Jenny Isobel Gilbertson (nee Brown) Canada Scotland

Biography of Jenny Isobel Gilbertson (nee Brown)

Jenny Isobel Brown (Gilbertson)-Matriculation Record 1923-1924-R8/5/44/1
Jenny Isobel Brown (Gilbertson)-Matriculation Record 1923-1924-R8/5/44/1

Jenny Isobel Gilbertson (nee Brown) was a pioneering female filmmaker, known for her documentaries on Scotland and educational films.

Born in Glasgow on the 28th of October 1902, Gilbertson was the only daughter of Mary Dunn Wright, and William Brown, who was listed as an Iron/Steel Merchant. Gilbertson studied at Laurel Bank School before commencing study for an MA degree at the University at the age of 20, in Session 1923-1924.

In her first year, in Session 1923-1924, Gilbertson (nee Brown) enrolled to study French and English. She was successful in her French classes in her first year and passed these first time around in May 1924- she was not met with immediate success however in her English classes and had to resit her examinations in this subject in May 1925, eventually passing in September 1925. Gilbertson's set reading list for her English classes in her first year included Boswell's Tour of the Hebrides, Spenser's Faerie Queene and Shakespeare's Julius Caesar , Anthony and Cleopatra and A Midsummer Night's Dream . For French, her lecturer was Professor Charles. A. Martin . During her years of study, she resided at her home address at 11 Hillhead Street, Glasgow.

Gilbertson matriculated for her second year at the University in Session 1924-1925 and enrolled for classes in Political Economy, Geology and English, passing her classes for Political Economy in May 1925, her classes for Geology in March 1925 and English in September of that year. Her set texts in Political Economy included Marshall's Elements of Economics of Industry , Money, Credit and Commerce and Smart's The Theory of Value (1910) and The Distribution of Income (2nd edition, 1912).

Gilbertson's third year of study at the University and indeed, her last year as an undergraduate, was in Session 1925-1926. For this Session, she enrolled for classes in Higher English, Italian and Moral Philosophy. The set texts for her Higher English classes included: Fielding's Tom Jones, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Shakespeare's King John,Richard II and Henry V . For Italian her set texts included Dante's La Divina Commedia, Grillo's Italian Poets and La Dolce Favella . Finally, the prescribed set of texts for Gilbertson's Moral Philosophy classes included: Plato's Republic, Mill's Utilitarianism and Butler's Sermons I-III. She passed her Italian and Moral Philosophy classes in May 1926 and her English classes in September 1926. This allowed her to graduate with an MA (Ordinary) degree on the 20th of November, 1926.

After graduating, for the year commencing the 1st of January 1927, Gilbertson is listed as being a 'Teacher' with a residence and post town in 11 Hillhead Street, Glasgow. She subsequently obtained her Teacher's Certificate Scotland from Jordanhill Teacher Training College on the 1st of November 1927 and thereafter spent a year in Boston nannying for the family of Professor Roger Merriman, Head of the History Department at Harvard University.

Gilbertson's works include the Shetland films A Crofter's Life in Shetland (1931) which was her first to be filmed on a 16mm Kodak Cine camera on which she had had rudimentary training. John Grierson, a fellow University graduate and 'Father of the Documentary Movement' noted that 'Miss Brown has already broken through the curse of artificiality and is on the way to being a real film maker, a real illuminator of life and movement'.


This was followed by six short films including Sheeps Clothing (1932), Peat from Hillside to Home (1932) bought by Grierson's General Post Office Film Unit for £40. Then, with the people of Hillswick, she filmed the documentary drama Rugged Island: a Shetland Lyric (1934), which played in cinemas across Britain.

While honeymooning with her partner Johnny and touring her Shetland films in the Maritime States of Canada,she worked with the Canadian filmmaker Evelyn Spice on Prairie Winter (1935) about winter in the Canadian Prairies of Saskatchewan.

Following the difficult war years when Johnny was invalided from the Army, Gilbertson taught at the local school in Hillswick and was involved in the thriving Shetland amateur dramatic scene. After the unfortunate death of Johnny in 1967 and her retirement from teaching, she sought a fresh challenge.

In 1970 she travelled to Coral Harbour, Southampton Island in Artic Canada where she stayed for seven years and filmed a number of films for the BBC, CBC, NFB and the Museum of Man (now Museum of History) in Ottawa. These included: Jenny's Artic Diary: Part I and II (1972), Jenny's Dog Team Journey (1975) and Walrus Hunt (1986). In 1977-78 she accepted an invitation to Grise Fiord, Canada's most northerly civilian settlement, where she lived for 18 months and filmed Jenny's Artic Diary (1978). This was an impressive feat for a woman now in her seventies, living frugally on her Zetland Islands Education Authority pension and any income she made from her films.

An external source quotes that 'what is extraordinary about her work is the way she made her films: they were all based upon friendships...this style of filming as being with people predated the development of observational cinema (allowing) her a shared intimacy- and a sharing of power- with the people in her films whose lives they shared with her, the filmmaker, and us the audience.'

Jenny Isobel Gilbertson (nee Brown) died in Shetland on the 8th of January, 1990.


Other Online Resources

Archival Materials

  • Graduate Schedule MA (Arts) 1926-R4/1/16
  • Matriculation Record -Session 1923-1924- R8/5/44/11
  • Matriculation Record-Session 1924-1925- R8/5/45/11
  • Matriculation Record-Session 1925-1926-R8/5/46/10
  • Register of Members of the General Council-DC183/11/51
  • Register of the Dates of Birth of Graduates- R3/1/4
  • University Calendar 1923-1924, pp.100-101,pp.104-SEN10/65
  • University Calendar 1924-1925 ,pp.100-101,pp.118-119,pp.146-147-SEN10/66
  • University Calendar 1925-1926, pp.103, pp.108, pp.121- SEN10/67


  • Shona Main (Additional Information)


Jenny Isobel Gilbertson (nee Brown)

Born 2 October 1902.
Died 8 January 1990.
GU Degree: MA, 1926; Arts,
University Link: Alumnus, Graduate, Student
Occupation categories: film makers; teachers
Additional Information: With many thanks to Shona Main for additional biographical information and final quotation.
Record last updated: 30th Jan 2018

Country Associations

Canada Canada, No Region

Scotland Scotland, Shetland, Hillswick

University Connections

University Roles

  • Alumnus
  • Graduate
  • Student