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Monthly Archives: March 2013

New accession: letters of a young filmmaker

This week we were delighted to receive a fantastic new addition to our Norman McLaren Archive. The material consists of a set of 64 letters, letter-cards and postcards sent by McLaren to his friend (and fellow filmmaker) Helen Biggar in 1936 and 1937. McLaren met Biggar when studying at the Glasgow School of Art and in 1936 they made the anti-war film Hell Unltd (which had a recent screening at the GFT). McLaren’s letters to Biggar detail the film’s planning, editing, promotion and distribution. A letter written on 21 April 1936 captures McLaren’s excitement at a moment of creative inspiration:

“Oh Helen – it happened at 7 o’clock tonight – it burst forth like a torrent – a perfect welter and wealth of hot ideas and arrangement and everything – in fact the complete film just gushed from my subconscious mind in great detail – gee its marvelous – our new film…”

Examples of the letters and postcards sent by Norman McLaren to Helen Biggar.

Examples of the letters and postcards sent by Norman McLaren to Helen Biggar.

The film McLaren and Helen Biggar made was a stinging attack on the re-armament of Europe and consequent rush towards conflict. The film was as experimental as it was political mixing various styles and techniques – animation, archive footage, graphs and titles, and acted scenes – culminating in a rallying call for the audience to take direct action and demonstrate against the war. The film made a great impact in the febrile political climate of the time and was widely screened (McLaren’s letters detailing their arrangements with Kino Films, a left-wing film distributor).

A still from Hell Unltd made by Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar in 1936.

A still from Hell Unltd made by Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar in 1936.

 The letters cover a key point in the development of McLaren’s filmmaking career. In the autumn of 1936 McLaren took up his first post as a professional filmmaker joining the team of young talent that John Grierson assembled at the GPO Film Unit. McLaren writes about his work at the GPO, comparing the methods and techniques to those he had previously employed in his amateur work. He still however had ambitions to make his own films outside the GPO Film Unit and discusses various planned project with Helen Biggar. McLaren also writes about his visit to Spain in November 1936 to shoot footage for the film The Defense of Madrid, which documented the resistance of the Republican forces fighting Franco’s Nationalist army.

Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar playing croquet at McLaren's home in Stirling c 1936.

Norman McLaren and Helen Biggar playing croquet at McLaren’s home in Stirling c 1936.

Following their collaboration on Hell Unltd McLaren and Biggar’s career paths diverged. In 1939 McLaren moved to New York and in 1941 he took up an invitation from John Grierson to join the newly established National Film Board of Canada. Helen Biggar became a stage designer for the Glasgow Worker’s Theatre Group and the Glasgow Unity Theatre, while continuing her work as a sculptor. In 1945 she moved to London, later becoming wardrobe mistress and costume designer for Ballet Rambert.

Continuity of care #2

This week we transferred the first of the Stirling District Asylum case books which have been cleaned and catalogued by our project team to the archives store. Another element of the project to prepare the archives of the Asylum for public use is the creation of a database of patients who were admitted to the hospital. The asylum’s patient registers record details of the admission and discharge of those treated in the hospital and this information is being carefully recorded and transcribed by our project team.

The registers provide fascinating information relating to the lives of the patients recording their age, marital status, previous occupation and place of abode. Medical details such as bodily condition, form of mental disorder and ‘supposed cause of insanity’ are also recorded. Alongside the standard medical reasons given some of the more unusual ‘supposed causes’ noted in the hospital’s first register, beginning in 1869, include ‘loneliness and religious contemplation’, ‘excessive use of ardent spirits’, ‘disappointment in love’ and ‘severe blow on temple from a golf ball.’ Another reason given is ‘Sunstroke’ – this however, was for a former soldier who suffered it while stationed in India. The registers also note if patients were previously admitted to the hospital and/or transferred to other institutions, which provides valuable information when trying to trace the movement of patients through the network of Scottish asylums. 

The patients registers are a source of detailed social and medical information.

The patient registers are a source of detailed social and medical information.

The creation of this database of asylum patients will be of great benefit in a number of ways. It will provide a quick and efficient way of searching the records for individuals, assisting us in responding to genealogical enquiries. It will also reduce the actual handling of these old and damaged volumes, contributing to their long-term preservation. And for academic researchers it also allows the possibility of re-using the large amount of tabular / statistical information recorded in their research allowing, for example, breakdowns of the patient population by occupation or ‘place of abode.’