HIGHLAND ARTS: Scaling the heights

July 2006

ON THE SURFACE, Scottish filmmaking appears to be flourishing. The gritty drama ‘Red Road’ was a major prize-winner at the Cannes Film Festival in May. ‘The Flying Scotsman’, dramatising the life of cyclist Graeme Obree, is tipped for a world premiere at Edinburgh in August.

The next six months will also see the release of the frothy comedy ‘Nina’s Heavenly Delights’; ‘Hallam Foe’, the latest feature from David Mackenzie; and ‘The Last King Of Scotland’, which recounts the friendship between a Scottish doctor and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

This may be as rich and ambitious a selection of films as Scottish talent has ever produced. but the one area of Scottish life that continues to go unrepresented on the big screen is Gaelic culture.

Scottish producer Chris Young is aiming to tackle that imbalance with the feature film ‘Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle’. The Gaelic-language film tells of a young boy whose parents are killed in a climbing accident. He is sent to live with his grandparents. His grandfather claims to be eight hundred years old and his tall tales and magical stories play a vital part in the boy coming to terms with his loss.

There is a wholehearted commitment to ‘Seachd’ that runs from the crew right through to the local community

“It was important to me that we respected Gaelic culture but that the film was contemporary, plausible and not contrived,” Young explained. “There is a lot of Gaelic drama, but some of it feels like Eastenders translated into Gaelic, which is meaningless, or it feels very nostalgic and not of the moment.

“I thought if we set ourselves carefully in a domestic context where the main character is a boy who is being brought up by this 800-year-old grandfather, then the incredibly rich Gaelic storytelling tradition is actually just part of the fabric of the boy’s world.”

Young is one of Scotland’s most experienced producers with a track record that stretches from ‘Venus Peter’ (1989, and shot in Orkney) to Bill Forsyth’s ‘Gregory’s Two Girls’ (1999) and last year’s BAFTA nominated ensemble comedy, ‘Festival’.

He moved with his family to Skye in 1999, and has continued to pursue a high profile career whilst developing his fascination with the local culture.

“I’m interested in the language and the culture and I speak a bit of Gaelic,” he explained during a break in filming. “My children are fluent. Being realistic and just wanting to put a toe in the water, the best idea was to make a short film which would be quick and cheap. It would also solve my frustration at having spent about three years developing projects which for various reasons didn’t happen.

Young had been approached by London Film School graduate Simon Miller asking if he might be interested in producing Miller’s short film. The basic elements of the story were an eight hundred year old man and a mountain.

“I remember getting back to him and saying okay two conditions. One, the film has to be in Gaelic, and two, we shoot everything in my back garden or within a mile of my house and he said yes, no problem.”

The short film they made together was called ‘Foighidinn (The Crimson Snowdrop)’. It screened at film festivals around the world and provided the seed of inspiration that has blossomed into ‘Seachd’.

Miller had worked with the Scottish actress Gerda Stevenson and met her husband, the Gaelic poet Aonghas MacNeicail. MacNeicail, Iain Finlay MacLeod and Ishbel T MacDonald have all collaborated on the screenplay for ‘Seachd’ to ensure it has the authentic voice of Gaelic culture.

Gaelic bard and novelist Aonghas Padraig Caimbeul plays the grandfather, and Padruig Morrison from Grimsay in North Uist plays the 9-year-old Aonghas. On a day of heavy drizzle and thick mist at Elgol pier in Skye, Caimbeul and Morrison are filming a scene in which the grandfather and the boy steal a boat and cross treacherous waters to head towards the Cuillin mountain range.

The weather is miserable, but ironically might well work to the advantage of the film. Earlier scenes of the Cuillin were shot on days of clear blue skies and hot sunshine (as any hill-walker will tell you, not the norm – Ed). In the finished film it will merely appear as if they have sailed through the mist and rain to watch the sun break through the cloud and illuminate their destination.

‘Seachd’ has a modest budget of £655,000, and has been funded by BBC Alba, Serbheis Nam Meadhannan Gaidhlig (GMS), Scottish Screen and the Glasgow Film office. It has also had vital support from the Highlands and Islands Film Commission and the Gaelic College in Sleat, Sabhal Mor Ostaig.

On this dreich day in June, the set is also graced by a distinguished visitor in the shape of Sir Iain Noble, who has agreed to act a part. Equally vital is the presence of a Skye native who has agreed to chase after the fugitives and the stolen boat, then slip and fall into the choppy waters at the harbour. He completes the stunt and once dried off and warmed up will be asked to do it all over again.

There is a wholehearted commitment to ‘Seachd’ that runs from the crew right through to the local community. Once it is finished, it is expected to premiere at a European Festival in the Spring of 2007, and Young believes it has the ability to compete at an international level.

“There is a great richness and depth to Gaelic culture in music, poetry and especially storytelling, so why is there no Gaelic cinema?,” Young demanded. “I have great faith in ‘Seachd’, and I take immense inspiration from the public appetite for films like ‘Bombon El Perro’, the Maori tale ‘Whale Rider’ or the Inuit ‘Atanajuarat, The Fast Runner’. Ours is an equally strong story with a big emotional heart.”

by Allan Hunter