By the Rivers of Babylon: Structure and Setting in Margaret Tait’s ‘Orquil Burn’

Orquil Burn - Margaret Tait

On the Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, a voice — which is heard but not seen — explains how a river falls over the banks into the ocean. Through voiceover narration, Margaret Tait — a poet, writer, animator, painter and filmmaker — marvels at how the water flows over the rock pools on the beach, shimmering as it moves in the sunlight. Orquil Burn (1955) was, perhaps, Tait’s first travelogue and quite possibly the only film ever to follow the full stretch of a river right up to its source. Unlike her more customary poetised portrait films like A Portrait of Ga (1952), Tait decides to use the length of the river as a partial structure that maps her journey. Remarkably, too, Orquil Burn is famous for being the film upon which John Grierson (the pioneering Scottish documentary filmmaker) disagreed with Tait for its need for further editing, as she uncompromisingly decided to follow her instinct to use the river as the film’s central subject.  

Crucially, Tait decides to begin her travelogue at the river’s termination, where the water adjoins and transforms into the ocean. The river’s end may be an odd starting point, yet this is indicative of Tait’s use of cinema (and her camera) as an explorative medium to scour for an understanding of her immediate surroundings, the river giving her a route to delve into the heart of her Orkney home. When explaining the chronology of her film, she says “it is a filmmaker exploring or re-exploring a burn which she knows quite well, which she has ‘always’ known but never gone right to the source of.” Tait’s style is at its peak, as she uses her setting as a visual means of exploring a landscape and its connection to its people, somewhat acting like a geographical archaeologist. 

Much like Tait, this essay shall begin at the river’s end, moving upstream towards the source, trying to scrutinise and understand the river’s anatomy in relation to theme and tone and how the river location can influence and interact with a film’s style and structure. By navigating Orquil Burn in a similarly topographical vein, audiences can delve into one of the key films of Tait’s career, one that laid a precedent for a wave of British psycho-geographic and experimental films that were to come.

1. Delta

Orquil Burn - Margaret Tait

Through a mainstream gaze, Tait’s film work has gone largely undetected, in part thanks to her independent and self-funded film productions which took place on her isolated island home on Orkney, a hair’s breadth away from the sea. The sea would come to play a pivotal role in her filmmaking career and would make repeat appearances throughout her work, too. In The Drift Back (1957), she would introduce returning Orkney residents as they sail from mainland Scotland looking for work on the island, Where I Am Is Here (1964) would be permeated by the looming presence of waves and the Scottish coastline, and the sea would be used as the combining motif between generations in Tait’s first (and only) feature film, Blue Black Permanent (1992). It is in Orquil Burn, though, where Tait first (albeit briefly) navigates the Orkney coastline, as she uses the sea to introduce viewers to the river and to Orkney more generally.

As previously mentioned, Tait begins Orquil Burn with a shot of incoming waves that lightly push seaweed onto the shore before she cuts to the title card. The director then quickly move towards a small waterfall that leads toward the sea, and with each cut Orquil Burn gradually moves further up the stream. But Tait then does something unexpected, jumping back to a similar shot of the waves seen at the beginning, almost as if she is taking a final glimpse back at the ocean. Perhaps it is an inconsequential cut back, but it is one that is telling of Tait’s close connection to the ocean. From the very get go, Tait makes it clear that Orquil Burn transposes its structural geography and is a film about Orkney more generally, emphasised by her decision to turn her gaze towards the island’s coastline before starting the journey along the river. 

Tait’s camerawork also conveys a respect for the sea, as her depiction of the coastline remains largely static, like postcard shots of a pictorial landscape. This feels like a location she knows well, translated through the wide shots of the waves which contrasts how her camera becomes more inquisitive whilst examining the river later on. By beginning her story here, Tait is using the ocean as a kind of gateway into the river; the largest section of the river’s anatomy thus becomes its most accessible, the waves directing the filmmaker away from the sea and further into the mainland, away from what she knows to what she doesn’t. This is heightened by the beach’s emptiness as an indication that there is little to understand beyond its natural beauty and its isolation from mainland Scotland. Here, the sea sets the tone: in order to explore Orkney, Orquil Burn must go inwards and turn its gaze into the island. 

Tait’s cinematography at the beginning of Orquil Burn conveys an almost enthusiastically childlike sensibility too. The film jumps geographically in a fragmentary manner where the sequence is only connected via the use of a single setting, echoing the poetic and pioneering nonfiction work of Humphrey Jennings. This is indicative of Tait’s patient, layered approach to filmmaking where she often accumulated footage over a spanned period. Crucially, too, this method beautifully mirrors the movements of the river, as it often pans from one side to the other, following (or matching) the river as it either flows as part of a small waterfall or skims over rock pools. Much like a river, Tait starts to manoeuvre naturally.  

