Archaeology & History

An epic of steam and steel

Written by John Goodlad

John Goodlad’s new book The Salt Roads tells how the salt fish trade connected Shetland with the rest of Europe for more than two hundred years. He describes how salt fish from Shetland became one of the staple foods of Europe and powered the economy of the islands. The book also describes the cultural impact of the salt trade, and in this excerpt he tells the story of a classic film on fishing directed by one of the great documentary makers.

The evening crowds were bustling outside the Tivoli Picture Theatre on the Strand as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and other socialists from the London Film Society made their way inside this impressive new cinema. Completed in 1923, it was built from white Portland stone and was a fitting venue for London’s intelligentsia, who came there every week to view and discuss avant-garde films. It was November 1929, and the Film Club were in for a treat. Not only were they to watch the much-lauded film Battleship Potemkin, but the highly acclaimed Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein would be there himself to answer questions.

Sometimes described as the greatest film ever made, this silent black-and-white masterpiece was based on the actual events of 1905 when sailors on board the Potemkin mutinied. An act of political defiance within the Imperial Russian Navy, this became an important symbol of the 1905 revolution that is often described as the dress rehearsal for 1917. It was not only the revolutionary significance of this movie that attracted London’s intellectuals, but the film itself was already being hailed as an incredible artistic achievement, with its ground-breaking use of montage. But this was lost on the British establishment. Britain was still reeling from the impact of the 1926 General Strike, and many regarded this film as nothing less than a piece of communist propaganda. Such was the fear that this powerful film might foment further political and industrial unrest in Britain that, following this private screening at the London Film Club, it was banned from public viewing until 1954.

It used to be the case in cinemas that there was a double bill, with the main feature being prefaced by a shorter film. Accompanying Battleship Potemkin that evening was a brand new 40-minute film called Drifters. Directed by an unknown Scotsman called John Grierson, this was described as a factual film about herring fishing. Drifters was a surprising choice to sit alongside Eisenstein’s triumph, as it had none of the drama and allure of revolution and was, on the face of it, a potentially dull film. This short film, however, captivated the audience that evening. The following morning, the press reviews enthusiastically described this work as novel, unconventional and impressive. It was, one critic wrote, ‘a most original piece of cinema art’. This so-called factual film was the first example of a brand-new type of cinema: documentary.

‘An epic of steam and steel’ was the caption that Grierson used to preface this film. It tells the story of how large, steam-powered, steel-hulled vessels fished for herring using drift nets. These boats were known as drifters for short, hence the title of the documentary. The drift net industry had been transformed by the building of a fleet of steam drifters. Between 25 and 30 metres in length, they were not only much larger than the sailboats but also much more efficient – able to carry more nets, hold a larger catch of herring and operate independently of the prevailing wind conditions.

The first drifters were built in the late 19th century. Herring fishermen on board sailboats had been using steam-powered capstans to haul their bush ropes for many years, so they were comfortable with steam technology and were aware of its potential. Using a large steam engine to power a boat instead of sails was, nevertheless, a step change in technology and ambition. On the eve of the Great War, the Scottish drifter fleet had grown to 900 vessels, out of a total of 2,500 drift net boats.

The creator of the documentary

John Grierson grew up in the village of Deanston in Perthshire. Both his parents were teachers, and his mother, who had been a suffragette, was active in the Labour Party. The church played an important part in their lives and, having been imbued with that particularly Scottish combination of socialism and Calvinism, Grierson went on to study in the United States, where he became fascinated by the film industry and its potential to inform and educate.

On returning to Britain, he was employed by the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) to produce a series of films promoting exports, including one that would champion the herring industry. It was a futile task; demand for salt herring had begun a terminal decline that no amount of promotion could stop. But, had EMB not taken this initiative, the world of cinema would have been denied the marvel that is Drifters. Very soon after starting work on this commission, Grierson began to see Drifters as an artistic endeavour with its own intrinsic value. For him, it was to be more than simply a marketing tool, and this led to conflict over the content of the film: the EMB was insistent that unnecessarily artistic scenes should be removed; Grierson was adamant that there should be no changes. It was a conflict between a utilitarian perspective and an artist wanting to create the best that he could. Fortunately for the world of cinema, Grierson, thrawn Scotsman that he was, prevailed. Drifters was the first of many documentaries that he made during his long career in film, and he is now widely acknowledged as being the father of the documentary. Writing about his craft many years later, he said that real people and real scenes were always far more powerful than actors and staged sets in telling a story. Some contend that Drifters remains the template for all good documentaries, even today.

John Grierson shooting documentary Drifters, North Sea, 1928

Like Battleship Potemkin, Drifters is a silent black-and-white film. In these days of Hollywood blockbusters that assault the senses with colour and noise, it can be difficult to appreciate that these two films, devoid of colour and sound, can continue to be so influential. I have seen Drifters many times and never tire of watching it. The opening scene takes place in the Hamnavoe, the Shetland fishing village whose natural beauty apparently captivated Grierson. The camera is at ground level and follows the legs of the fishermen leaving their homes and walking to the pier. This innovative filming technique was very different to what was happening in cinema at that time.

