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Gaelic documentary first throws spotlight on ancient Hebrides way of life

By Alan Beresford

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THE first ever cinema documentary entirely in Scottish Gaelic called Iorram (Boat Song) will be shown on BBC Alba on New Year’s Day.

A thousand years of history is captured by BBC Alba's Iorram (Bpat Song). Picture: Laura Sturrock (Electrify)
A thousand years of history is captured by BBC Alba's Iorram (Bpat Song). Picture: Laura Sturrock (Electrify)

This lyrical portrait of life in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, past and present, is a Bofa and Tongue Tied Films production, in association with Creative Scotland and BBC alba.

Director Alastair Cole takes the audience on an immersive journey into the heart and soul of a 1000-year-old community, blending archive sound recordings of voices from the past with visuals of island life today and an original score by acclaimed folk musician Aidan O’Rourke.

An extraordinary trove of sound archive is at the core of the film, recorded by pioneering Scottish ethnographers in the mid-20th century, who visited the Western Isles to capture the hardship and romance of life lived in precarious balance with the sea.

Director and producer Alastair Cole said: “The sea has always sustained this community, while also holding the power to ravage the lives of the families who rely upon it.

“This film is an immersive and poetic portrait of life in the Outer Hebrides, as the islands and the language face an uncertain future. It offers whispers and shadows of people and tragic events long since gone, yet whose memory continues to shape life on the islands today.

“Archive sound recordings of ghostly voices, stories and songs from the last century are mixed with stunning footage of daily life in the islands today, to create a lyrical and playful dialogue between past and present, and sound and vision.

“As Scotland and the UK enter a new future, this provides a reminder that the threads of history and identity at this furthest edge of the British Isles are woven, unmistakably, in the lyrical power of the Gaelic language.”

These newly restored archive recordings preserve an oral history of lore and legends, tall tales and tragedies, passed down through generations of Gaelic speakers.

The soundtrack of voices, stories and songs from the past is accompanied by 4K imagery of the daily working rhythm of the islands, on land and on water, shot over the past three years. The tough realities of fishing and gutting in all weathers and seasons co-exist alongside superstitions and visions of mermaids, faerie folk and mysterious vanishing islands.

The first film score by Aidan O’Rourke (of multi-award-winning folk group Lau) weaves together sound and vision in an emotional and cinematic narrative of toil, laughter and loss.

Producer Adam Dawtry added: “Iorram began as an experiment to make a cinematic film entirely composed from archive sound recordings and contemporary moving images.

"The sound archive at the heart of this project contains over 30,000 pieces of previously untranslated and largely unheard Scottish Gaelic recordings, representing a treasure trove of cultural history and memories which deserve to be heard.

“Making documentaries from archive film footage is a long-established practice, but there are also vast riches in sound archives around the world, which are gradually being digitised and restored, and potentially represent a valuable resource for filmmakers interested to explore the relationship between past and present, and between the ears and eyes."

The School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University provided the archive material.

Iorram (Boat Song) is on BBC Alba on Friday, January 1 at 6.35pm and will be available on the BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards.

A longer cinema version will be released in theatres across the UK from March 2021. This original cut is 96 minutes long, seven minutes more than the TV version, and will be projected in 4K with 5.1 surround sound.

BBC Alba is available on the following platforms: Sky 141 (Scotland)/Sky 169 (rest of UK); Freeview/You View 7 (Scotland only); Virgin Media 161; Freesat 109; BBC iPlayer.

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