A REMARKABLE silent film from 1931, A Crofter’s Life in Shetland, presents a year in the life of the islanders, the daily rhythms and seasonal celebrations of crofters, fishermen, and townsfolk.

Waves crash against rock. Peat is cut and stacked on the hillside. Sheep are rolled on their backs and “rooed”, their winter fleeces plucked off by hand. Steamers and trawlers dock at Lerwick harbour. An elegant woman in a drop-waisted leather coat walks down the main street.

The charm of A Crofter’s Life lies in the way that its subjects appear to be willing and active ­participants. Girls in pinned headscarves and rolled-up sleeves, deftly gutting and storing herring in ­barrels, look up and smile as they wash fish scales off their arms. A “camera shy” peat-carrying pony bolts. Once the crofter rights the cart, the intertitle reads: “And all he said was ‘Did you get that?’”

Rather than affect detachment, the footage draws attention to the active presence and operation of the camera. The filmmaker must use ­unconventional methods to capture shots of cormorants nesting on the coastline. So Jenny Gilbertson, then Brown (1902-1990), appears in the frame. Clad in a Fair Isle jumper, she gingerly lowers herself down over the rocks in pursuit of her goal, while a man holds the other end of a length of rope tied around her.

“Father of documentary” John Grierson (1898-1972) praised Gilbertson’s film, purchasing it for the GPO Film Unit. In a typewritten programme draft of 1932, he wrote that she had “already broken through the curse of artificiality and is on the way to becoming a real filmmaker, a real illuminator of life and ­movement”. As Gilbertson shows, women were involved in narrative documentary-making from its early days as a radical and innovative art form, ­representing the everyday lives of working people.

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A Crofter’s Life can be seen in its entirety in ­Edinburgh City Art Centre’s current exhibition Glean, which features the work of women ­filmmakers and photographers in Scotland during the early 20th century. Whether their images and films were made for professional reasons or personal pleasure, this show celebrates the considerable role women played in the fields of photography and film.

Agricultural in origin, “to glean” means to gather leftover grain after the harvest. It also describes the gathering of information from scattered sources. This layered meaning makes a fitting title for an ­exhibition displaying the work of fourteen different women who recorded life across Scotland, often in rural areas, drawn from 17 archives from Glasgow to Shetland. These inspiring figures include arctic explorer and botanist Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982), the ­romantic travel writer MEM Donaldson (1876-1958), and professional filmmakers Marion (1907-1998) and Ruby Grierson (1904-1940).

Another layer of interest to the exhibition is its ­appreciation of the diligence and enthusiasm of ­modern researchers. Rather than present a seamless curatorial voice, the show recognises the ­painstaking behind-the-scenes efforts of various scholars who comb through archives, decipher handwriting, trace dates, and identify camera equipment. Biographical panels on each filmmaker or photographer ­included in the last room of the exhibition explicitly note the role of the researchers and archives who ­champion them.

Artist Fiona Sanderson has investigated the ­images of Dr Beatrice Garvie, GP for North ­Ronaldsay during the 1930s and 40s, who photographed her grandmother as a child. Alyne E Jones of the Vanishing Scotland Archive transcribed the journal of Isabell Burton MacKenzie (1872-1958), ­documenting her role as organiser of the West Highland Home Industries Board from 1911 to 1914, seeking to ­support ­local craftsmanship.

An antiques dealer found the ­Outer ­Hebridean photograph albums of ­Edinburgh teacher Violet Banks ­(1896-1985) in a sideboard drawer, while exhibition curator Jenny Brownrigg of the Glasgow School of Art has managed to collect 10 of Banks’s commercially printed postcards through eBay.

Such chance finds are a reminder of the precarious and ever-evolving nature of our picture of the past.

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Glean cannily includes a display of contemporary anti-suffrage postcards to indicate the general climate of disapproval of women’s autonomy and engagement in “masculine” activities.

These humorous caricatures of ­women “wearing the trousers”, or wives ­living leisurely while a haggard husband ­suffers under a full day of work and ­childcare, suggest the profound ­patriarchal ­anxiety surrounding women’s political ­enfranchisement. Even when suffrage was granted conditionally to women over thirty in 1918, it wasn’t until 1928 that all women obtained the right to vote in Britain.

Although the exhibition ­emphasises how middle- or upper-class ­privileges, ­familial wealth and independent means enabled its photographers and ­filmmakers to operate, this context is a crucial ­reminder of the obstacles any woman faced when pushing even lightly against constraints of respectable ­femininity. It is striking that many of their families ­discouraged their endeavours.

Marion Grierson, who ran her own unit at the Travel and Industrial ­Development Association and became editor of World Film News in 1936, stopped making films after she married and had a child. ­Gilbertson’s documentary-making ­career went on hiatus from the 1940s to the late 60s. After retiring from teaching, she made several features on Inuit life in Canada that were shown on the BBC.

The great joy of an exhibition like Glean is how it illuminates the ­stories of women who found their way to ­creative expression despite these barriers, ­whether through delicate negotiation or open defiance.

