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Submitted by Neil Murray

St Kilda on film
From: 'Scotland the Movie' by David Bruce (Polygon 1996)

The island group of St Kilda, furthest west of the Hebrides, would be fascinating enough on account of its remoteness, its outstanding scenery and its natural history, but given the drama of its human history and particularly its evacuation in August 1930, it is in a league of its own. St Kilda under human habitation was recorded on film several times. As early as 1908, Oliver Pike made St Kilda: Its People and Birds for the Williamson Kinematograph Company. In 1917 (or possibly earlier), Pathe produced The Island of St Kilda .

The best known film of St Kilda while still inhabited was made in 1923 by Topical Productions (Paul Robello and Bobbie Mann) for John McCallum and Company who operated steam services to the Western Isles. St Kilda - Britain's Loneliest Isle [Now available on the BFI DVD] was essentially a tourist film. The remarkable details of the way of life, including bird catching on the cliffs, is partly compromised by the attitudes displayed towards the inhabitants by the smartly dressed tourists, and by the film itself. A joke about how busy the village street is compared to Sauchiehall Street (quick shot of trams) is no worse than heavy-handed, but the portrayal of the islanders as objects of curiosity is on a par with the most patronising footage of 'primitive' cultures. Pleasure is expressed that 'they never saw a movie camera before' (which was certainly not the case) and that 'the natives have a sweet tooth', as bon-bons are distributed.

In 1925, Ronald Jay, of Jay's Screen Service, made A Cruise to St Kilda and the Western Isles He was probably the last professional film-maker to observe St Kilda as a living community before its terminal decline. Among the many amateurs who found their way to the islands was one Frank Lowe who shot a ten minute film in 1929.

The evacuation of St Kilda was voluntary, in the sense that the islanders had requested it, but their circumstances really left little option. Disease and emigration had left the population below the viable minimum for self-sustenance. The manner of the removal of the people from St Kilda, however, was not to the credit of those concerned. Indeed The Scottish Office, who were generally criticised for their handling of the whole affair, tried to cloak the operation in secrecy and prohibited any photographic or film record being made. In 1979, however, footage turned up that had been shot in the days immediately before the evacuation by John P Ritchie, an ornithologist who had been visiting the islands in August 1930. This unique material, showing preparations for the islanders' removal, had been kept secret for almost fifty years.

Since 1930, factual film coverage of St Kilda has remained largely the province of the naturalists. In 1967, Christopher Mylne, in collaboration with the National Trust for Scotland (the permanent owners) and Films of Scotland, produced a memorable study of the wildlife and the remaining traces of habitation but for the full strength of the story it fell to fiction film to recreate the realities in a way that documentary could not.

Michael Powell, who some modern critics would argue was the best film director Britain ever produced [only some? :) ], was fascinated by the St Kilda story from the time he heard about it in 1931. At that time he had scarcely embarked on his career but with admirable determination he was able, in 1936, to realise his ambition to make a film about the island. The Edge of the World (1937) could not, unfortunately, be made on the island itself.

The other dramatised account of the last days of St Kilda had also to be made at some distance from the island group. Bill Bryden's Ill Fares the Land (1983) was shot on the mainland at Applecross and was less geographically faithful than Powell's version but more accurate in other ways.

This raises the vexed question about how important it is that a movie dealing with historical events should be shot in the actual places where the events took place. In the case of St Kilda, the topography and weather were essential elements in the story. The physical context was clearly of great significance. The same might be said for some other subjects but not many. That is probably just as well given that the modern appearance of a large number of our key historical sites (including several of the great battlefields) makes them quite unsuitable as locations for film realisation of what took place there.

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