Saturday, November 17, 2018

Land Makar


Land Makar is a half hour film by Margaret Tait, whose centenary is being celebrated this year.  Here is a brief description from the BFI's website, where it is listed as one of '10 films that defined Tait’s filmmaking style.'
'Starting with harvest, Land Makar (‘makar’ is a Scottish word for poet) is divided into seasons. The main character, Tait’s farming neighbour Mary Graham Sinclair, is filmed driving a tractor on the fields of an Orkney croft, going about her daily activity on the land and talking about “the beauty of a work day”. Tait started filming this place in 1977, observing the hard labour and activities that define the land. With Sinclair, she also explores the rarely told story of women and land labour.'
Maragaret Tait was a doctor-poet (like William Carlos Williams) as well as a film maker.  In a recent piece about Land Makar, for Sight and Sound, Becca Voelcker quotes the poem 'Now' in which Tait advises the reader to take poetry quickly, 'without water'.
'For Tait, poems are as ephemeral as wildflowers.  Prescribing a quickness of mind and body, like a capsule 'without water', the poem ends with urgency: 'Tomorrow they'll be something else.'  The poem, like Land Makar, imagines place as a cluster of transforming elements.  For Tait, landscape is a continuing process.'


I went to see Land Makar last week - it was part of the BFI season 'Rhythm and Poetry: The Films of Margaret Tait'.  Watching Sinclair on her tractor, scything long grass and climbing onto a compost heap, it was impossible not to admire her energy - all the physical effort put into this stretch of land.  At one point she recalls helping some swans build their nests (I caught the drift of this, but found the Orcadian dialect impossible to follow exactly).  Voelcker quotes another poem, 'The Scale of things', where Tait describes 'all the tiny plants and flowers / Which, together interlaced and inter-related, / Make the fine springing turf which people and animals / walk on.'  Crofters and poets (and swans) are makers' whose collective labour sustains the land.' 

Land Makar was shown at the NFT with The Drift Back (1956), a ten minute 'offical' documentary on the return of some families to Orkney, and The Big Sheep (1966), a 41 minute essay film concerning the landscape of East Sutherland, with striking music and sound effects.  Here is Margaret Tait's own description of The Big Sheep:
"A picture of East Sutherland in 1966. Tourists come north, coach-load after coach-load; and here is the countryside they come to see, dotted with sheep continually nibbling at grass and whin. Then the lamb sales, an open-air auction, after which the lambs are carried south, float after float. Vote, vote, vote, on the posters for a general election, but "Why don't you get your sheep to go and fight for you ? " echoes a voice from the past, at the sight of a recruiting poster at the local Drill Hall. In the glens stand stand roofless houses, as well as more ancient (prehistoric) remains, beside the Highland river.

PART TWO and the seaboard life of today; the railway line along the very edge of that marvellous strip of coast, school sports near the salmon river, crofter's fields where the Cheviot sheep now figure, local buses, electricity, the Highland Games and pibroch contest. Then John N MacAskill plays the "Lament for Donald of Laggan", while a small burn tumbles endlessly seaward, sometimes quietly, sometimes spate, and the film searches the same few yards of it again and again, watching along with the coalman who stands listening to the sound of it as if he could listen to it for ever."
It was that final sequence that I found most moving, with the pibroch constantly changing as it flowed from the pipes, before giving way to the natural music of the river.

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