Figures like Burton MacKenzie and Isabel Frances Grant (1887-1983) were involved in efforts to sustain the ­heritage and industries of communities in the Highlands and Islands. ­Burton ­MacKenzie’s ­travel journal is a ­precious source of ­social ­dynamics and ­experiences, ­containing pasted ­photographs and lively ink ­sketches. In an entry titled Exiles From Uist, she meets a 13-year-old girl called Morag ­taking her first trip on the steamer, bound for school in ­Glasgow ­after winning a bursary. Below this, ­Burton MacKenzie observes “a happier family party” returning to the city after visiting their grandparents’ croft.

Women were participating in the ­ethnographic photography of the time, preserving images of a perceived ­vanishing way of life, threatened by ­modernity. None of these women were raised in the rural communities they ­visited and were not immune to ­outsiders’ tendencies to romanticise or categorise individuals as “types”.

Glean is concerned with the ethics of the photographic gaze. One ­information panel pointedly mentions that evidence exists of the women actively seeking ­permission to film and photograph, ­arguing that their depictions were more grounded and detailed than many of their male contemporaries.

Yet elements of condescension are ­traceable in the exhibition when ­eagerness to record anthropological ­detail overrides sensitivity to a sitter.

While photographing Mrs MacDonald in North Uist in 1912, Burton ­MacKenzie was most keen for an “unconscious” ­image. Following the first snap of her Kodak, she writes that Mrs ­MacDonald “looked up immediately ­after and ‘posed’ with her most Sunday expression & every muscle stiff & tense”. A second ­photograph is taken “after she relaxed slightly & was just hearing ‘it is all over now!’ (She was very anxious to hide her bare feet)”. One of these images of ­MacDonald, with her bare feet, is now available to buy as a postcard in the City Art Centre’s shop.

Despite this instance, most of the ­women were respectful, often remaining with communities long enough to obtain an authentic view, or even deciding to settle. During a stint as a schoolgirl in Helensburgh, Pennsylvania-born ­folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw (1903-2004) was enchanted by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s recital of Hebridean songs in translation. “But there was something wrong,” she wrote in her memoir From The Alleghenies To The Hebrides (1993). “There was something more to these songs. If I could only go to those far-off islands and hear those singers myself!” Shaw got her wish.

From 1929 to 1935, she lived with sisters Màiri (1883-1972) and Pèigi (1874–1969) MacRae in North Glendale on South Uist and stayed in contact with them for the rest of their lives. Every evening Gaelic songs were sung in the kitchen, with Màiri, Pèigi and their guests helping Shaw to learn and take them down. Her memoir describes the collection of songs she made as a “tapestry”, noting that the islanders’ “whole way of life was in the songs”.

Shaw’s photographs create their own tapestry of life in North Glendale, ­complementing her writing. A number of them illustrate her book Folksongs And Folklore Of South Uist (1955), which ­scrupulously credits the singer of each tune.

The photographs on display in Glean ­reveal the texture of the everyday with great affection, creating an “intimate study” of the MacRae sisters and their neighbours. One depicts Pèigi milking Dora the cow, the wind tugging at Pèigi’s clothes and ­Dora’s shaggy hide.

A dog watches from the doorway of the blackhouse, its dark shape just discernible. What appears to be a rope tied around Dora’s back legs is a buarach (fetter), ­designed to prevent her from kicking over the pail. It is a scene ­frequently evoked in the islanders’ milking songs, one of which attempts to woo the cow into producing more milk by promising a buarach made of silk.

Another metaphorical resonance of the exhibition’s title is a slight ­suggestion of neglect.

Interviewed on Radio ­Scotland, ­curator Jenny Brownrigg stated that Glean is the first survey exhibition to ­spotlight the work of women photographers and ­filmmakers in this period. After all, ­gleaning as an agricultural practice is a process of food recovery, picking up what is left behind after the initial harvest. In the Bible, the right to glean belongs to the poor, strangers, orphans, and ­widows; this entitlement was applied across ­Europe for centuries.

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Despite their ­evident achievements, many women are still not ­automatically included in historical narratives. They must be “rediscovered” and added ­later as a corrective or alternative view, their stories swept out from the corners of ­history.

There are disparities in the legacies of these creators. Margaret Fay Shaw’s photographic archive is cared for by the National Trust for Scotland at Canna House, on the island that Shaw bought with her husband John Lorne Campbell (1906-1996) in 1938. A recent ­digitisation project and numerous online articles ­disseminate her work to a wider ­audience. Some of Gilbertson’s films can be seen online through the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. On the other hand, the fascinating work of Glasgow Kino Group chair Helen ­Biggar (1909-1953), who filmed Glasgow ­workers’ preparation and procession for the 1938 May Day Parade, is much less generally accessible.

Many of the photographers and ­documentarists, like Biggar, deserve their own exhibition. The necessary brevity of Glean’s descriptions is tantalising, prompting even more questions. Yet combining all these works in one gallery space is effective. It conveys a sense of excitement in its revelation of the sheer variety of women who explored and crafted their own perspectives of Scottish life through travel, film and photography.

Brownrigg describes them as grouped together “like eggs in a nest”, beside a display of multiple photographs of birds’ nests, curved shells smooth against matted twigs and moss. The women’s intrepid lives and work interweave to form its own nest-like structure, a moving and complex record of Scotland a century ago. Visitors will carry away a strong impression of the personalities that existed on both sides of the camera, and hopefully the inspiration to glean more insight into these women’s invaluable contributions.