‘fugitives are powerful reminders of the boundaries to which we ascribe meaning; they prompt us to demarcate things, people, events, and phenomena as insiders or as outsiders. Fugitives are boundary transgressions in the fact that the fugitive is neither fully inside or outside.’ (Kate Hennessy and Trudi Lynn, 2020/ Tina Campt, 2012)

Fugitive Archive is part of an ongoing project working with a collection of materials – films, papers, sound recordings, photographs, etc. – relating to the life and work of the poet and filmmaker, Margaret Tait (1918-1999). During Tait’s lifetime, several of her films were distributed by the London Filmmakers’ Coop, but for the most part, her film catalogue and archive was managed independently, from her studios in Edinburgh (until the 1970s) and later Orkney. After her death, her husband, Alex Pirie, worked with archivists from Scottish Screen Archive (now the Moving Image Archive) and the Orkney Library and Archive to identify material to go into their respective collections; however, a substantial collection of materials was left behind.

I began coming up to Orkney to consult the archive in 2005 and would usually meet with Alex during my visits. The topic of the remaining films would sometimes come up in conversation and eventually, around 2010, Alex asked if I would go through what was in storage to see if there might be an eventual home for what was there. With support from Benjamin Cook at LUX, an archivist based in Edinburgh was appointed to provide a rough inventory of the remaining materials. This was then offered to the Moving Image Archive, who subsequently added a few of the films to their collection (based on criteria which placed emphasis on completed films). Prints of completed films which the Moving Image Archive already held masters for were deposited with the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney, who already held a small selection of Tait’s films. Following Alex’s death in 2016, the remaining films and materials from the house he shared with Margaret were placed (where possible) with relevant archives and collections. Still, a substantial collection of material was left behind and remained in storage until a suitable home could found for it. In 2019, Luke Fowler began working with the material as part of his research for his feature length film - Being in a Place: A Portrait of Margaret Tait (2022) - and had a significant proportion of the material digitised. This, as well as other engagement with other materials in Tait’s archive, has provided further opportunities to reassess the significance of the full range of materials collected by Tait over the duration of a rich working life.

The idea for the Fugitive Archive is born out of the dilemma posed by Tait’s significant archive - what’s included in official collections and what’s left out. Tait’s approach as a filmmaker often involved returning to previous film material for inclusion in new works and returning to old works with an eye to develop it further with newly shot material. This approach itself challenges archival practices which ascribe value solely to completed works. Recent scholarship on 'unfinished films' redresses this tendency to perceive such works as merely failures and instead recognises their intrinsic virtues and potential. See, for instance, Beetson and Soloman's Incomplete: the Feminist Possibilities of the Unfinished Film (University of California Press, 2023). 

Tait’s unique archive of unfinished and more fragmentary texts, offers the opportunity to consider the full potential for more ephemeral archives, or the fugitive archive, and serves as a productive tool for understanding Tait’s approach as a filmmaker, while also raising vital questions relating to the structures and practices of institutional archives.

For more on the history of Tait's archive see Sarah Neely, Discoveries in the biscuit tin: the role of archives and collections in the history of artists’ moving image in Scotland’, Moving Image Review and Art Journal, Autumn 2017, pp. 132-147. 

For more information about the project as it develops and news of any events involving the archive, subscribe to the Fugitive Archive newsletter.

Banner: Fugitive Archive logo, designed by Maeve Redmond. Photo: Sarah Neely