The start of my ancestors storytelling on film

Shows the barn mill and the farmer getting bruised corn for the cattle.

Our Scottish heritage film archive blog number two

Don introduces the blog

The start of my ancestors storytelling on film

My last blog, the first in this series about making our Scottish heritage film archive. It told about how I became culturally proud of my Scottish ancestors. It told how I did some traditional research trying to find out what has been recorded about my ancestors. They were the ordinary people within rural Aberdeenshire in Scotland. This blog highlights how the start of my ancestors storytelling on film developed.

The ordinary persons story

Finding that practically no record of my ancestor’s life and work had been recorded, was a shock to me. Here in Aberdeenshire there was a group in society who had contributed a great deal in their life . They made us Scotland’s people what we are today. That storytelling of their life and work had never been formally captured. Traditional professional historians had dismissed these ordinary people as making no social contribution worthy of being formally remembered. That was my view and that assumption made me more determined to capture their story for perpetuity.  As a result, I decided to speak with my old neighbours around our farm called Drumnaheath Kintore Aberdeenshire Scotland. From that work I produced a manuscript and three hundred photos. On reflection I did not think that the manuscript and the photos captured the real story of our past. So in absolute ignorance of working in film I decided to hire a video camera and try to capture the story of my Aberdeenshire ancestors on film.

Storytelling as part of our Scottish heritage

The first respondent we filmed was a Lyne of Skene farmer. He, like me was new to this filming stuff. I carried no baggage from being formally trained in video production and Jimmy had never spoken to a camera before. So, the two of us just tried to speak and communicate knowledge in a way that was spontaneous and in our normal Coothie style. This was just both of us having a blether.  Jimmy was an old man at this time April 1989. That term “old man” is not a derogatory term but one of great respect. He had farmed his family farm all his life and he had a vast knowledge of how his parents lived and worked also. He was a natural communicator and loved to pass on the stories of his life and work and that of his Scottish ancestors. His approach as our first recordingmade the start of my ancestors storytelling on film easy.

Past Scottish ancestors

Meeting Jimmy for the first time before we started to film was a strange thing. Here was I wanting to find out about my past Scottish ancestor’s way of life and work from a man I had not previously met. We were both aware of each other’s family name within our community. Jimmy totally bought into why I wanted to capture the past of the ordinary person in a way that would be of interest to future generations. When we first met it was to decide just what and how we should record his story on film. Jimmy was keen to show me how his farm worked. From the crop rotation, the steading architecture, the stock husbandry and the seasonal activities now and in the past. Jimmy had memorabilia of the past all around his farm as things were passed down to him from his father. So traditional methods were still very much part of Jimmies rural life and work. It was these Scottish rural traditions that I was interested in.

A natural historian and storyteller

It was agreed that Jimmy over the next two weeks would look out some things which represented a past rural life in Aberdeenshire that were scattered about the farm and its buildings. We would return in  two weeks with a camera and start to film Jimmy showing us and speaking about the things he would look out for us.

In 1989 the options for filming were to film on

  1. a broadcast camera which cost £40.000 and was huge and cumbersome.
  2. the next was a semi professional camera which still cost several thousand pounds. Both of these were totally out of the question for us.
  3. so that left us with finding a camera hire company who would hire us a camera that other customers used to film their own wedding. This was a VHS shoulder operated camcorder.

Aberdeenshire on film was born

I hired this camera on the Friday afternoon and had to find out how to operate it for the next day. It soon became clear that if I was to get the best out of Jimmy I could not be operating the camera. I had to integrate and communicate with him. I had to find someone to operate the camera quickly.  On Saturday we started to film. I had to do some sort of introduction piece to the camera about what I was doing having never done any speaking to a camera before. Something about what we were trying to do was put on film and then we went to film Jimmy.

Memorabilia of the past

Jimmy had gathered so many things in his byre for us to look at film and get him to tell us what they were and how they were used. I could not afford to hire a tripod for the camera so it was just shoulder held by the novice operator. Jimmy and I were in front of the camera speaking about the item. My approach was that of an interested person wanting to find out as much as I could about the item and its process. So I was in continual discussion with Jimmy about what he was saying. I tried to not leave any statement that Jimmy used to be not fully described. I later named this process of continually asking questions as please see me as the idiot asking silly type questions in an attempt to get as full a story as possible. This approach has served me well over the years.

The tapner for pulling turnips, labour intensive tool,
Selection of tools (tapners) for pulling turnips.

Traditional byre

These things we filmed that first day were laid out in the traditional byre. Jimmy told us about the design of the byre described as a single byre with one row of stalls each stall held two cattle tied up for October to May all winter. He told us the process of “sortin the nowt” each day. This was done twice per day. The morning byre work started at 7.30 am after Jimmy had taken his breakfast. The work of the byre as he told us was  cleaning out the fore stalls in front of the cattle, a skull of hashed neeps were then  tipped into the trough. Following that the cattle were mucked out and then bedded. Bruised corn was then put into the trough. Hay was then placed in the hake in front of the cattle. The last thing in sorting the nowt was to swipe the greep which was the path behind the cattle. The same procedure took place at 4 pm. Jimmy spent one hour in the byre twice per day. The traditional byre was part of my life and its inclusion withion the start of my ancestors storytelling on film is appropriate.

The Scottish heritage storytelling of the ordinary person

Jimmy was totally unphased by the camera and was just himself. That style of allowing our film stars the freedom and confidence to be themselves. This style has become our brand identity. It was always our intension to capture what we were filming in a one take. In this way the spontaneous actions and comments were captured. The camera was secondary to the storytelling.

That first filming was a great success and following the filming I recorded the sequences of the filming by hand in a ledger. That was the start of Carney Heritage Productions archive.

Don Carney