While direction and editing were Grierson’s responsibility, this film could not have been made without the astounding skill of cinematographer Basil Emmott – with the crisp and clear quality of every shot in near perfect lighting, it is incredible to think it was filmed almost a century ago.

As the drifters get ready to go to sea, there are many close-up shots of the crew, seabirds and waves breaking on the shore. Once the drifters have left port, there are some spectacular shots looking down on two boats rolling around in a heavy sea. These scenes were filmed from a position on top of the wheelhouse of a neighbouring boat; not an easy job from a vessel being thrown about by the sea. Writing many years later, Grierson explained that he lashed the camera and the cameraman to the top of the wheelhouse during a gale and ‘let the drifter buck its worst’.

The original musical soundtrack is central to this film. It is deeply atmospheric and is responsible for building up a sense of anticipation as the boat leaves the pier, reaches the fishing grounds and shoots its nets. The music even manages to mimic the mechanical pounding of the steam-driven pistons and the howling groans of the endless wind. A more typical soundtrack at this time would have been the tinkling of a piano accompanying the frolics of Charlie Chaplin or some other early Hollywood star. Drifters was utterly different; its soundtrack has stood the test of time.

The film was put together using different boats, various ports and a host of locations around Britain – from Shetland in the north to Lowestoft in the south. Grierson, like Eisenstein, was a pioneer in the use of montage. Carefully selecting and crafting together various shots, he created a beautiful and flowing story. Fishing industry critics point out that the nets are shot off Shetland, but the catch is landed in Lowestoft – something that would never have happened. Likewise, the scenes of the crew in the galley and the cabin do not reflect the motion of a boat at sea, everything is so still that these shots must have been filmed when the boat was safely moored at the pier. These are, however, details that only occur to people with intimate knowledge of the fishing industry. The montage sequence works insofar as telling the story is concerned – and that, ultimately, is all that matters. Grierson was also one of the first to use the technique of superimposing one frame on to another as the scene changes. The result is a smooth flow from one part of the story to another: Drifters has none of the jerkiness and sudden changes of scene typical of many of the silent movies of this time.

The Maid of Thule is the Shetland drifter mostly used throughout the film. The many close-up shots of the crew tell their own story: the skipper, with his intensive demeanour, in the wheelhouse; the stoker continually shovelling coal into the boiler, only pausing to light a cigarette; and one of the older hands, Lowrie Pottinger, teaching the young cook how to make duff, a type of steam pudding popular at the time.

One of the most interesting scenes in the film is a shoal of herring rising and swimming into the curtain of drift nets. This must have been shot in a fish tank as there were no underwater cameras at this time. Although this now looks very staged to a contemporary audience, it was, for its time, remarkable. In only a few frames this scene was able to explain how a herring shoal rises and then becomes enmeshed in a drift net.

At this stage the soundtrack takes on a haunting, almost eerie, tone as the crew lie sleeping, waiting for the herring to rise. It is then time to start hauling and, one by one, tall men emerge out of tiny bunks. They go up on deck and put on their oilskins while Andy Halcrow, the young cook, climbs down into the rope locker to start coiling the bush rope. He was only 14 years old and wears his cap at a jaunty angle, possibly making his personal bid for a career in film rather than a life at the drift net. As the crew hauls and shakes, the quantity of herring coming on board increases as the wind freshens. As the soundtrack reaches its climax, an image is presented of man against the elements in the middle of the ocean.

After an eight-hour haul the last net comes aboard and the skipper estimates that they have caught 150 crans. Arriving in harbour, the herring are slowly discharged, basket by basket. The cast then changes. Instead of the crew of fishermen in oilskins hauling and shaking, there are now smartly dressed men buying the catch at the herring auction. The all-male cast suddenly disappears when the first gutters appear on screen. Scores of women, first watching the sale and then walking arm-in-arm along the cobbled quayside, make their way to the curing yards, where they gut and pack herring at breakneck speed. Drifters is a piece of cinematic art made to inform, entertain and to be appreciated for its many unusual qualities. There is no need to know anything about herring fishing, or even to be interested, to feel the force, and enjoy the experience, of this well-made documentary. It can still impress a contemporary audience. In 2017, Drifters was again shown in cinemas, this time with the original soundtrack replaced by a live vocal score by sound artist Jason Singh. According to film critic Mark Kermode, this re-release was a huge success with these new sound effects complementing the original film, which remained as powerful as ever.

John Goodlad spoke about The Salt Roads in the 2022 Orkney International Science Festival. Afterwards, in conversation with Spencer Rosie, he looked at the inspiration given by the Shetland salt fish trade to many artists, novelists, poets, in Haal in da Drogue an Gie da Boys a Biscuit.

About the author

John Goodlad

John Goodlad is a Shetlander who has worked in the seafood industry all his life. Having worked for the Shetland Fishermen’s Association and having been a fish farmer, he now works for a London based seafood Investment Fund. He is also an advisor on sustainability issues for several national and international fisheries bodies. He has always been passionate about history and has spent many years researching the little-known story of the Shetland cod hunters.