Finding David Douglas

I was still very interested in David Douglas after reading about him, so when I found out that a short film had been made about his life by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission, I was pleased to see that it was also available from the Scottish Forestry Commission – and actually when I contacted them to see if this was still the case they offered to send me a copy for free, which was very nice of them (I’m not sure if they were pleased someone was still interested a few years later, or just hoping to get rid of it!)

It’s a good potted history of Douglas, with the inevitable focus on the second voyage with the surviving journals, but there’s plenty to look at even if you know the story – and it includes all my favourite quotes.

It’s been beautifully made – even artistically. There’s no attempt at reenactment (unless you count a brief piece of footage from a modern sailing ship) – instead it’s a mix of modern film of places he visited, and 18th and 19th century drawings and painting and engravings of those places, with a voiceover which is partly narration and partly readings from Douglas’s own writing. People mentioned are introduced by their portraits, and plants mentioned are again a mix of modern filming and some beautiful botanical illustrations. Apart from it being interesting to see contemporary ideas of the scenes, the contrast can be quite striking – particularly the change from a busy York Factory to an isolated relic.

Mixed in with this are interviews – with botanists and forestry people in the UK, and local experts in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, and this includes looking at specific artefacts – herbarium specimens at Kew, and accounts in the Hudson’s Bay Company archives in Manitoba, as well as visiting the sites of Douglas’s death and burial in Hawaii.

The sound is slightly out of sync with the the picture during the interviews, which makes them feel odd (possibly it’s like that all the time and it just doesn’t show during voiceovers, or possibly something went wrong fitting in the parts filmed in the UK) – and the voice used for reading Douglas’s own words is a bit disconcerting to a Scot, reminding me more of the Glaswegian Alan McManus than anyone from rural Perthshire. But it’s the right kind of voice, sounding slightly reluctant to be speaking in public, and anyway I forgave them that since they pronounced ‘Scone’ and ‘Menzies’ right!

The ending amused me – the film was made partly by the Scottish Forestry Commission, and so it finished with praise for Douglas’s trees, covering Scottish hillsides which were once bare. Forestry monoculture is not something which most people admire, although it had been done a bit better in the Perthshire landscape they were showing us than in some places (and there has been a lot of work done on more sympathetic replanting recently).

The website seems to have died just in the last few weeks, but there is still an archive copy with a lot of information about the film, including a full transcript, and short video clips – it’s well worth having a look.

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