THE HERALD: Gaelic film aims Skye high

24th March 2007

For days producer Christopher Young kept his eye on the weather forecasts and the sky above his home.  And then, when the weather closed in and snow began to fall, he got our of bed in the wee small hours and set off up one of Scotland’s most formidable mountains. He set off in the dark, at 3:30 in the morning to climb almost 1000 metres to the top of the Inaccessible Pinnacle on Sgurr Dearg in Skye’s Cuillin mountains range, the only summit in the UK that is attainable only by rock-climbing and a peak that defeated even Sir Hugh Munro.  Accompanying him were director Simon Miller, three actors and a small crew, with the intention of shooting the dramatic opening scenes for his new feature film, on of the most ambitious and challenging ever made in Scotland and one of the very, very few to be shot in Gaelic. 

Entitled Seachd – seven in Gaelic – with the alternative English title of The Inaccessible Pinnacle, it will be screened at the Celtic Media Festival on Skye on Wednesday. Young, whose previous films include Venus Peter (1989), Gregory’s Two Girls (1999) and Festival (2005), was working on a budget of less than £700,000, which would be low for any feature, let alone one that involves myth and magic and jumps back and forward between the present day and ancient times.  In the opening scene, two climbers die on Sgurr Dearg, leaving three children to be brought up by their grandparents, and Young and his team had to be careful to avoid the same fate as the characters. “It’s a very precarious ridge,”  he says.  “When you’re walking along the street, if you fall off the pavement, you might twist your ankle.  If you’re walking along the ridge and you fall off, you’ll die.  It’s a very basic thing. “When we shot in the snow, there was a really, really strong wind.  There’s no margin for error when you’re up there.  You have to be very focused and you have to be very clear about what you’re doing.”  Two of the actors were stand-ins, because it was considered too dangerous for inexperienced climbers.

In the film, the grandfather regales the children with a series of far-fetched stories involving a magic horse, a man who has lived for almost 1000 years and a couple of mismatched shipwrecked sailors: one from the Spanish Armada, the other a Scot called MacDonald, who may have had a lasting impact on fast food. Seachd plays like a handsome-looking Gaelic variation on Big Fish and the family classic The Princess Bride, without the Hollywood production values and special effects obviously.  Young had no option but to get everything he could out of Skye’s natural assets. In a bizarre twist, Seachd was one of two fantasy features shot on Skye last summer.  The other was Stardust, with Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro and an estimated budget of £35m, 50 times Young’s budget.  But he is in no doubt about who got the best out of the island. “I was quite amused, because they came up and it was like an army of 150 with Winnebagos and all the usual madness and they just had terrible weather,” he says,” I don’t think they any idea about Skye at all, but they had planned various stuff at various specific locations and there was no flexibility, whereas I think one of our advantages was I would go out with a camerman and a director at midnight and would get a fantastic shot of the Cuillins with the sun setting.”

Seachd was shot almost entirely on the island and it was quite a change for Young to be working in his own back yard, coming home to his wife and family each night (or morning) instead of disappearing off to Edinburgh, as he did while working on Festival or London as he did when he made The Final Curtain with Peter O’Toole. “What’s great from my point of view is for everybody to be in involved in production, because they see what I’m doing,” he says, “It’s very abstract for them when I go away for a year and then come back with a finished film.” Young was born in Edinburgh, but moved to Skye eight years ago and is firmly settled there with his wife and four children.  He saw Seachd as a chance to take Gaelic culture and storytelling traditions to a much wider cinema audience and provide experience for a new generation of Gaelic writers and film-makers.  Though Gaelic-language TV dramas have occasionally been shown in cinemas, the last Gaelic feature film to be made was Hero, screened in 1982.  Produced out of London with actors who delivered their dialogue phonetically, it flopped in cinemas and when shown on Channel 4.

Because of the nature of Seachd, a team of writers and co-directors assisted Miller and Young on individual stories, including the young playwright Ian Finlay MacLeod.  In addition, half the crew were local.  “Part of the deal was to us local people and try to take on students from the Gaelic College,” says Young.  And almost all the actors were local amateurs.  The grandfather is engagingly played by Gaelic poet and novelist Angus Peter Campbell, while Young’s daughter Winnie plays one the of the children.  Some may balk at the use of local amateur actors in major roles, but it continues in the fine tradition that includes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 masterpiece The Gospel According To St Matthew, and the film is a remarkable achievement given its ridiculously small budget. Young believes there is no reason why a Gaelic-language film cannot be as successful as anything else filmed in a language other than English and he is currently in discussions with several British distributors.  “It was probably quite dangerous to say ‘Right, well, let’s make a Gaelic feature film,’ because I could have fallen flat on my face.  I feel we haven’t fallen flat on our face, that we’ve actually done something which is authentic.”

By Allan Hunter