Reel genius: how home movies shot by a Kirk minister gave a wonderful insight into 20th century Scottish life
A collection of home movies shot by a Kirk minister gives an invaluable glimpse into the lives of Scots through a large part of the 20th century. Now the historic footage is being shown to the public for the first time.
• The late Reverend John Jackson who was a pioneer of 16mm home movies
ALTHOUGH a man of God, the Reverend John Jackson had another all-consuming passion that was very much concerned with the earthly world around him. The Kirk minister was a pioneer of 16mm home movies, and for 60 years he kept the cameras rolling as he carried out work in his parishes in the Borders and Stirlingshire and his travels across Scotland.
After his death in 2006, the footage could have remained in a dusty attic, getting the occasional airing but largely forgotten. However, before he passed away the Rev Jackson arranged for his films to be loaned to film-maker Huw Davies, who had viewed them before and had expressed an interest in preserving them. When Huw and archivists at the National Libraries of Scotland viewed the entire archive they realised that the Rev Jackson had amassed something very special during his long film-making career.
Indeed, curators at the Scottish Screen Archive believe the footage is one of the most important finds they have ever made, providing an invaluable glimpse into the ordinary lives of Scots through a large part of the 20th century.
The collection begins with 16mm films created by Rev Jackson's father, also John, dating back to the 1920s. Mr Jackson senior, a company secretary in Edinburgh, is believed to have been one of the first people in Scotland to use 16mm film to record events in his life.
The archive also includes footage from another film-making minister, Rev Massie Milne, from Eyemouth.
Now the newly preserved films are set to be screened to the public for the first time at the Berwick Arts Festival this weekend, with Rev Jackson's wife, Betty, and son, also John, set to attend.Organisers have likened the footage to a "moving Lowry picture," in reference to the artist whose paintings documented the lives of industrial workers in Victorian Manchester.
From street scenes filmed in Edinburgh and Glasgow, through to the day-to-day happenings in his own Borders parish, the films show images of Scotland that might have been totally forgotten.
The films, to be screened as JJ Films - Revisited, show events of national importance, such as royal visits to Edinburgh, right down to the trivial, such as the holiday frolics enjoyed by the Jackson family dog, Sandy.
It has taken 18 months to transfer the footage into a digital format, allowing it to be preserved and shown without damaging the fragile original film. Mr Davies, chairman of the Berwick Film Festival, said Rev Jackson had always refused to allow his films to be transferred to video, believing they should only be shown in their original 16mm format on a traditional projector. However, just months before he died, Rev Jackson made a cassette tape narrating parts of the footage and instructing Davies to transfer his archive to a digital format. The tape was passed to Mr Davies after Rev Jackson died in 2006, and started the ball rolling on the preservation of the archive.
"I got a letter from the executor of Rev Jackson's will saying they had a cassette tape for me." said Davies. "In it, he said he would like me to take responsibility for the archive for the purposes of having it preserved. After years of telling me the footage must be shown on 16mm only, he was eventually convinced that it should be preserved in a newer format. He was very much a purist, and believed that 16mm film had a quality that could not be reproduced. He steadfastly refused to have the archive shown in any other way. But every time the film was shown it was damaging it, slowly erasing it. However, he must have had a change of heart before he died."
Davies had first viewed a small fraction of the material in 2004, when Rev Jackson had approached him with a view to screening it, along with his own live narration, at the 2005 Berwick Film Festival. "I was totally gobsmacked when I saw it. This is exceptionally rare footage, covering an era from the start of home film-making right up to almost the current day, when everyone has home video and video on their mobile phone.
"Having that whole period covered is just fascinating. It is certainly up there with the most important film archives ever uncovered in Scotland."
He adds: "It is quite emotional watching it, as we first see the footage in the 1920s when John Jackson senior first begins making films.There is a family holiday in Wooler from the 1940s where we see John senior and John junior and even the family dog. The footage then takes you right through the family's history, and there is this continuity that makes it so enthralling.
"Then we have footage of Rev Jackson going about his business, in Coldstream and his other parish in Bonnybridge in Stirlingshire. He obviously saw making this footage as part of his Christian mission, allowing people to see themselves on screen in a way that they may never have seen before."
After being given responsibility for the footage, Davies contacted the curator of the Scottish Screen Archive, Janet McBain, and they set to work viewing and cataloguing hours of footage.
Archivists then began the lengthy and detailed process of transferring the footage onto a digital format, a process that has taken 18 months.
Now the new digitised film is set to be shown for the first time at Berwick's Film Festival on Sunday. Festival spokeswoman Jane Warcup says: "This extraordinary family archive dates back to the mid 1920s and is a fascinating documentation of the architecture, landscape and life and times of the Borders and Central Scotland, including rare footage of Glasgow and Edinburgh between the wars. John Jackson was one of a number of devoted cinephiles who served the ministry by using film in and for the local community. During his life he was always steadfastly non-digital, always shooting on 'real film', editing traditionally with a splicing block and cement, and projecting his own films with commentary for a public audience.
"Shortly before his death in December 2006 he contacted the festival to assist in preserving the collection and gave permission for its digital transfer from the original 16mm masters. The collection was lodged with the Scottish Screen Archive who over a two-year period have painstakingly transferred, preserved and logged over eight hours of material."
She adds: "This will be first time that the JJ Collection has been screened since Rev Jackson's death and will include some films not publicly seen before, including a post-war family holiday in Wooler, a 1970s study of Bonnybridge reunited with its original soundtrack and the last footage that he shot in 2005."
Among the footage is film of Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War carrying out work on Borders farms, believed to be the only documentary footage of its kind. There is also footage of trams running along Princes Street in Edinburgh in scenes that have a contemporary resonance with the current debate over the trams in the capital.
There are also funny stories to some footage, such as former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home unveiling a plaque at a new building in the Borders, only for the plaque to be stolen days later.There is also 2005 footage of the Norham Scarecrow Festival, held in the Borders each year, but an event a fraction of the size it was even ten years ago.
The footage is in black and white until the mid-1970s, when Rev Jackson switched to colour. However, he never strayed from 16mm film, which makes the archive even rarer. "I'm very happy that the archive is now safe and there for all to see," said Davies. "It will be a very emotional night for us all when we show it for the first time. I think Reverend Jackson would be pleased with the end result."
• Berwick Film Festival runs from 15-19 September. www.berwickfilm-artsfest.com
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