Highland memories of the ‘men of the wee cinema’

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For many of those who lived in Lochaber and other remote regions of the Highlands and islands, their first experience of the cinema was thanks to a special film guild set up after the Second World War to bring the magic of the big screen to them.

The publicly-funded Highlands and Islands Film Guild was brought into being to tour movies round the smaller communities.

Between 1946 and 1971, the ‘men of the wee cinema’ travelled around in vans,each of which was equipped with two Bell and Howell 16mm projectors plus a screen measuring around eight or six feet across.

Audiences filled village and schools across the Highlands and islands when a mobile cinema was in the area with the latest from the big screen. NO F52 old cinema 2
Audiences filled village and schools across the Highlands and islands when a mobile cinema was in the area with the latest from the big screen.
NO F52 old cinema 2

New films would arrive at the guild’s office in Inverness and thereafter mailed out to a particular projectionist who would show it, then pass it on to another guild member and on it would go until everyone had been able to show it.

However, it was eventually wound up and the vans taken off the road in 1971 due to the arrival of television and dwindling audiences.

And this autumn in Inverness, a special reunion was held of many of those who had been involved and their families.

For many people a visit by the film guild's mobile van was their first experience of the cinema. NO F52 old cinema 3
For many people, a visit by the film guild’s mobile van was their first experience of the cinema.
NO F52 old cinema 3

The reunion signalled the end of a three-year project on the work of the guild entitled Major Minor Cinema: Highlands and Islands Film Guild 1946-71.

And Fort William played a central role with those attending the event in the city’s Eden Court Theatre given the chance to see the original Film Guild Trojan van used by Vic Gall to cover the Fort William area.

NO F52 old cinema 4
NO F52 old cinema 4

The innovative study  was put together by a team of academics at the University of Glasgow to examine the impact of cinema on the Highlands and islands.

NO F52 old cinema 5
NO F52 old cinema 5

One woman recounted to the research team her memories of seeing a film put on by a guild projectionist in her local community in the Highlands: ‘It must be remembered that, for almost everyone, certainly the local children, this was, indeed, our first and only experience of moving pictures – the motion and the sound were magical, hypnotic, totally engrossing.’

Team leader Dr Ian Goode, a lecturer in film and television studies, said the ‘wee cinema’ was still fondly remembered in rural areas such as Lochaber but until the university’s project had remained a mostly unwritten part of cinema history.

‘These men delivered a valuable service to local communities in spaces such as school or village halls in all weathers to offer a unique cinema experience at that time,’ he said.

All photographs courtesy of University of Glasgow.