For some reason I had assumed Tilda Swinton would be reluctant to have her photograph taken. Perhaps it's the fact I had just watched Derek Jarman's film The Garden, in which, dressed as the Madonna, she attacks three paparazzi as they try to take her photo. Perhaps it's because she is intelligent, and what intelligent woman would enjoy having a lens thrust at her?

Watching her now, though, hiking up the hill with a tripod in her hand to the spot she has

suggested, it is obvious she is in her element. She has brought us to her favourite place; an elbow of land jutting out into the Dornoch Firth, with the misty hills of Sutherland in the background. Tilda Swinton doesn't mind being interviewed. All she insists is that we make the journey to Easter Ross, worlds away from the usual conveyer belt of press conference interviews or London hotel

junkets she is used to. She has also been the

perfect host, greeting us warmly and introducing us to her friends and family. Even if she hadn't been so enthusiastic, the view would have made it worthwhile entering into this agreement.

''Living so far away from the city,'' she says, ''the only time I ever come into contact with anything remotely like the paparazzi - they're not even proper paparazzi - is at film festivals and I feel really sorry for those poor guys trying to get a decent photograph and the publicists have only given them four seconds. You have to work with a photographer to get good photographs.''

While she talks, she looks down on to the surface of the rocks below and out to the Firth beyond. ''I can't believe these actors who take $20m for a film actually believe they are being paid that amount for their acting. They are being paid such large amounts to have paparazzi

follow them around and for them to start

complaining.'' As she moves for the camera, it is possible to look at her for more than a few snatched seconds at a time. During the interview over lunch earlier, it was difficult to meet her gaze, so luminescent is her pale skin and barley-coloured hair. A recent feature about her in the New Yorker quoted from the diary of Sally Potter, who directed her in Orlando, Swinton's most celebrated film to date. Potter described how she sat staring into the face of her lead performer for an hour during a quiet break from the Moscow Film Festival. ''I knew every curve of it, every nuance of expression,'' she wrote, still enraptured. You could put some of that down to the frenetic pace of a film festival of course, but it is easy to imagine a painter or a film-maker developing such a strong attachment to the

delicate architecture of her features at any time.

I wonder how the actress, who earned a degree in social and political sciences from Cambridge, feels about being so frequently the subject of

others' creativity. But she is buying none of that woman-under-the-gaze-of-the-lens stuff. ''The first film I did was Caravaggio with Derek Jarman and the first few days were the only time I've ever felt remotely nervous in front of a camera,'' she remarks. ''I asked Derek if I could have a look through the camera and that cured my apprehension pretty quickly. I realised it's just a camera.''

Swinton's approach tends to be playful, but she also ensures she has a rapport with the

person at the other side of the lens. She seems more relaxed now than earlier in Gow's

Bakery in Tain, with a tape recorder in front of her - although that might have been because she was distracted by her partner guffawing in the next booth with one of his mates. She might be even more relaxed in front of the camera if she didn't have the interruption of a troupe of young boys who have clambered over the rocks to ask her if she is famous or not.

Their question is a valid one. Is Tilda Swinton famous? Given that she appeared in eight of Derek Jarman's beautifully-choreographed nightmares between 1985 and 1993, fame, you can assume, is something of a by-product. In the last three years, however, she has clocked up appearances as Sal in Danny Boyle's film The Beach and as Mum in The War Zone, directed by Tim Roth. Hardly Hollywood, but she did receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes for her role in the Tom Cruise vehicle Vanilla Sky. Then there was the huge press coverage for the week she spent lying in a glass box in London's Serpentine Gallery during the summer of 1995, the result of a collaboration with the artist Cornelia Parker. Fame is inevitable, isn't it? She's not so sure. In a typically considered manner, Swinton replies to the inquisitive boys watching her. ''No, I don't think I am famous. Not


You only have to spend two seconds in Swinton's company to realise she still has her own artistic agenda. She lives in Tain with her partner John Byrne, the artist and writer best known for the Slab Boy trilogy and Tutti Frutti and their two children. She first met Byrne in the

mid-eighties when she was working at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. As they stand in the

bakery, I realise there is something strangely ageless about the couple. Byrne looks young for 61 and next to him, Swinton looks just like the immortal youthful Orlando.

The birth of their twins, Honor and Xavier, put the seal on the couple's decision to move to this part of the world. The children have just left their Gaelic-speaking nursery and are about to start school. ''I think, 'lucky them to grow up here,''' says Swinton. ''They are doing very well so far.''

Even if the actress didn't have such important ties here, she is too smart to take on Hollywood. She might have bought a second house recently, but it is in Nairn, not Malibu. She can't imagine ever leaving the Highlands and although she may dip her toe into the industry now and again, she is adamant she is in control of when and why. ''I am not an industrial actor.''

