Singals – A New Film About Arbroath and Scotland’s Maritime History
If there is one thing I could not have predicted fifteen years ago, it was that I would develop such a strong desire to explore the history of my hometown. Like many disillusioned teenagers who look around and struggle to identify themselves in their surroundings, I was focused upon what my life would look like after I moved away. Where I would end up, what I would do – these were unknowns. What was known, to my teenage mind, was that the surroundings would be different. I was determined to move beyond the cradle of my youth and to build a future elsewhere. Throughout much of my twenties, this attitude, which was slow to die as I continued to mature, drove me. Indeed, I continue to enjoy the fruits of that determination – I travel far and often, taking part in projects that excite and drive me in parts of the world I might otherwise only observe from afar. I have built a life for myself that my shortsighted teenage self might have been happy to predict – but as I continue to grow, I now find myself confronting my younger self’s short sighted ideas about the place that, to a large extent, made me who I am.
As I continue to mature, and as circumstances have taken me home for several extended stays, I find myself assessing my hometown with fresh eyes. It’s a situation that reminds of Zack Braff’s 2004 film, Garden State, a reflection and study on the reasons we leave – and the reasons we come back. And, throughout this process, I have found myself increasingly drawn to the region’s history. With the recent passing of my grandfather, a former sailor, I have had many reasons to reflect upon the sea and to think about the ways in which it has subtly shaped my own life and, of course, how it has shaped and molded the town itself. Different cultures have emerged in the town, as different groups have taken advantage of, ignored, exploited, or embraced the cold waters of the North Sea. I’ve always had some sense of the town’s historic ‘fisher folk’, sure, but this summer has given me an opportunity to pause and reflect upon them in a more serious way, to think about and interpret them as I might the frontier folk or Native American communities I explore in so much of my day-to-day research.
Doing so has brought the fisher folk into much sharper focus. Far more than mere historic curios, the fisher folk reveal themselves, in the context of the age of Empire, to be a type of living anachronism. In an era when towns like Arbroath were rapidly industrialising and embracing an ever-more global economy and Victorian mindset, the fisher folk represent an alternative; a current pushing against the mainstream flow of modernity. That isn’t to say that the fisher folk were better or worse than their modernising neighbours – only that they were different and distinct, not only in their profession, but how they dressed, what they believed, and how they acted. Over time, that distinct sub-culture has largely melted away, its traditions and quirks disappearing or being absorbed into the town’s larger culture. There is a certain tragedy to that – another localised belief system, another thinking, has fallen victim to the modernising process. And yet, something of that culture survives in the town, rooted in our cultural DNA. That is a history worth exploring – and a history that is worth truly understanding.
Signals is a new documentary I am creating with my filmmaking partner, Brett Sanders, which explores Arbroath’s maritime history – from smuggling and attacks by French privateers in the 18th century, to the arrival and development of the Fisher folk in the 19th century and, eventually, the coming together of the town’s different cultures in the 20th. In addition to myself and Brett, the entire history department at Coventry University has stepped forward to help us create something special for the town. We have also launched a crowdfunding campaign to ensure we will have the resources necessary to make this film. As of the writing of this blog entry, we have passed our goal and are now collecting funds to add high quality, cinematic scenes to the film. We are due to begin filming next month – we are currently deep in pre-production.
The Signals Team – from left to right: Chris Smith (researcher/writer), Sonja Astley (researcher/writer), Darren R. Reid (director/writer), John Grima (researcher/writer) and Brett Sanders (director/writer)