2. Channel

Orquil Burn - Margaret Tait

Unlike the sea, the river interacts with Tait’s observational practice more vigorously as her act of leaning in and looking into things becomes more conspicuous. How the water moves (or its occasional stillness), how light flickers against the surface — its colours and contours all come into view through this observational and inquisitorial style. But this method can only work via Tait’s solitary approach which relied on her practice being personally led, rarely collaborating with others and only on occasion getting freelance assistance. She was an opportunist filmmaker, driven by circumstance and situation rather than industry deadlines or schedules and, in this sense, she was often (and unfairly) regarded as an amateur filmmaker. But it is through these very means that Tait was able to instil a personality and human touch into her work, which in turn made her rhythmically poetic films all the more universally accessible.

While Orquil Burn uses a set, chronological structure, Tait’s camerawork and editing evoke to something less polished; the cinematography is often shaky, the film cuts between extreme close up to wide with a harsh abruptness, and the director’s camera movement pans with a twitchiness that is like someone searching for a focus. This borderline amateurish style infuses Orquil Burn with a kinetic energy that is akin to the unpredictable movement of the river but, moreover, also manifests Tait’s own actions as she traverses the river path. Tait is hurried, enthusiastic and, crucially, never still.

Walking becomes a vital component within Orquil Burn, then, and while the audience doesn’t see Tait walk (as she is never physically visible), movement and travelling permeates the fabric of the film. Not one location (aside from the brief ocean shot at the beginning) is repeated or showed twice. Here, a literal depiction of walking is undertaken through Tait’s accumulative assemblage of observational footage, while its shakiness alludes to a movement behind the camera as the filmmaker uncompromisingly provides her own point of view. Through Tait’s camera, then, there becomes a connection between the images of the landscape and a certain state of being within a landscape; she experiments with new ways of cinematically interacting with landscapes, and it is an experiment that highlights the experiential mode of traversing it.

It is noticeable that Tait’s limitations helped in characterising the unseen narrator via her single-camera approach, her use of a single tripod and her simple narrative structure; the camera comes to life in a way that draws the audience deeper into the director’s inquiry on the burn. It is notable, too, that Tait was interested in how the river moved through her frequent uses of the extreme close up, and this style allows viewers to see things that would have perhaps gone unnoticed. These close ups also add a sensory element to Orquil Burn, as if Tait is inviting audiences to touch and smell the scenery. The filmmaker, thus, offers a new way of experiencing a riverside walk, which gives the viewer a new understanding of a chronological framework that can go overlooked (or ignored) when exploring landscapes cinematically.

Orquil Burn thus becomes a film about landscape’s relationship to people and things as opposed to the visual characteristics of a scenery. Tait’s triumph is how she manages to convey this through visuals and her composition of images even before people are actually depicted in the film. In Orquil Burn, an internalised inquiry meets external spaces with a quiet yet insistent beauty.  

3. Tributaries

Orquil Burn - Margaret Tait

While large chunks of Tait’s work focus on the natural landscapes that surrounded her, she never sought to cut people from her films. This is clear from her visual style in which relies on the audience’s understanding that she, with her heavy Bolex camera, occupies the landscape too. In many of Tait’s films, the natural world often contends with human activity, whether it be children playing in a local stream in Splashing (1966) or parades passing through townscapes in Aspects of Kirkwall: Occasions (1977). 

If one looks beyond the main body of the river in Orquil Burn, the water starts to garner a useful function, as Tait explains that certain sections of the river have been modified in order to help industrialise the farm work. Tributaries off the main body of the burn are used to either help pump a water wheel or create electricity when there is no wind to turn the windmill. Tait naturally starts to use the river as a motif that draws attention to its connectedness throughout the island. This highlights the concept that the filmmaker was uninterested in the river’s visual beauty, as she often utilises its geography as a narrative keynote. 

Despite Orquil Burn’s narrative structure, there is an ephemerality that permeates Tait’s work via her scouring for the intimate and the fleeting. A van crossing an old bridge or chickens gathering on the riverbanks start to extend the director’s motif of an innate connectivity on the island, all the while maintaining her fly-on-the-wall cinematography that reacts naturally to what viewers are seeing. Tait’s singularity is defined by holding a microscope to these brief, transitory moments.

As well as the river’s geographical association to Orkney, Tait acknowledges its historical importance, too, and its relationship to Orkney’s heritage — she muses that “this is the burn as it used to flow.” There is one beautiful section where Tait takes viewers to an old, abandoned reservoir in which she explains how the burn was too small to properly provide for it. Here, the past meets the present with an almost ghostlike sensibility, all thanks to Tait’s willingness to explore beyond the immediate; what looked like an overgrown field has gained narrative agency, adding to the filmmaker’s understanding of a greater connection between the island and its landmarks. 

Children, too, adopt this forgotten landscape as their own unique playground. Tait unflinchingly watches them, a beautiful observation on the interaction between an old landscape and young vigour. The children are like the chickens mentioned earlier, and Tait reacts to them with a similar childlike enthusiasm. It is through these interactions between people, landscape and the director’s camera that highlights Tait’s aptitude at combining the topographical with the emotional; Orquil Burn is, at least in part, an ode to these intimate interactions, between the small and the large.

