27th September 2007
They found their lead actor up a tree and they held the premiere in a cinema on wheels. Kirsty Scott travels to the Western Isles to catch a little piece of film-making history
It's a blustery morning on the northern edge of the small island of Grimsay and 11-year-old Padruig Moireasdan has just settled himself into one of his favourite positions: hanging upside-down from a tree in his back garden. There are few trees in this part of the Western Isles. The land is low-lying, dwarfed by loch and sea, and flayed by wind.
But Padruig's house is next to a small copse, and he likes to take to the trees when he has important decisions to make. He swings his legs over a makeshift trapeze and lets himself fall back. "I was like this when the director and the producer came to tell me about the film," he says. "The director told me the whole story while I was up in the tree."
Film-maker Simon Miller and producer Christopher Young had been looking for a boy to play the lead in Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle, the first ever contemporary Scots Gaelic feature film. They had already cast most of the other characters but needed someone to play young Angus, who is sent to live with his grandfather, an inveterate storyteller, after his parents die in a climbing accident.
Then the two men heard about this boy from Grimsay, which is connected to North Uist whenever the tide goes out. He came from a family with great storytelling traditions, was fluent in Gaelic and as nimble on the accordion as he was on the PlayStation. On the way to his home, they got lost and Padruig was dispatched on his bike to find them. He spoke to them in Gaelic, guided them to the house, then took to his tree.
"Padruig is such a find," says Miller, a genial former Wall Street banker turned writer and director. "We went to every school we could find. Then we heard about this boy. When we got there, I was sold in five seconds. He was in the tree the whole time, and we talked about the script and he challenged parts of it and said what he thought might happen. He was totally unfazed, exactly the kind of kid you need."
Miller and Young are back in the Western Isles for the first public showing of the film. It featured at Cannes in May and Edinburgh in August, and will play at film festivals in Vancouver and Rome in the next few weeks. But both wanted its British public premiere to be in the heart of the Gaelic community, before it goes on release across Scotland, with arthouse appearances in England later in the month. The Screen Machine, Britain's only mobile cinema, has parked up outside the Benbecula hotel where Miller is staying, and later that evening will expand into a 102-seat auditorium.
For Young, the film and its themes are close to home. His previous works include Venus Peter, Gregory's Two Girls and Festival, for which he won a British Comedy Award for best film, and a Bafta nomination for best British film. He relocated to Skye in the 1990s with his family and his company, Young Films.
He knew some people would think he was taking a risk in making his film in Gaelic. According to the 2001 census, only 1.2% of the population of Scotland speaks the language, some 58,600 people; and that's a 15% decline over the previous decade. Most are in the Western Isles. That said, the language is enjoying a status it has not been afforded for many years, with concerted efforts at a political level to sustain this ancient tongue, first introduced to Scotland from Ireland in the fifth century. Less than 100 years ago, children were beaten into speaking English at school. Now, Gaelic-medium education is championed. A national plan has been launched, aiming to stabilise the number of speakers over the next few years, and increase them to 100,000 by 2041. There has been an increase in funding for education, media and development, and moves to create the first dedicated Gaelic TV channel.
"For me, the question is not why make a film in Gaelic but why not make a film in Gaelic?" says Young, who is self-taught in the tongue and whose children are fluent. "It seemed strange that a culture so full of storytelling didn't particularly have a tradition of cinema. I have never been to a cinema to see a film in Gaelic. There is plenty of Gaelic drama but it does seem to have suffered from stereotype. It tends to have been period works. There is a feeling that Gaelic is old-fashioned. I wanted to tackle that head-on."
"Film is the kind of thing that, if you get it right, it does not matter what language it is in," says Miller. "Mel Gibson has proved that more than anyone in recent years. You don't have to know the language to experience the film." For both men, authenticity was the key. So they collaborated with Gaelic writers, co-directors and a local Gaelic amateur crew and actors. The soundtrack features noted Gaelic musicians, and the whole thing was shot on the island of Skye for £650,000.
Subtitled and set in the present day, it centres on the relationship between Angus, played by Padruig, and his grandfather, played by the renowned Gaelic poet and writer Angus Peter Campbell. The old man uses storytelling to try to connect with his grandson, allowing flashbacks to different periods of Gaelic history. Seachd translates literally as "seven", and stems from the number of stories that were originally to have been told by the grandfather. It was given the alternative English title The Inaccessible Pinnacle, the name of one of the most treacherous peaks in the Cuillin mountains that dominate Skye and provide a magnificent backdrop for some of the film's most dramatic scenes.
It is worth pointing out that there was actually a previous Gaelic feature film. But few people took Hero - a fifth-century medieval epic, made 25 years ago - seriously. Time Out called it "a clumping village pageant".
Seachd has been warmly reviewed. Comparisons have been drawn with works such as Big Fish, even The Princess Bride. There has been particular praise for young Padruig, who gives a compelling performance as a bereaved youngster struggling to come to terms with unfathomable loss.
For Gaels like Ishbel Maclennan, the film's great merit lies in its celebration of Gaelic as a living language and its depiction of young people and their connection to the language. Maclennan, commissioning editor of BBC Alba, one of the co-funders of the film, has been heartened by the response, among Gaelic and non-Gaelic speakers alike: "It is very difficult to overestimate its importance. Gaels are surprised by it - the sense that it is culturally rooted yet contemporary. It's not TV on the big screen. What they are seeing is filmic. People are responding to a film. They are not just saying, 'This is Gaelic so I should like it.'"
Padruig has been nervous about how the film will play to his friends and fellow islanders. "It's always harder with the home crowd," he says, just before attending the Benbecula screening. But there is instinctive applause when the credits roll and lots of backslapping at the ceilidh afterwards.
Padruig himself had just one problem with the film. At one point, the script required him to turn to his grandfather and shout angrily in English: "I hate Gaelic!" He didn't think he could do that, and had to be persuaded by Young. So he said it, but didn't mean it. In fact he hopes the film might lead to more, and help sustain the language that he loves. "It is quite important," he says, "because it needs to keep alive".
· Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle is now showing in the Highlands and Islands, will open in the rest of Scotland on October 5, and nationwide in November.
by Kirsty Scott