Film on Berneray’s history goes global

The wedding of Gloria and "Splash" in 1968 is just one of the priceless pieces of footage to have been preserved.The wedding of Gloria and "Splash" in 1968 is just one of the priceless pieces of footage to have been preserved.
The wedding of Gloria and "Splash" in 1968 is just one of the priceless pieces of footage to have been preserved.
​The highly-praised documentary film about the island of Berneray, “Dùthchas”, is being shown next month in Perth. Just to be clear, that’s Perth, Western Australia.

​It will be part of the Revelation Film Festival which specialises in documentary and independent films from around the world. The showing will carry the mainly Gaelic voices of Berneray people who describe the forces behind the island’s gradual depopulation and cultural loss – as well as hopes for the future.

The issues Dùthchas deals with have universal relevance for peripheral communities and minority languages. Another outing for the film, also next month, will be on Tory island, off the coast of Donegal as part of the Earagail Arts Festival.

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Co-director, Andy Mackinnon also hopes for another Australian showing, hopefully towards the end of this year, in the small town of Temora in New South Wales, which is where Gloria MacKillop, who was crucial to the making of Dùthchas, grew up and still visits during Berneray’s winters.

Of course, Gloria’s story is worth a movie in its own right. She intended to devote her career as a nurse to the Flying Doctor Service in Australia but, diverted to Scotland in the 1960s and took on a short-term nursing post on Berneray.

“I came for a month and stayed for a lifetime”, she says. Gloria arrived on Berneray on May 30th, 1967. A year and a day later, she married Domhnall Alick MacKillop, also known by his nickname “Splash”; lobster fisherman, ferryman, crofter and local historian.

It was through her husband that Gloria became related to Ann Scott, whose mother was born and brought up on the island, and her husband Bill. This couple from Cheshire visited every summer between 1960-78, filming the daily life of Berneray and its people.

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After they died, the collection of 8mm film was passed to Domhnall Alick – who died in 2009 - and Gloria. It lay for two decades in their attic until finally, around three years ago, Gloria rediscovered it. Amidst all the film from decades past, there was even one labelled to show that it was of her own wedding in 1968 – images she had never seen.

There were over five hours of material chronicling island life. Every year, says Andy, Bill and Ann Scott would film as they sailed away with women and men on the pier waving their farewells.

The same poignant scene was enacted – and caught empathetically on camera - when children as young as 12 went off to school in Tarbert, with little likelihood of returning once their education was complete. These scenes of parting would come to symbolise a central theme of Dùthchas, the movie.

Gloria initially took this long-lost treasure trove to the small museum on Berneray from where it was passed on to UistFilm at Taigh Chearsabhaigh in Lochmaddy – a particularly suitable home since the Faodail/Found archive project based there is committed to recovering footage from within the islands.

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The first step was to set up a crowdfunding campaign to get the material digitised. “We were just blown away when we eventually saw it,” Andy remembers. He and his co-director, Kirsty MacDonald a North Uist Gaelic speaker, realised they had something very special on their hands.

They received support from BBC Alba and Screen Scotland and were also helped by co-producer John Archer of Glasgow-based Hopscotch Films. The film has now had over 80 “live showings” to audiences totalling 3000 as well as outings on BBC Alba.

A strength of the film lies in the quality and frankness of the interviews, mostly in Gaelic, and the non-sentimental picture they present of life on the island. Between 1951 and the 2011 census, the population of Berneray dropped from 246 to 138, which is still around the current figure.

The saviour of the island was, by common consent, the building of a causeway link with North Uist which was opened by Prince Charles as he then was – and who has his own place in Berneray lore – in 1999. Without that, further loss of population would have been inevitable.

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Much of the regret expressed in the interviews is about the decline of Gaelic with only about 30 of the population now fluent, whereas at the time the Scotts were filming it would have been very close to a homogenous Gaelic-speaking, crofting and fishing community.

Gloria says she had some concerns about how fellow-islanders would respond to old footage which portrayed an island that was materially poor but in other ways very rich. She says that she was from a not dissimilar background and could understand different reactions. “I was one of eight children of the Depression who ran about in bare feet on the dusty red earth”.

“I was hoping against hope”, she says, “that they would not feel they were being unfairly represented. In the event, they all loved it – absolutely loved it.”

Andy has a long connection with the Revelation Film Festival in Perth, Western Australia, and its founder Richard Sowada. Back in 2000, he was there to accompany his first feature documentary. These days, budgets are tighter so Andy and Gloria will be recording messages to be shown in advance of the screenings.

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Meanwhile, the work of Faodail continues, making digitised films accessible online and to audiences throughout the islands where they can be enjoyed and reminisced over.

It is an immensely valuable project for future as well as present generations, as Dùthchas so eloquently confirms.