The resourceful Chris Holme of the History Company has unearthed a rare find in the British Council film archive of life in the Hebrides in the 1940s.
The Western Isles was made as a 15-minute propaganda piece designed to show Britain’s indomitable spirit in the face of the U-boat attacks in the North Atlantic. The plot is fairly thin (Malcolm pilots his lifeboat 300 miles to his home island) and the acting wooden (Malcolm’s homecoming from shipwreck is greeted by his family with handshakes), but the film is a fascinating and remarkable documentary of everyday life.
It is shot in Technicolor and uses local people as actors. We are shown herring being landed, peats being cut with a talisker and almost the whole of the tweed-making process. Black-face sheep are shorn by hand and the fleeces washed in the burn and dyed in an iron pot over an open fire. The wool is then carded and spun on a wheel before being woven into cloth on a hand-loom. The finished tweed is shown being washed in water–lily filled lochans and dried in the sun.
The scene where the women are waulking the cloth is one of the best I have seen. It must have been staged for the camera, but it looks authentic, with the wet cloth being worked by the women to the rhythm of song.
Can anyone recognise the island or the actors? Their names are given as Bean Ailein, Somhaisle Mac ’Ille Mhoire, Ian Mac Néill Ghiolais and Caitriòna Nicleòid. The thatched house in which they live – not a “black house” because it has chimneys – looks very similar to that in which Margaret Fay Shaw lived with the MacRae sisters in South Uist.
To my untutored ear, the Gaelic seems natural, but there is one jarring note. When Kitty is walking back from the shearing, with the fleeces in a wicker carrier on her back, she hums “The Tangle of the Isles,” one of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s ersatz Gaelic songs. The humming must have been added in the studio. The real Kitty would surely have been singing a traditional local song.