Scottish Film & Television Archive Preservation Project: The Rugged Island (1933)

By McBain, Janet | Journal of Film Preservation, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Scottish Film & Television Archive Preservation Project: The Rugged Island (1933)


McBain, Janet, Journal of Film Preservation


Glasgow: Scottish Film and Television Archive

The Rugged Island tells the story of Andrew and Enga, a young crofting couple in the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland facing the conflicting emotional ties of home and the tempting promise of a new life in Australia. The film was made by Jenny Gilbertson (nee Brown), the pioneering woman documentary film-maker who began chronicling life in the Shetland Islands in 1931 with her emotive documentary A Crofter's Life in Shetland. Encouraged by John Grierson, who recognised in the self taught novice a remarkable talent for film, she returned to the Shetlands and made another five short films all of which Grierson purchased for the GPO Film Library. In 1933 she embarked on her most ambitious project the 'documentary story' The Rugged Island.

Local people were engaged to play characters in the film with the leading role going to John Gilbertson, a crofter with whom Jenny fell in love. They were married on the proceeds of the sale of the film to the commercial distributor in 1934.

In 1979, she deposited in the Archive films she had made in Shetland in the 1930's (and later in the 1960's) which had been stored for over 40 years in the hen house on the minister's land adjoining her croft. (When the Archive took possession of the footage it was nick-named the 'guano' collection!)

In 1997 the Archive's Preservation Officer undertook a technical assessment of the film with a view to assessing its conservation needs. Upon examination of the cans he discovered two versions of the film and by process of further investigation we now believe that the story was shot as a silent film in 1933 and edited by Jenny herself to a 6 reel (56 min) silent version. She took the film to London where the distributor Zenifilms bought the rights for cinema distribution. It was released as a 43-minute film, with sound, in 1934. The version seen up to now is the latter. Until a few months ago no one was aware of the longer silent version. Given that the silent version, we believe, is closer to what Jenny wanted the film to be, but that the sound version is what audiences experienced of her work, the Archive feels it important to preserve both. Sponsorship for the preservation has been offered by the UK's Post Office in recognition of Jenny's contribution to the British documentary movement associated with John Grierson. …

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