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Film Reels and a Waterwheel

By Neil Cooper, 25.11.2021
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Historic Tower Mill Waterwheel, Hawick.

When visitors to the Heart of Hawick arts centre in the Scottish Borders view the fourteen-foot high Victorian waterwheel spin into life below the glass floor in the former mill’s café, local history will be brought to life several times over.

Waterwheel (2021) is a new permanent installation by filmmaker Andy Mackinnon, which projects archive film footage of Hawick’s annual week-long Common Riding festival onto the wheel. More archive footage of Hawick’s recent past is beamed by three projectors onto a series of nine panels on the café floor.

The wheel based part of the installation will see images from the late 1960s depicting the festival’s lead rider, or Cornet, animated in the gold and blue of Hawick’s Common Riding flag. The event and flag were introduced to commemorate the victory of the town’s unmarried men over English raiders in 1514, when the English flag was captured after most of the men of the town had been killed in the Battle of Flodden the previous year. 

It was Heart of Hawick’s past as a mill before becoming a cinema in 1910 that initially turned Mackinnon’s head when he attended the 2018 Alchemy Film Festival there.

“I was really blown away by the venue,” he says, “and was amazed to see this glass floor with the original waterwheel, and immediately thought of bringing it to life with light and moving image.”

With Waterwheel commissioned by Alchemy Film & Arts with Live Borders, Mackinnon’s researches were helped by Hawick Film and Video Group. This saw him not so much reinvent the wheel as recognise its functional and historical parallels with film.

“It was basically ideas around the notion of wheels and film reels, and a cinema venue and the waterwheel, which I proposed using archive film footage in various different ways to try and reanimate.”

Launched as part of weekend-long event, 'Once Upon a Time in Hawick', Waterwheel forms part of The Teviot, the Flag and the Rich, Rich Soil, an ongoing exploration of the past, present and future of Hawick’s culture.

Waterwheel also nods to early cinematographic innovations such as the zoetrope. Mackinnon was also influenced by the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering nineteenth and early twentieth century photographer, whose animations of horses were captured in The Horse in Motion (1878), a series of cards that showed off the horse’s movement.

“He was the first person really to see how a horse actually ran, and that kind of chimed with the fantastic story of the Common Riding, so I combined the two, and got this zoetrope kind of image of this horse and rider.”

Mackinnon is based in North Uist, the Outer Hebridean island where he combines making films with running the arts programme at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre. Works such as the participatory documentary, Passing Places – The Real Outer Hebrides (2000) are rooted in a sense of place that is similarly important to the café floor projections for Waterwheel. 

“There are a number of things which really stick out in terms of what Hawick is,” Mackinnon says. “Obviously, there’s the textile industry, rugby, farming, salmon fishing, the loss of the train line, as well as the Common Riding. I wanted to celebrate that local culture, and through the installation enabling people to see themselves.”

“I think we need to know who we are and where we come from, and I think we need to look to the past to see the change that has happened, and to consider and think about the change that could happen. And I think that if there is ever a time when we as a society need to change, it’s definitely now.”

Waterwheel opens at Once Upon a Time in Hawick, Heart of Hawick, November 26th-27th.