An overview of Scotland's illustrious film heritage

An overview of Scotland's illustrious film heritage


The directors, producers and locations that make up Scotland's contribution to cinema

Scotland has always been popular with Hollywood. Eddie Harrison explores the nation’s illustrious film heritage

‘Punching above its weight’ is the phrase frequently used to describe Scotland’s contribution to the world of film. We’ve produced world-class producers (Iain Smith: The Fifth Element; Children of Men), directors (Alexander Mackendrick: Whisky Galore!; The Ladykillers) and writers such as Allan Scott and Paul Laverty. The list of Scottish film stars is longer and more illustrious, with Sean Connery and Tilda Swinton setting the bar high for the likes of Ewan McGregor, Karen Gillan and James McAvoy to aspire to. With much debate about the need for a Scottish film studio to bring in more productions from Hollywood to Bollywood, it’s a good moment to ask; how exactly did Scotland make its mark in the field of celluloid dreams?

It’s hard to think of Scotland without Braveheart coming to mind, and even if Mel Gibson’s reputation may have been tarnished, his Oscar-winner made Scotland synonymous with freedom. But you can find the same defiant message way back in 1949 in Alexander Mackendrick’s Whisky Galore!, in which the inhabitants of the Outer Hebrides island of Todday run rings around the authorities when a cargo of whisky is recovered during the enforced austerity of World War II. Other populist classics explored the fantasy element; Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander featured an unlikely Scot in Frenchman Christopher Lambert, but cemented the notion of the Scot as a kilted everyman whose passion for life powers him through the ages.

More recently, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting presented a more modern view, an energetic and vibrant picture of individuals wrestling with drug-culture. Following in the footsteps of Bill Douglas and Margaret Tait, writer / director Peter Mullan pushed the socio-realist genre further with Orphans, The Magdalene Sisters and Neds, three powerful and angry films which examined family, religion and youth culture with gusto. Ken Loach’s love affair with Scotland has spanned five features, while Kevin Macdonald followed John Grierson’s path to becoming a gold-standard documentary maker, expanding his CV with drama The Last King of Scotland.

Today, there’s a long list of Scots directors who are making the grade worldwide, including Michael Caton-Jones, Paul McGuigan, Lynne Ramsey, David Mackenzie and Brian Kirk. Others produced films that depicted Scotland with an intelligence way ahead of their time; Bill Forsyth’s never-bettered run of That Sinking Feeling, Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero and Comfort and Joy marks a cultural high-water mark in depicting the nuances of Scottish life on-screen, while Bertrand Tavernier’s recently re-released Death Watch pitched Harvey Keitel and Romy Schneider into post-industrial wastelands in 1970s Glasgow for a poignant sci-fi drama.

In the last few years, Scotland has welcomed shoots for huge-scale Hollywood blockbusters such as Marc Forster’s World War Z, Justin Lin’s Fast and Furious 6 and the Wachowski brothers’ daffy epic Cloud Atlas, all demonstrating the appeal of our locations, even if doubling up for other cities (Philadelphia, London and San Francisco respectively) has become a something of a specialty.

Scotland has proved it has the talent, the locations and the will to be a world-beater cinematically. Whether this country will ever get genuine investment in tomorrow’s talent is an issue that the next generation of filmmakers will, hopefully, get a chance to resolve.