Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"With a ready wit to balance the gentle melody of the language, these are tales that will sweep you away." | Photo: BBC/Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

The importance of song in the preservation of oral history around the world is well understood. What many people don't realise, however, is that these traditions are still alive and current, even in nations like Scotland. They don't just tell the stories of the dim and distant past, they absorb and perpetuate great stories from the here and now. Alastair Cole paints a portrait of this tradition in the Outer Hebrides, standing back and letting the song flow like the water between the isles, discreet editorial choices shaping it into a narrative so subtle that you'll barely notice its presence until the film is complete.

The language here is Gaelic, which has declined elsewhere as northern communities have lost their young people to the cities, but which remains strong in fishing communities. The communities themselves have become precarious, however, threatened by climate change and economic changes in the post-Brexit world, so Cole's film feels all the more urgent. Like the ballad hunters who began their work in the early 1800s, he's gathering up cultural memories which may otherwise be lost. Though the songs themselves were mostly recorded between the 1940s and 1970s, their positioning alongside contemporary footage of island life situates them in a vital context. Numerous islanders contributed to the making of the film, continuing to share in the preservation of their heritage.

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In the Hebrides, life is dominated by the ocean. Cole reveals it to us in a state of placid beauty, in fickle moods and in the thick of furious storms whilst we hear tales of fabulous beasts said to have threatened sailors and, sometimes, to have come ashore. It's not all myth and monsters, however, as we also hear more mundane stories of island folk, some surviving simply because they're so well told, others because they're naturally entertaining: tales of cleverness, of mischief, or of derring-do. They span the full range of island life, concerned not just with fishermen but also with the women who wait for them whilst the storms rage, who spend all day filleting and processing their catch. Tales, also, of children and young people, of the adventures they've enjoyed and the terrible things that have happened to them, often as a result of forgetting important lore.

Not everything here takes the form of a song, through the music continues to play. There are also reflections on 20th Century life and on experiences of the wider world. Assorted people lament the losses of the World Wars and the sinking of the Iolaire. One woman reflects on time spent n England and how she was unable to eat anything her landlady cooked because they don't have food suitable for Scottish people down there.

With a ready wit to balance the gentle melody of the language, these are tales that will sweep you away, a tide of memory so deep and strong as to be overwhelming. There are tales for the sea and tales for the shore, and in the place where they meet, the very stuff of emergent life, unwilling to be washed away by time.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2021
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A documentary about life among fishing communities in the Outer Hebrides.
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Director: Alastair Cole

Year: 2021

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2021

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