Earlier that day, driving from Inverness to Easter Ross on the way to meet Swinton, her films fresh in my mind, I realise that the Cromarty Firth has the same atmosphere as Romney Marsh, several hundred miles away on the south coast of England. It was there, in Dungeness, that Derek Jarman made his garden on the endless shingle beaches of that freakish stretch of coastline, beneath the insidious twinkling of Dungeness nuclear power station. His garden and the films that were made there are the most memorable images the artist produced. On a house-hunting trip, it was Swinton who first saw the For Sale sign outside the cottage were he would live out his life.

It is eight years since Derek Jarman died of an Aids-related disease and Tilda Swinton has never described in public the kind of relationship they had. She is to give a speech today at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, entitled In The Spirit of Derek Jarman. When asked why she has decided to start talking about Jarman for the first time, her reply is simple. ''They asked me to do it and it felt like that there was a reason why I should.'' Ask what that reason is, though, and she is unsure why it seems appropriate to discuss their friendship and working partnership. ''It just does. For once, it felt right.'' Perhaps she feels it is time to correct a few misapprehensions. Like the idea that in her long association with Jarman she acted as his muse.

As she tucks into the second of her curry pies in Tain's most famous bakery, she pulls a face at the mention of the word, before saying in a slightly weary voice, ''That muse thing is fine. I'm cool about it because I think muse can mean a number of things, but one thing I would say is that Derek Jarman needed no muse other than himself. Part of the reason people often use the word to describe the relationship between Derek and I is because it's one way of describing an intense relationship between a gay man and a woman. They can't get their heads round it so they describe it as 'a muse'. It's a fantasy - me on a pedestal draped on a curtain and Derek down there holding up his fingers in a square. However, my view is never talk people out of their fantasies. If they want them, they are welcome to them.''

Such stereotypical roles do not reflect accurately how the pair worked together, though. ''I suppose that out of the group of people that worked with Derek on those films, I was around more consistently than most. Obviously we were comfortable with each other because we were good pals. We used to sit round the table at his cottage in Dungeness and spin stuff up together and say, 'Why don't we make a film about that?' The relationship was formalised at the point at which the camera was turned on because he was behind it and I was in front of it of course, but there was more to it than that.''

Working with the man she describes as her

''colleague'', Swinton was involved in every stage of production, from the idea to the editing. ''I'm horrified that there are grounds for feeling nostalgic about those days because we used to moan like crazy about how little money we had to make those films,'' she says. ''However, I am not saying he was a one-off because people forget today how easy it is to just make work. We're encouraged all the time to believe it requires many millions of pounds to make a feature film but there is a tradition which Derek worked in which reacts against that. I'm not simply being nostalgic because I just can't accept that this tradition has ended.''

Swinton says her father, Sir John Swinton, a major-general in the Scots Guards, still describes her as contrary. Given her background hooking up with the avant-garde art scene could be viewed as rebellious. I want to ask her more about it but she is already flitting over her years at Cambridge University and dismissing her brief spell at the Royal Shakespeare Company with the words, ''It was wonderful to learn very early on what I didn't want to do.''

Her spell at the Traverse in Edinburgh should be qualified with her insistence that apart from the odd whodunnit, she doesn't like theatre. The world of ''Jarmania'' as she calls it was, by contrast, both ''a laboratory'' and ''a nursery'' and the loss of Jarman clearly had a profound effect on her, personally, professionally and artistically. She describes how her career has run since his death.

''My colleague wasn't around any more and I was isolated for a time. Now I have to fend for myself more and find new colleagues to work with and that's fine because I know they are there. And the thing is as well, I look at my friends who were around in those days and they are no longer working with their former colleagues anyway.''

Jarman's importance to her goes much deeper than her words hint at, and she answers carefully when asked how his absence has affected her. She describes herself as ''a great advocate of multiple lives'' - as a mother of twins, this subject fascinates her - and you get the impression that it was around Jarman that she first got the opportunity to explore them.

She also insists that on film her main goal is not to ''act'' at all. ''I'm not interested in acting as a spectator and I'm constantly trying to avoid it in my own work. I want to be as bad an actress as I possibly can.''

It is an idyllic world that Swinton inhabits with her family yet she still has an opportunity to escape the confines of that idyll to explore herself. By choosing carefully the film-makers she works with - from Scott McGehee and David Siegel in last year's superb The Deep End and David MacKenzie in his fascinating debut, Young Adam, due for release next year - she can do so in a safe and productive way.

She is able to achieve that freedom by the bargains she strikes on the way - ''conversations as she calls them.'' The one she makes with her audience is perhaps her most magical. ''I'm going to give you this much,'' her eyes say even when in character, ''but I'm keeping some of this experience for myself.'' That's why we will remain intrigued by her for a long time. n

Tilda Swinton's address, In the Spirit of Derek Jarman, supported by Vertigo Magazine, is at the Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh, at 1pm today