KATE HOOPER chats to Beatrix Wood, an artist and film maker now running her own production company from a croft in South Uist
There is a traditional image of the Highlands and Islands that is so often projected on the international stage. It is somewhat of a stereotype, albeit a beautiful one: remote and distant communities on the ‘edge’ of the world with a traditional way of life and a tragic, romantic history of Highland clearances.
While that popular image has so much appeal, it does not give the full, vibrant picture. Nestled into the region’s romantic backdrop is a thriving, modern community of people who are living and working in highly-desirable and innovative ways.
These people challenge conventional notions of life and work in the region. I’ve met many recently who are creating aspirational working practices and lifestyles that, I’m sure, are coveted across our fast-paced globe. You could call these folk pioneers. Their stories are certainly valuable in portraying the modern picture of the region that will support the development of its future.
Uist-based artist and film-maker Beatrix Wood is one of those people – although, thanks to her unassuming manner, I know she wouldn’t say so herself.
Passionate about rural living and international working, Beatrix runs her production company, TrixPix Limited, from her croft in South Uist. She writes, produces and paints for niche and international markets. Throughout her career Beatrix has made award-winning documentary, feature, multi-media and animated films as well as having led cultural events across Europe.
Beatrix and her family have lived on the island for seven years. Originally from Manchester, she worked in the film industry in London for many years. She also lived in Finland and rural Cornwall, where she ran a small farm while operating an international production business.
The islands are where she has found home, however, and it is striking how sensitively and comfortably Beatrix has become part of the Uist community.
“For various reasons we wanted to make a move, and the Highlands and Islands called to us,” she explains. “We lived on a small Duchy farm, and we wanted somewhere to keep our animals in a traditional way, so crofting appealed to us. When we first came to the Western Isles, the light and big spaces appealed to me on a creative level, and from there, over several years we made the transition to be based in South Uist.”
FAR FROM hindering her professional development, her set-up on the island is an intrinsic part of the success of her work.
For Beatrix, life on the croft is an essential element of her international working, and the subtleties of crofting life resonate through her existence in more ways than we could imagine when looking in from the outside.
“I want to keep things simple in terms of a rhythm of work, and a way of life that enables freedom to concentrate and be creative. We have recently been editing intensely and working hard with digital technology. It’s fast, but it chews up your mental energy quickly. Crofting helps my film work because it gives me a natural reason to step outside and come back to the production afresh.”
And the enjoyment Beatrix reaps from the croft really comes through when she talks about it: “We have established a herd of White Galloway and Traditional Hereford cattle and are really excited to see what calves are thrown by our young bull Merlin this spring,” she says.
While crofting offers a productive setting for her work that the bustling streets of London couldn’t provide, it also inspires compelling stories for films for international audiences. A key focus of her creative work is the sensitive portrayal of stories of life in the islands that connect with other international, ‘edge’ regions. She is currently co-producing ‘New Norway’ – a documentary set in Finnish Lapland, which draws on these themes.
“What makes crofting hard in today’s economic climate is that we live in a world that is strongly driven by high demands of money,” Beatrix says. “The thing that is very rich here are the human relationships, the sense of community and the human interaction with the landscape. This land has been tended to continuously on Uist for 5,000 years, and it’s the human interaction that led to the rich biodiversity here. We have rare species of birds and insects, but my sense is that there are also rare species of human.
“Crofters are a very distinct type of person and what they are doing is unique. The cultural value of crofting is so strong on both social and agricultural levels as they maintain small pocket systems that are sensitive to nature and contrary to the high inputs and demands of mainstream industrial agriculture.”
An example of her approach is demonstrated by a creative documentary that she is making with BBC Alba. ‘Greylag:Corn:Crofter’ is part of a two-hour series. It contrasts how traditional life in South Uist has changed whilst observing the crofting calendar today. The film is being pre-sold to the Nordic countries and attracting interest elsewhere in Europe and in North America.
Beatrix brings her international film-making experience to her passion for both the crofting and island way of life. “It’s so important to remember how significant human interaction is, and the richness of that interaction. I think that has been lost in so many other places, or is threatened to be lost,” she says.
And, sadly, Beatrix really does know what she is talking about here. The crofting community in Uist has supported her on a very personal level. Shortly after Beatrix and her family moved to Uist, her husband, who was a green woodworker, became critically ill. Later diagnosed with antiphospholipid syndrome (APS), also known as ‘Hughes Syndrome’, he passed away in 2014.
“This spring we are helping raise awareness of this little-known disease as Phil Godfrey, who lost his wife to APS, walks from the Isles of Scilly right up through the country to the Shetland Isles,” Beatrix says.
“It has been a slow journey to get the croft sorted,” explains Beatrix. “But what has been so good is that crofting has kept us going. It has not been an easy journey but that journey has been worthwhile. The community has been fantastic and it has been wonderful for the children, who have also been embraced and supported. They spend most of their time after school and at weekends out of doors. They have learned many skills, taken on responsibilities and have had opportunities to do things that they wouldn’t have elsewhere.”
AND, while the crofting community offers young people an opportunity to develop their talents, Beatrix is committed to offering employment to local people as her business develops.
“I’ve employed several young people, who have just been fantastic,” she says. “The opportunity for young people to have new types of employment in the place that they come from is really important.”
While her vision for working life on her croft offers an attractive proposition for new and emerging talent and business, it also offers an innovative example of working life in the region. An example of this is the development of a multi-media studio on her croft.
“The vision for this is to create the notion of a modern steading where the creative work operates in parallel with the crofting so that they feed each other and give a different sort of definition to crofting diversification.”
The support Beatrix has received to develop the business because of this approach is something that she feels is unique to the area. The funding package for the studio has been raised through the Sealladh na Beinne Mòire Community Fund, Leader Innse Gall, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Business Gateway. She says this has been an excellent opportunity to be able to put in appropriate infrastructure, which will make a ‘phenomenal’ difference to the business.
She adds: “There is so much pressure on us now to work near urban centres. I think there is an awful lot of support in the region that helps us to be braver about redefining what the centre actually is.”
Beatrix also points out that the distinctiveness of support in the region does not stop at funding opportunities. Developing strong collaborative relationships with other organisations has been a hugely enriching experience for her and her business.
“We complement each other. It’s not a case of stepping on each other’s toes but adding to something that is already happening here. The development of my business is not just down to me. It has happened through lots and lots of people.”
Beatrix emphasises the support of MG Alba who have supported her films and encouraged different stories to be told in “an authentic way”.
And it’s that word ‘authentic’ that strikes a chord with me as Beatrix and I begin to wind down the interview. The business and lifestyle she has created on South Uist has authenticity running through it on so many levels, from the subject matter she chooses for her films, right through to the experience her children have growing up on the croft. Her story strikes me as an inspiring example of a modern way of life that is authentic to the region.
Her quiet tenacity and determination to pursue this authentic lifestyle for her family is equally inspiring.
“It didn’t happen quickly,” she says. “It was 2005 when we first came to the islands and we began to see a different future. That journey has not been straightforward, but I think that if you want something you have to quietly knuckle down and work towards achieving it.
“After all, I guess that’s just what’s true of pursuing any dream.”