Made Here: Gillean Grinn, BBC ALBA

SAY the programme makers, Bees Nees: “A little over 100 years after the death of a Scottish soldier, Gillean Grinn explores the effects that WW1 had on a Hebridean community.

“The hour-long film centres on the death of Simon MacQuarrie, a Uistman who died at First Ypres and examines how Hebridean communities suffered for decades afterwards.

“Members of the North Uist community provide analysis of the long shadow cast by WW1 with contributions from notable war historians, Dr D.W. Stewart, Sir Hew Strachan, Dominiek Dendooven and Trevor Royle.”

Gillean Grinn was produced by Bees Nees Media for BBC ALBA. It is being broadcast tonight at 2100 hours.

Iain MacLeod, head of production at Bees Nees and principal cameraman on the production, answers the questions…

Who commissioned the programme?

BBC ALBA commissioned the programme and Margaret Mary Murray – head of Service at BBC ALBA – was appointed executive producer, along with Alasdair MacCuish from Bees Nees. That combination brought a wealth of experience, support and good advice to the project.

Explain the thinking behind the programme’s ‘look and feel’.

The idea sprang from a conversation with Simon MacQuarrie, director of media company, Creative Cell. Simon mentioned that the grandfather he was named after was one of the first men from North Uist to die at Ypres, a little over two months after WW1 broke out. The long reach of that war fascinated me, particularly how it affected communities in remote places and Bees Nees began to develop the idea.

From the outset, we aimed for a straightforward documentary that told the story of Simon MacQuarrie and how that story fed a much larger narrative; that of the Great War.

There’s a literary element too: Donald MacDonald (Dòmhnall Ruadh Choruna) is one of Gaeldom’s renowned poets and he served in 1 B/n Cameron Highlanders alongside MacQuarrie.

MacDonald’s war poetry was composed in the trenches, following bloody battles at Ypres, Arras and the Somme. His elegy to the fallen, ‘Dh’Fhalbh na Gillean Grinn’ (‘Off Went The Handsome Lads’), describes the horror of trench warfare and, at the end of the poem, Simon MacQuarrie is mentioned in the roll call of the dead.

Who are the key personnel? How were they recruited?

DOP Craig McKirdy filmed for two-to-three days around Ypres, Belgium, and he always arrives on location with a can-do attitude and lashings of creativity.

The post-production was wrapped around the availability of four key players. John Ferguson, an experienced and energetic editor, carved a lovely narrative from a mountain of footage. Guido Schneider did the polishing and grading on Avid Symphony. Maps and on-screen graphics were created by Gerry Morris, a man who can transform a project with his considerable creative chops.

I’ve worked with all three on and off for over a dozen years and they remain pro-active and show strong commitment to any project. Sound designer, John Devine, displays similar drive and remains the number one choice for audio post-production at Bees Nees.

I felt strongly that the narrator should be from the island of North Uist and chose Prof Boyd Robertson of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, who was familiar with the subject matter, literature and culture of the Western Isles.

What kit and software?

The project was filmed on Canon’s C300 camcorder using Canon’s EF 24 – 70 mm and 70 – 200mm lenses for versatility and flexibility.

More importantly, I know that combination can provide a beautiful result on a budget.

Everything was acquired using the C-log setting so that the footage was tuned for colourist, Guido Schneider, to unlock the potential of the pictures.

With only a single operator filming most of the project, it was vital that the camera kit could be broken down for travel and reassembled quickly. The performance ability of the C300 in low light situations meant that it could deliver great results using only available light.

Special mention should go to Progressive Broadcast Hire who provide an unparalleled bespoke kit hire service, including delivery to the door.

Edited on Avid at The Hive, Bees Nees’ boutique post-production house. Our in-house sound designer, John Devine, finished the audio on Pyramix, often working quickly on a fractured timeline.

What were the main production challenges?

Archive research and acquisition is seldom straightforward and WW1 archive material can be eye-wateringly expensive, so sourcing and sifting through archive remained a constant headache throughout the production period.

Attempting to illustrate Pte Simon MacQuarrie’s story when only a single photograph of him exists proved tricky. Similarly, there’s only one photograph of poet Dòmhnall Ruadh Choruna; a picture that was taken shortly before he died in 1967.

Filming in Belgium without a fixer was less of a challenge than anticipated, partly because staff at the tourist organisations and at In Flanders Field Museum, Ypres, couldn’t have been more helpful.

Uist is a beautiful filming location, blessed with a clear, white light and huge skies. However, the climate in the Hebrides didn’t always make for easy filming. When the weather was bad, it was fierce and when the weather was good, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Both extremes could happen in the space of a day. In retrospect, the biggest challenge was filming in a stiff southwesterly, straight off the Atlantic.

What did you most learn and enjoy from the experience?

One hundred years on, the Great War remains an emotive topic that still resonates in small communities like North Uist. Meeting people from all walks of life with stories to share about WW1 was a privilege and everyone we encountered was generous with their time. That was a rewarding experience.

I loved working with Simon MacQuarrie on this project. From the outset, this generous contributor and subject was an invaluable source of advice and information. Every project should employ him.