Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Highland Cinema

by Sheila Buchanan

As the blog lengthens some of these gems are consigned to "Older posts"; I'm going to start cycling the content back to the beginning for another read. The pieces are well worth it - like this transportive account of cinema experience of old by Sheila...


Back in the day Glasgow was known as cinema city and indeed cinema going was a mass phenomenon.  By 1939 there were 114 cinemas in the city.  The Enchineer being the font of all knowledge and experience remembered that within a mile of where he stayed there were at least 10 cinemas.  He corroborated the tale that you took jam jars to the ticket booth and in exchange got entrance to a world apart and the silver screen.  His father would give him 2 shillings and that was enough to get him and his sister a bag of sweets and entrance to the cinema with still enough left over to buy his siblings back home a share of  penny caramels which would be divided up so no one missed out.

Listening to the Enchineer’s stories led me  to think about some rare archive footage of the Highlands and Islands Mobile cinema I had seen recently.  The footage which had only recently been catalogued showed the cinema van which would do its rounds to all the rural villages and islands.  The size of the community was no barrier to a visit.  The whole village would go out and walk in their “good clothes” to the local hall enfamille. Young and old and older were there washed and dressed and ready for their evening. The footage shows the farmer often finishing his work in the field with the ancient agricultural machinery which required vast amounts of manual work unlie the sophisticated machinery of today.  He would then join the family and villagers at the hall to see the latest offering at the “cinema”

The man in the van would arrive early at the venue and carry in all the crates of films in their large tin cans and the hefty large projector.  He rarely had a helper so he was
The man wi’ the van
Bringing in the tin can
The power to run the projector was often taken from a link up to the alternator and battery of the van.  To get the height required to show the films the projector height was fashioned from a number of boxes arranged with the wooden step ladder on top.  This makeshift edifice would have the projector sitting on the wooden platform of the step ladder and be of sufficient height to show the film on a wall or screen so that all could view.

The size of the communites varied from 100 in Kilchrenan to the mighty tally of 300 or more in the bigger villages.  The program consisted of small shorts, kids programs and the main feature.  Sometimes the older children would be allowed to see the main film which was a treat for them.  The adults would get wooden gym benches to sit on and the children the floor.  On Skye there was a bus that collected the audience to take them to Portree to the bigger cinema.  As there were no pubs in the rural areas it was a wheeze to get the bus to Portree where there were pubs and so the bus back was rowdy and fun…..memories made no mention of the film.  It was also a match making dating agency.
Film makers of all shades made films.  They would capture life with no CGI effects available to them but these will last longer in the archive memories and provide deep insight and vision for ourselves getting a glimpse into the past and celluloid tales.

I myself experienced this mobile cinema in Arran in the late 50’s in Brodick community hall.  The hall would be filled with folding chairs that appeared to feel soft at the start but ended up being fidgety and hard but this still did not spoil the excitement. I saw King Kong which was an early film version compared with the recent release and had none of the sophisticated effects of today but was none the less full of terror and suspense despite the crackly effects.  I can still remember the sounds of the film reel flapping as it came to the end of the first reel and needing changed to allow the film to continue.  The lights would come on and an enforced interval would take place while the next reel was fitted.  The sounds of the running machine and the light casting a beam of dancing dust particles in the darkness are strong memories for the senses.  There was no separate projection room then.

The images of these times have filtered into my brain and cast interest and inspired my own memories.  We live in an era of rapid change so rapid that we do not notice the changes.  It is a privilege to be allowed to look back at these films which have now been digitised and preserved for us.  For further enlightened reflection of these times there is open access to the National library of Scotland which has opened a brand new venue in the Kelvin hall. It has a vast and catalogued collection of images which are freely available to anyone to view in comfortable and stimulating surroundings….

Further resources about the cinemas in Glasgow can be found at
This shows  pictures of where the cinemas were. You will be surprised at the size of the cinema buildings and reflect on what is there now.  As an example a cinema which existed close to my current home is now a car park and an Aldi store.!!

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