Mermaids, seals and big ugly eels: the Gaelic fishing film that’s a feast for the ears

Seventy years ago, ethnologists captured the sounds of a culture that was dying out. Now Iorram – the first big-screen documentary in Gaelic – revives that archive to show fishing communities keeping that tradition very much alive

A bob of seals wriggles through the turquoise waters facing a Hebridean beach as an unseen speaker from decades past explains how a mermaid once forecast a storm. Lobster creels plop off the side of a boat as a fisherman elsewhere catalogues the seasonal catches of skate, herring and “big ugly eels”. A jellyfish balloons and pulses through cloudy water as the words of the Scottish Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean are spoken: “The incomprehensible ocean fills with floodtide and a thousand sails.”

Watching Iorram (Boat Song) can be a disorienting experience. This first theatrically released documentary entirely in Scottish Gaelic blends archive recordings of voices, stories and songs from the past with visuals of contemporary island life.

“When you’re watching a film, you’re expecting to have your eyes lead,” explains its director, Alastair Cole. “But we wanted to flip your perspective around. What we’re asking people with the archive is to let your ears lead as well.”

At the core of the film is an extraordinary trove of audio recordings, made by pioneering Scottish ethnographers in the 40s and 50s. They travelled through Hebridean communities at a time when portable sound recording devices were newly available to capture the traditional stories, songs and language.

Thirty thousand clips – now held and catalogued by the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh – were available to Cole, who spent two years visiting and filming around the islands while also researching the archive.

The concept, says Cole – whose production studio, Tongue Tied Films, has a focus on language – was to use the modern visuals to bring the historical sound archive voices into the present. There was an alchemy involved in marrying the footage and the stories, he says, “finding the emotion of the stories and how to bring them out with the footage”.

He filmed throughout the Western Isles, from Vatersay and Barra to South Uist, which was a central focus of the original research, then up to Harris and Lewis. The last drone shot in the film shows the remote archipelago of St Kilda, the permanent population of which abandoned their homes in 1930.

A still from Iorram
The fishermen of the Western Isles still use Gaelic in their everyday work. Photograph: Tongue Tied Films

The archive is rich in folklore; that is reflected in the film, which splices tales of selkies and fairy hosts with detail about the relentless toil of fish processing. “The fishermen believe that, if you eat an egg before going to sea, they won’t catch any fish,” one woman’s voice observes.

“The mythology is fundamental to the language and the place,” says Cole. “We had to include it within the conversation, because the superstition side of it is still very relevant to fishermen. They half joke, but it’s true. I got told off a few times for things I said on the boat and I don’t think you can knock that.”

With Scotland’s fishermen at the sharp end of recent trade deals with the EU, it is impossible to separate Iorram from its political context, not that Cole would want to. “The guys in the film have had a really tough 12 months, between Brexit and Covid,” he says. “But the thing we want the film to say is beyond these economic numbers.”

The project stemmed from research the film’s co-producer, Edinburgh University’s Magnus Course, conducted about the relationship between the Gaelic language and fishing. “So many of the fisherman [in the Western Isles] speak Gaelic, 75% compared with only 50% of the population,” Cole says. “What the project started from was the importance, especially for the inshore fishing industry, of the continued use of Gaelic, because it’s one of the few working environments in Scotland where Gaelic is habitually used.”

The academics who recorded the original sound were doing so at a time when the Gaelic language was under threat, says Cole. In the mid-20th century, he says, “the situation they were in was really pretty dire. Speaking to the older generation, they were not allowed to speak it in school and it was a real battle they had on their hands.” In subsequent decades, Gaelic enjoyed a gradual revival, leading to official recognition from the Scottish government and well-established schools and broadcasting. But the film is being released at a time when Gaelic experts are warning that, for all the help it has received, the language could die out within 10 years.

Island graves beside a stormy sea
A hard life ... Iorram captures the unique culture of the Western Isles. Photograph: Tongue Tied Films

Cole insists it was never his intention to make the first cinema documentary purely in the language. “It was an anomaly in the nature of the archive,” he says. “Then we realised it hadn’t happened already.

“We hope it does make a statement to say this is a living, breathing, wonderful language with a huge history that can bring a lot to cinema. BBC Alba [the Scottish Gaelic channel] does a wonderful job, but cinema is another platform. If it gets people curious, they can start to make links with the wider interest in Gaelic now. It’s no accident that Duolingo [the language-learning website and app] has got 600,000 people signed up to learn Scottish Gaelic, which is extraordinary.”

The film ends with a spare but ardent rendition of the Gaelic love song Fear a’ bhàta (My Boatman), a lament composed by a young woman for her beloved who is working away at sea, sung here by a Vatersay islander named Nan MacKinnon, who died in 1982. “There was an emotion that came through with some of the singers that wasn’t necessarily about tunefulness, but about the people the words were about, the men that had died; they were singing from experience,” says Cole. “Those were the spine-tingling moments in the editing suite.”

• Iorram will be premiered online at the Glasgow film festival on Sunday 28 February and go on virtual UK theatrical release from March


Libby Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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