Animating History

Fiona Grahame

I have always been fascinated by the ‘ordinary’ people behind events who in their own determined way affect societal change. Not the grand leaders of whom biographies are written but the folk who slog on with the committee meetings, the fundraising and the campaigning. The Orcadian suffragists interested me and with an award, from the Scottish Government’s Centenary Fund, Martin Laird and I decided to produce an educational pack for local schools which would tell their story. Central to engaging the interest of our intended audience is a short animation. Here is Martin to tell you about that.

Martin Laird

When Fiona initially suggested producing an animation I was apprehensive as I did not want us to commit to anything over-ambitious. The prospect of making something with hand-painted artwork was appealing, but creating every frame that way was not a realistic prospect given the timescale we had to work with. I thought it would be possible to make simple, stylised hand-drawn “puppets”, cut-out and animated on a computer.

Character development

I have some familiarity with 3d modelling software from my university days, and chose to use a free, open-source 3d program called Blender to create the animation. Blender is very powerful and versatile – complicated but modular and logical. It has a plugin designed for 2d cut-out animation, so I could ignore those parts of the program which were not needed (although I did find a use for its physics simulation and particle emitter functions!)

The Blender environment showing a primitive animation armature

Once Fiona had researched and written the script, a storyboard was produced.

Storyboard sketches

This went through several iterations. The design of characters and locations were derived from period photos, and stylised to make some reference to the world of 20th century art (the artist Stanley Cursiter was associated with the Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Society, having designed its banner and married Phyllis Hourston, one of its members).

Phyllis Hourston & Stanley Cursiter by Martin Laird


The artwork was painted in gouache, which dries with a matte finish and therefore photographs easily. The visual aesthetic is flat, simple, and colourful, so that the art could be created quickly. Cutting up these paintings digitally and combining them in different ways proved to be an interesting way of working. It was quite improvisational and created colour combinations and compositions which I would not have arrived at by other means.

Fiona and I were lucky that our first choices for narration and music both agreed to take part in this project. Kim Foden has a professional-sounding radio voice, with a distinct but clear Orcadian accent. Her narration is upbeat and enthusiastic, which helps to keep the viewer engaged.

James Watson is one of a number of Orcadian musicians who were supportive of Yes Orkney during the 2014 independence referendum campaign. I had seen him perform live several times at Yes events, and thought he was the perfect choice for this project. His music is folk-tinged but modern and atmospheric. He delivered exactly what we were looking for as bed music for the narration. The tempo of the music influenced the flow of the animation.

The story of the Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Society is a good historical example of people working together for positive social reform. As Suffragists they were peaceful, not radical in comparison to the Suffragettes who made the headlines (the Daily Mail coined that name), but they were willing to stand up and do something about injustice. Unlike so many they did not just accept their lot. Their story has some parallels with the political activism that I have experienced, which has been educational and has brought people together in a positive way. Fiona and I liked the title “A Gude Cause Maks A Strong Erm” not only because this was a banner slogan used by the women, but also because it can be applied to other causes.

This is an appealing story because it is largely forgotten, and untold. It shows a side of Orkney which I do not think people will have seen.

When we began this project I did not know that the Orcadian Woman’s Suffrage Society included men. I would not have thought it proper to tackle this subject on my own, but feel comfortable because it has been written and narrated by women. The involvement of men like Stanley Cursiter in the past make it seem fitting that myself and James are helping Fiona and Kim tell this story now.

A Gude Cause Maks A Strong Erm was shown at the Pickaquoy Cinema, Kirkwall in a series of films to mark the week of  International Womens Day, March 8th 2019.

[This article first appeared in the March/April edition of iScot Magazine.]

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