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From Shetland to Pictou County: Heather Tulloch looks forward to sharing and learning more about filmmaking grandmother

Heather Tulloch displays a photo of her grandmother, Scottish documentary filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson, whose films are being showcased in New Glasgow.
Heather Tulloch displays a photo of her grandmother, Scottish documentary filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson, whose films are being showcased in New Glasgow. - Rosalie MacEachern

By Rosalie MacEachern

Scotland and family are on Heather Tulloch’s mind as she wraps up a two-year term as president of the St. Andrew’s Society of Pictou County and prepares for a screening of her grandmother’s films at New Glasgow Library Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m.

Tulloch and her sister, Ronas Thomson, who manages Sumac Farms, were raised in the Shetland Islands, 100 miles north of and a 12-hour ferry ride from the Scottish mainland.

“We’re Shetlanders before we are Scots, quite like Cape Bretoners in Nova Scotia,” said Tulloch. 

Her independent 82-year-old mother, who raised horses and Shetland ponies, still lives there and it is where her grandmother, pioneering Scottish documentary filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson, spent much of her life. 

“She was a four-foot, 10-inch bundle of amazing energy and we’re learning she was a truly remarkable woman but she was just Grandma to us,” said Tulloch.

Shona Main, a PhD student from the University of Stirling and Glasgow School of Art, will be in New Glasgow to present Gilbertson’s films next Tuesday. She is just completing a month’s-long visit to the Canadian Arctic where Gilbertson lived and filmed in the 1970s.

“Shona has been retracing Grandma’s journey, visiting the communities where she lived and trying to get a sense of how she worked.”

She is coming to Pictou County to interview Tulloch and Thomson about their grandmother. 

“Because of the strong ties between Pictou County and Scotland we thought people might be interested in her documentaries of the Shetlands which she made in the 1930s.”

Gilbertson grew up in a financially comfortable family in Glasgow and trained as a teacher before she took up photography and filmmaking. She went to Shetland to make her first film.

“She was there making films and as she told us, she was up to her elbows in fish guts when she first met my grandfather.”

They married in 1934 and toured parts of Canada with her films before returning to Shetland.

“She was a teacher in Shetland for 20 years and did not go back to filmmaking until my grandfather died suddenly. She was quite lost for a time after his death. One stormy day some family came to visit and one of them suggested she get her camera out and try to capture the waves. After that there was no stopping her.”

Tulloch was six months old when her grandmother, already into her 60s, first went to the Arctic. 

“She was away much of the time so we didn’t exactly grow up with her but she still managed to be a big part of our lives. When she was off filming her practice was not to fly in and fly out but to go live among the people for a time. She slept rough and went on long hunting trips, which is quite surprising considering she came from a family in Glasgow who had a liveried chauffeur while she was growing up.”

When Tulloch was 17, Gilbertson was in Ottawa editing film for an extended time. 

“She was into her 80s then and was a bit lonely so she wanted someone from home to come visit. I’d just finished school so I was sent. I was to stay three weeks but that turned into six. It was quite an adventure for a teenager because she toured me around the country and I met so many artistic people. It is only in reflecting back I understand how lucky I was to have that time.”

Ruefully, Tulloch remembers days spent visiting museums and galleries. 

“I’d rush through in a half hour because I hadn’t much patience at 17. Then I’d go and wait for her to finish which could be quite a while.”

Despite teenage impatience, Tulloch sensed her grandmother was throwing open another world to her. 

“My sister and I grew up around horses, breeding, riding and competing. My mother was always loading kids and horses and ponies to take them to shows in England and Europe so it was quite an interesting upbringing.”

It was common to encounter royalty at premiere horse shows, but Tulloch, who has the winner of the 1982 Shetland Pony Grand National, recounts how she failed to recognize a youthful Prince Harry at the famed Olympia show in London. 

“This little fellow came tearing around, shouting out and I spoke to him quite sharply about not frightening the horses. At that time, Prince William was frequently photographed so I think I’d have recognized him, but Harry was less in the public eye. I had no idea who he was until his mother came ’round the corner and took him in hand.”

When Don and Beth Sobey visited Shetland to buy some ponies, they inadvertently set in motion a chain of events that saw both Tulloch and Thomson move to Pictou County. 

 “Horses were always a hobby to me but a passion to Ronas and she later came out to see the ponies Don and Beth purchased from my mother. After she went home they offered her a job which she took and we came to visit her for her first Christmas in Nova Scotia.”

Everyone they met insisted Tulloch and her husband, Kevin, who hails from Aberdeen but has family roots in Shetland, return in summer to enjoy the beach weather.

“We came every year, loved it and would have long talks about moving. We decided to make the move before our son, who has special needs, started school as we felt there would be more support for him here.”

As newcomers, the Tullochs worked to make connections within the county for themselves and their two children, now 14 and 12.  

“Living in Scotland I never thought much about being Scottish but it means more here so the St. Andrew’s Society was a natural step. We’re going to see more of the society as it becomes involved in planning for the 250th anniversary of the Ship Hector in a few years. ”

In the short term, though, she is focused on meeting Main and hearing more about her grandmother. 

“We’ve come to an odd situation as Shona now knows more about our grandmother than Ronas and I do. We’ll be very interested in what she has learned.”

Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer. She seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you know someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at rosaliemaceachern4@gmail.com.

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