A guest post by Mike Peddie
Can you imagine a Harry Potter movie without the backdrop of the Scottish Highlands? It just wouldn’t work..
The Scottish landscape, with its rugged beauty and moody magnificence, has provided the background for a score of famous movies. But some of the best films set in Scotland are ones that were made with modest budgets. Some are worth watching for the scenery, some give an understanding of the history that shaped the nation, and some give an insight into the Scottish psyche. Hopefully, this short list of “cult” films will put you in the mood for a trip to Scotland.
I Know Where I’m Going (1945) – This is a charming black and white film that is a must watch if you plan to visit the Isle of Mull.
It is a love story about a materialistic city girl with plans to marry a wealthy businessman, but who finds herself stranded in a remote Scottish village where she slowly begins to realise that there’s more to life than money and she finds true love with the modest local laird.
The theme of the film is captured in this profound line, “Oh, they are not poor, they just don’t have any money”.
I recall seeing it for the first time when I was just a kid. I was enthralled by one scene where the main characters try to cross the Corryvreckan whirlpool in a tempest. The actual whirlpool wasn’t quite dramatic enough for the film producers so they used 1940’s special effects to superimpose something that looks like water going down a plug hole.
The thing that really makes this film worth 88 minutes of your time is the wonderful scenery captured around the Isle of Mull. The island hasn’t changed all that much since 1945 (the roads are maybe a bit worse) and there are lots of recognisable landmarks to spot.
Local Hero (1983) – This film is both funny and deeply moving and will resonate with anyone that yearns to escape from the rat race of the modern world to a place where life moves slower.
The central character of the movie is “Mac”, an executive with a big American oil company, who is tasked with buying land for the development of an oil refinery in the Scottish Highlands. The majority of the locals seize the opportunity to get rich quickly, but one sage old man sees the folly of destroying the beauty of the land and blocks the deal.
During the film, we see how the Highland way of life transforms “Mac” from a hard nosed businessman to someone that yearns for the simpler things in life that money can’t buy.
It’s a feel good movie that you’ll want to watch both before and after your visit to Scotland. The soundtrack is also one of the best things that Mark Knopfler ever did.
Culloden (1964) – This is certainly not a feel good movie, but it is essential viewing if you want to understand the tragedy and impact of the Battle of Culloden upon the Scottish Highlands.
This film is more documentary than drama. What makes it stand out is the imaginative way it tells the events of the Battle of Culloden in the style of newsreel footage. You watch the events of the battle unfold with the same sense of urgency and danger that you get when watching journalists reporting from the frontline of a war.
Current Historians might challenge the accuracy of the way the Jacobite army is represented as a shambolic undisciplined rabble, but the film doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of the battle and its aftermath.
The film was deliberately shot in black and white to enhance the impression that you could be watching something filmed in 1746.
In summary, this is a grim film but it is deeply moving and will inform you about one of the most significant events in Scottish history.
Ring of Bright Water (1969) – After making you thoroughly miserable with Culloden, we need to lighten the mood and we’re sure this film about a man and his pet otter will cheer you up. Spoiler Alert: there is a bit of a teary moment in the film too, but on balance this is a “feel good” movie.
Ring of Bright Water is loosely based on Gavin Maxwell’s auto-biographical account of his life with a pet otter that he named “Mijbil”. The book and the film diverge in a few places. Most notably Gavin brought his otter back from Iraq whereas the hero of the film finds his otter in a London pet shop.
Most of the Scottish scenes are filmed around the village of Ellenabeich on the Isle of Seil (see the featured picture for this post). It’s located on Scotland’s west coast, just a 30 minute drive to the south of Oban. In real life, Gavin Maxwell and his otter lived further north in a remote area called Sandaig which is on the shores of Loch Hourn.
It’s a gentle, slow-paced movie that you watch for the scenery and the otter, but not for Virginia McKenna’s attempt at a Scottish accent.
One for the animal lovers.
Restless Natives (1985) – This comedy has a distinctly Scottish flavour which maybe explains its lack of commercial success with non-Scottish audiences. Either that or the accents are too broad for non-Scots to follow.
The film tells the story of two young lads who try to escape the bleak poverty of life in their hometown (Edinburgh) by using a motorbike and some toy guns to hold up tourist coaches in the Highlands. In Robin Hood style, the lads share the spoils of their highway robbery with the poor of Edinburgh and inadvertently gain celebrity status in the process.
The filming was done all over Scotland with lots of recognisable landscapes such as Glen Coe, Rannoch Moor, Glen Nevis and street scenes around Edinburgh. Lots of the road shots will be familiar if you’ve ever driven on the A82 into the Highlands.
The movie is light-hearted, but it was made at a time when a very unpopular conservative government in London was practising economic policies that were decimating Scottish jobs. The political protest is subtle but it is also part of what makes this film very Scottish.
Well worth watching for the scenery as the lads zoom around Scotland in pursuits of tourist coaches to ambush.
The Edge of The World (1937) – Another black and white movie, but bear with me as this film has some amazing photography and is interesting as a record of a way of life that was dying in the 1930’s..
The film depicts the demise of the community of Hirta (the largest island in the St Kilda archipelago) who eventually abandoned their island in 1930. Some of the scenes look like the real Hirta, but filming actually took place on an island called Foula in the Shetlands.
The film starts with an English couple sailing around the Hebrides on a yacht skippered by Andrew. Against the wishes of Andrew, the couple request to land on Hirta. It soon emerges that Andrew once lived on Hirta and he starts to recount the sad story of the islanders’ demise.
Without giving too much away, Andrew and his best friend Robbie have conflicting views about whether to stay and fight for their island life or to accept that they must leave. The community, unable to agree on the issue, accept a proposition from Andrew that the matter should be decided by a race to climb the face of a daunting sea cliff. The race has tragic consequences that set in motion a chain of events that seal the island’s fate.
It’s not the fastest paced movie, but it draws you in with its atmospheric imagery and depiction of the traditions of St Kilda.
Outlaw King (2018) – Everyone knows about Braveheart, but as a portrayal of Scottish history it’s about as accurate as Brigadoon. To really get an understanding of the politics and tactics of the Scottish Wars of Independence you need to watch Outlaw King.
This is a movie that the arty film critics hated, but it was loved by Scottish audiences. The fact that the Scots kick some English backside always helps, but it was also good to see so many Scottish film locations being used.
It’s a deeper movie than Braveheart as it shows you the many setbacks and personal sacrifices that Robert the Bruce had to endure in his fight against the English King. Naturally, there’s a lot of bloody and muddy battle scenes that graphically convey the brutality of Medieval warfare, but the violence is part of the story and doesn’t feel gratuitous.
Chris Pine also does a far better Scottish accent than Mel Gibson and there’s no blue painted faces, or other blatant historical inaccuracies in this film.
Some of these films may not be as well-known as others in the history of Scottish cinema, but they all stand out for the way they highlight the character of Scotland’s beautiful landscape. Have you seen another film that highlighted Scotland’s scenery in a big way? Tell us about it!
Ayrshire-based Mike Peddie is the co-founder of the website www.secret-scotland.com. Frustrated by the mainstream guidebooks serving up the same cliched tourist destinations, Mike and his wife Aurelia quit their jobs in 2005 to create a travel guide to the memorable places in Scotland that most tourists miss.