4. Riverbank

Orquil Burn - Margaret Tait

Upon the river’s banks is where Tait starts to draw a more direct connection between people and the river, whereby viewers are introduced to the “better known stretches of the burn” of farmlands, camps and other buildings close to it. It is here where Tait lapses back into her portraiture that she became famous for in films like Land Makar (1981), Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait (1964) or, of course, A Portrait of Ga. The riverbank offers a space for Tait to turn her camera to something else, finding repose away from the water while delving into the lives of those who interact with it. 

Tait stops her walk at the House of Orquil where the Maxwells, and their farm dog Tito, live and work. Here, the filmmaker watches Uncle Peter round up the cattle as children throw sticks into the burn from a small bridge and Tito runs around the sheep. Tait’s camera takes a more overt observational stance, and follows the action as it happens, allowing things to play out in real time. Unlike with her navigation of the river, Tait situates herself in a space that is removed from the farm activity. Thus, this is inquisitive via other means, not looking deep into the mundane but, moreover, witnessing the everyday happen from a removed distance. 

Crucially, too, unlike Tait’s A Portrait of Ga or Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait, Tait’s voice rarely interferes with this footage, as there are long sequences of uninterrupted observation. Hereby, she places the act of seeing centre stage. The filmmaker’s brief introductions — “in the house of Orquil, the Maxwells live […] Tito helps, he’s a friendly dog; a chubby pet and dog of the house” — make way for spirited observations that seem driven by instinct rather than narrative tendencies. 

While Tait focuses her camera on people in Orquil Burn, place naturally still plays a vital role. Like the children discussed earlier, there remains a playfulness in the relationship between place and those that occupy it. Uncle Peter is seen waving his stick around the farmland, and there is a close up of his hands running through the wheat; Tito, the chubby dog, offers humorous interludes as he rounds up the sheep. Nothing is taut, and Tait’s abandon at navigating these subjects highlights a sense of home, a warmth — it is a burn she knows well, after all. 

Tait’s personal interest in her island home and those around her make her film poems almost difficult to discuss, as they are borderline home movies. There is an innate intimacy that could only be achieved by the director’s prior interest and knowledge of the landscape. That said, though, Orquil Burn undeniably starts to highlight Tait’s cinematic flourishes, pertinently shown here through her rhythmic comparisons between people, the landscape and the river. This is achieved through Tait’s decision to crosscut between her portraitures and close ups of the river that is either flowing over small rocks or frothing at the riverbanks. The water froths, it flows smoothly, it reflects sunlight, it moves naturally, unhindered; Tait is unafraid to compare Orkney’s occupants to the river’s unfixable, ever-changing aliveness. 

5. Headwaters

Orquil Burn - Margaret Tait

The further Tait moves upstream, the sparser the landscape and the more intense the sound of the burn seems to get. In Orquil Burn, the director starts to break down the landscape more viscerally. She substitutes wide shots for more intimate close ups, breaking the landscape into its components: trickling stream, abandoned bridges, cattle, meadowsweet. The end signals a puzzle effect as the images start to create a larger picture of the island viewers have been traversing. This almost mirrors Tait’s own discovery at the source, which she describes as getting “wider and wider […] I had expected to find ‘a source,’ but it turned out that the sources were many, the origins widespread.” 

Tait ends on a beautiful shot that shows the sea again, a reminder that the ocean is always there and Orkney is always in an isolation, solitary. The fields are vast, and the river is barely visible through the landscape. From a high vantage point, audiences can see the House of Orquil, Caldale Camp and meadows and farms; Tait explains how the burn moves throughout the landscape while her camera slowly pans across the island. In antithesis to Orquil Burn’s opening, Tait finalises her travelogue with a knowledge of the landscape, how it is connected, how it moves, what landmarks are where. Almost unconsciously, she makes viewers aware of the journey too as everything clicks into place.

Orquil Burn remains quite a small film and is relatively short in its 30-minute runtime. But in the same token, it is quite a momentous production, as Tait traverses a large geographical space, one that is held together via the use of a single river. This is ubiquitous in the director’s body of work: looking deep into the quotidian via the navigation of something much larger. Perhaps it is her own self-proclamation as a poet that defines how she is so adept at navigating these larger spaces, as she is able to beautifully bend and shape time in order to focus on her own singular routes through these spaces. Time and location would be more directly explored in Tait’s amazing feature Blue Black Permanent, but it is in Orquil Burn where she navigates these themes with a simpler, more affecting beauty.

Edwin Miles (@eaj_miles) is a filmmaker, screenwriter and documentarian from the West Midlands, United Kingdom. Now based in London, Edwin’s experimental work reflects on ideas of family and memory, home and displacement. His favourite filmmakers include Derek Jarman, David Lynch and Kazuhiro Sôda.