By Laurie GoodladMay 14th 2021
Laurie Goodlad

Laurie Goodlad caught up with Greg McCarron at the Shetland Film Archive to find out about Shetland on Film – a newly digitised collection of film clips showcasing Shetland life in the 1950s and 1960s.

Formally known as the Shetland Moving Image Archive, the Shetland Film Archive is a registered charity founded by volunteers in 2007. Chairperson Greg McCarron says that the organisation's aim is “to collect, preserve and protect the film material of Shetland, and whenever possible making it publicly available to be enjoyed.”

The group has always strived to be a community-led organisation. They are keen to promote the wealth of archive materials they already have and encourage others to come forward and work with the organisation, cataloguing historic film.

Shetland Film Archive recently received grant funding from Film Hub Scotland to digitise and make available a series of historical films for public benefit. The funding was part of an online cinema fund released during the lockdown to support the industry while traditional screenings were placed on hold. The grant was a way to support online activities for online screenings and allow people to enjoy film screenings at home.

Greg explains that the funding has allowed them to digitise several historic films depicting various aspects of life in Shetland in the 1950s and 1960s, including herring fishing, the 1960 Sandwick regatta, a drive down Commercial Street and children enjoying the Scalloway open air swimming pool.

They launched the film (embedded above) this week in an online event that sees 45 minutes of curated material premiered on the archive Facebook page and YouTube channel. It is hoped that people will comment with their observations or memories, sparking discussions as the films are watched.

Telling a full story

Film opens up a story and captures a narrative in a way that a still image can't, revealing more of the story. Where a photograph will only capture that split second in time as the shutter clicks, a moving image invites the viewer deeper into the scene.

Greg says that "as soon as you see a person move in a piece of film, it gives you a completely different perspective. You get more of a sense of the people, and how they carried themselves, and how they moved. It really brings people to life in a way that still photographs can't quite manage.

“There are so many benefits to having a collection of moving image material, especially relating to a particular community such as Shetland. The most obvious is that it gives you a great perspective on the history and culture of a place. You see how people lived their lives; you see how they worked and how communities operated.”

The bulk of the Shetland Film archive collections are from the 1950s to 1970s and some VHS material from the 80s and 90s.

Preserving the past

Moving image or film footage is, by its nature, very difficult to preserve and tends to degrade over time, so it's vitally important that it is cared for and maintained properly.

“Eventually, it will fall apart, and then you've lost what could be a very valuable record of culture and history. This is not only true of film, as VHS tapes also have a limited life span,” Greg says.

Professional digitisation of film materials is an expensive process, and the Film Archive has to prioritise the material they can digitise. As a charity, donations towards running costs are always appreciated. These can be made through the archive Facebook page, or by getting in contact to arrange a donation by cheque. A selection of archive postcards can also be purchased through the archive eBay page, which include a QR code that links to a relevant archive clip when scanned with a smart device.

There are benefits to film donors too. For example, that old reel that you're afraid to play can be digitised at no cost to the donor, and a DVD or digital copy returned for your enjoyment.

Health and wellbeing are one of the Film Archive's key objectives, and Greg explains how the films are used in care centres, particularly to help people suffering from dementia.

“Sadly, sometimes when you have people with dementia, it's the older memories that are intact, so for them, it can be a really, really valuable experience,” he says.

On one occasion, they showed a wedding film in a local care centre, and one of the residents was actually the bride. She had never seen the film and was able to relive the day many years later thanks to the Film Archive.

Film as a creative resource

Moving image material can also be a fantastic creative resource. The Film Archive is keen to promote the idea that archive material can be used in more ways than one. It shouldn't just be taken off the shelf, looked at and put back in the box. It can be engaged within new creative ways too. Working closely with Shetland College, students can access the Film Archive and are always finding new ways to engage with the films.

There are three main themes that Greg says make up the collection in the Shetland Film Archive. Firstly, home movie footage “that people filmed in their own lives – going to the beach and in their gardens, and just spending time with their families.”

The second theme looks at working life, typically at the fishing and on the croft. Thirdly, the archive has a lot of footage representing local events, including regattas, Up Helly Aa and the famous Queen's visit in 1960. This gives a “great representation of the types of events people went to, and what they did for recreation,” says Greg.

Shetland Film Archive depends on volunteers, and one thing they are looking for is people who are willing to sit back, watch an old film, and catalogue them. In other words, preview a film and write down the crux of the plot. Anyone interested in volunteering can email Greg at

As well as seeking volunteers, they are always interested in hearing about films that people have in their collections so that they're aware of them so that if funding allows, they can identify what it is that they need to prioritise.

Of course, we're all reading this and wondering where we can see these fantastic old films from Shetland-past. These are available on The Shetland Film Archive's YouTube channel, launched in 2019 and now has over 100 moving images available to watch freely.