Memories of great filmmaker brought to life

Shona Main: 'it irked me that she hasn’t received the acclaim that she deserves'

The life and work of pioneering Shetland filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson is being celebrated in a long overdue biography currently being written at Sumburgh Lighthouse.

Fellow filmmaker Shona Main has taken up residency in the lighthouse to the find the peace to pull together years of research into one of her great heroes.


Gilbertson (1902–1990) is well known in Shetland for her films documenting the harsh lives of local crofters in the 1930s, but is largely lacking national acknowledgement for her life’s work.

Main said: “I know it’s not unusual for a remarkable and inspiring woman not to appear in history, but it just irked me that she hasn’t received the acclaim or profile that she deserves.

“It was coming up to 25 years since she had died so I decided to write something about her.

“But when I started to dig I just thought, this is a big job, this is serious job. She deserved a proper exploration of her life and work. And I felt this pull.”


As one of the first women in the world of documentary filming anywhere, Gilbertson developed her very own style of working alone rather than relying on a big team.

Her films were “largely self-funded and without a big production crew – and she did it in such a very particular way, which was radically different to the very ‘set up’ and stage-managed studies of ‘working man’ of her male peers,” Main said.

As such Gilbertson was able to create an atmosphere that let crofters, and later the Inuit, feel at ease while being filmed.


After retiring from a teaching job she held in Shetland for 20 years until the late ’60s, Gilbertson was able to devote more time to her filmmaking.

 A BBC documentary People of Many Lands – Shetland – working with her friend Elizabeth Balneaves – was the starting point for a second career in filmmaking, which took her to the North West Territories of Canada where she spent many years documenting the life of the Inuit communities.

Main said she was grateful for the invaluable help she is receiving from Shetland Archives, the Shetland Moving Image Archive and the National Library of Scotland.

But what eventually will bring a much deeper understanding of the filmmaker’s personality are Jenny Gilbertson’s own personal papers, including diaries, research note and letters.

Screenshots taken from In Sheep's Clothing

“I have spent the last year researching away in the archives and with the material her family have given me.

“I am also the current custodian of a big box from Ann Black, which is full of diaries, Jenny’s own research notes, letters (which when there is no diary can act like diary entries) and paperwork from the films.

“It’s by going through these you begin to understand what was occupying her thoughts, what was motivating her and what was informing her films,” she said.

Another invaluable resource in her research are people’s personal memories of Gilbertson.

Main herself recalls being friends with Gilbertson’s grandchildren Heather and Ronas Thomson but only realising much, much later that their granny was the great filmmaker.


She is still working through the material gathered from two screenings of Gilbertson films in the Hillswick hall last October, when local people helped with memories of Gilbertson and also identified people shown in the movies.

Meanwhile, a screening of Gilbertson’s In Sheep’s Clothing (1932) is planned for this Sunday (21 February at 6pm) at Sumburgh Lighthouse, with a live score written and performed on the fiddle by Barry David Nisbet, and an introduction by Main herself.

She said: “I feel Jenny Gilbertson’s true representation of people really honoured their lives and lets us connect with the truth of these lives.

“Allowing some sort of human connection, to me, is one of the most powerful things about film and Jenny Gilbertson does this expertly.”