret Tait)
Tait’s work has seen a more appropriate critical devotion in recent years, with a year-long retrospective programme beginning in 2018 for her centennial. New works derived from her vast archive of material continue to emerge, with the documentary Being in a Place: A Portrait of Margaret Tait, directed by Glasgow-based artist Luke Fowler, touring Scotland into the new year.

Fowler’s documentary takes elements from Tait’s off-cuts, sketches and alternate versions of her films to form an impressionistic vision of her life and work. The camera focusses on her lettered correspondences with various institutions – a particularly striking correspondence comes in the form of a pitch to the BBC, where the broadcaster responds point-by-point to her methodology, concluding that “this is not how we work”.

This sliver is a fascinating look inside the struggle of art creation, where an institution like the BBC can decide not only what a filmmaker makes but also how they make it. By standardising the approach, only standard works will ultimately be funded.

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Producer of the documentary and Tait scholar at the University of Glasgow, Sarah Neely, points to lack of support from institutions as part of the reason why Tait lingered in obscurity for most of her creative life: “I think the lack of institutional support ultimately prevented her work from receiving vital resources for production, but also blocked channels of distribution which might have helped her work reach larger audiences earlier on.”

Tait was a solitary creative force in her field, a canary in a coal mine for Scottish filmmakers who chose to defy convention. Her plight brings into question what constitutes Scotland’s film culture, and how the expansion of film can be held back by the narrow parameters of ideas deemed valid.

“Tait herself talked about a kind of narrowness of vision in Scotland in terms of what film production and film culture might be that she found stifling, especially when compared to what she had experienced while studying in Rome in the 1950s,” Neely added.

The Herald: A plaque commemorating Margaret Tait at Portgower Hall in Helmsdale where she screened her films in the 1960sA plaque commemorating Margaret Tait at Portgower Hall in Helmsdale where she screened her films in the 1960s (Image: Sarah Neely)
This ties into the “too wee and too poor” mindset that invades a lot of aspects of Scottish life. Where Tait could see outside these confines, many Scottish artists would have felt pressure to succumb to the conventions of the day, given the lack of encouragement and reward to dare challenge these conventions.

Her time learning film in Rome gave a taste of what a reciprocal film culture could look like, where film is seen as a serious subject of study, and infrastructure and institutional backing is in place. Tait would only need to see the vast Cinecittà studios in Rome to know something was amiss with Scotland’s own film culture.

The re-evaluation of Tait wasn’t left to the passage of time but through a constant push from academics and artists to have her work recognised. Neely is one such academic, recalling the early days of trying to generate interest for an artist without an already established appraisal: “There certainly is a noticeable shift in the attention given to her work. My research on Tait really began in 2005 when I co-organised a screening day on Tait with Ian Goode (University of Glasgow) and Mitch Miller and Johnny Rodger (The Drouth magazine). It was a really sunny day, so that was partly to blame, but I think only 5 people turned up.”

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By grinning in the face of empty audiences, a silver lining eventually showed. Tait is now much more considered in the context of Scottish cinema, concurrently with director Bill Douglas. But while Douglas was known for realist portrayals of his Newcraighall mining town childhood, Tait is much more impenetrable and interpretative.

There is much more to be done, not just with Tait’s legacy, but with other Scottish experimentalists that may have found themselves lost to time. What do we want our film culture to look like? What would be an accurate way to assess Scottish film up to this point? How do we rectify the mistakes of the past, where radical ideas are ignored, and little is done in the way of enforcing some sort of vision?

These are nuanced questions without definite answers, slowly but surely being picked apart so that one day Scottish film can be vibrant, open-minded, forward-thinking, and distinct.

Tait is a small window into what is possible with Scottish filmmaking. Fiercely independent out of necessity and not bound to the traditions of commercial or narrative film, she carved out her own expressive lane. It took until after her death, but Tait ended up with the last laugh, with her institutional detractors seeming more detached and antiquated as Scotland’s cinematic potential is finally re-examined.