Scotland in film

The absence of an indigenous and sustainable film production industry in Scotland does not mean that Scotland was invisible on the early international screen. From a review of the advertisements, synopses, and reviews in British and American trade press, there are 216 feature films that are identified with Scottish narratives, Scottish locations, or prominent Scottish characters. This adopts a trade definition of Scottishness, and does not include films adapted from Scottish authors that are located outside Scotland without distinctive Scottish features. Thus, RL Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1917) is included, but The Bottle Imp (1917) or Treasure Island (1918 and 1920) are not. Neither Ivanhoe (1913), nor Peter Pan (1924) is included, despite their Scottish authors. Perhaps controversially, Macbeth is included partly because it is customarily referred to as the ‘Scottish play’, and partly because it is adapted so many times in France, Germany, Italy, England and the USA — nine versions between 1908 and 1922.

Part of the reason that Scotland had a high visibility and that its image was so readily marketed is that Scotland, almost uniquely for a very small European country, had a significant place in world literature. Up until at least World War 1, Walter Scott was part of the patrimony of the common reader in the English-speaking world, and was a major cultural figure in Europe. There were twenty-seven adaptation of Scott between 1909 and 1928, twenty-two of which appeared before 1915. Lucy of Lammermoor was adapted four times (1909, 1909, 1910, 1914) twice in Italy and twice in the US; there were four versions of Young Lochinvar (1909, 1911, 1913, 1923); four of Rob Roy (1911, 1911, 1913, 1922); three of Lady of the Lake (1912, 1913, 1928); and two of Heart of Midlothian (Heart of Midlothian, 1914 and A Woman’s Triumph, 1914). Notoriously, Mark Twain blamed Scott, and particularly Ivanhoe, for the outbreak of the Civil War: ‘Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.’_ftnref1">[1] At the same time, Robert Burns was a ‘world poet’, and RL Stevenson and JM Barrie became increasingly popular in adventure literature and domestic melodrama as the century wore on.

As well as making a contribution to world literature, Scottish poetry and song were popular at a time when parlour music was a major form of genteel domestic entertainment. There are films with titles like Auld Lang Syne (1912), For Auld Lang Syne (1914), Auld Robin Gray (1910, 1917), The War Mother (a revised version of Auld Robin Gray for World War I, 1916), The Master of Grays (a sequel, 1918), Comin’ Through the Rye (1916) and Ye Banks and Braes (1918). Annie Laurie begins life in 1913 as a tale of the American Civil War in which the song itself provides a narrative link; is reset in Scotland as a rural romance by Hepworth in 1916; becomes a World War 1 story in Bonnie Annie Laurie for Fox in 1918; and ends up in 1927 as a story of the Glencoe Massacre by MGM with Lilian Gish as Annie Laurie, almost but not quite stopping the massacre. Each showing is advertised with appropriate music accompaniment, and the musical director is encouraged to seek appropriate songs and singers to exploit the popularity of the title.

A handful of films used Scottish locations. Gaumont’s 1911 Rob Roy was filmed in and around Aberfoyle with the kind permission of the Duke of Argyll; but their 1922 version ‘was meant to be filmed in the neighbourhood of Oban […] but unfortunately the weather was unfavourable for securing a picture' (Oban Times, 10.02.1923). The 1923 Bonnie Prince Charlie, starring Ivor Novello and Fay Compton, was filmed in the accessible highlands of the island of Arran in the River Clyde; Christie Johnstone (1921) spent ten days filming in Auchmithie on the East Coast, and its star, Stewart Rome, became a major celebrity in the neighbouring town of Arbroath; and The Romany (Welsh Pearson, 1923) after considerable time spent researching gypsies by it star, Victor McLagen, filmed in and around Atholl. Film-makers visited Scotland to soak up atmosphere — ‘I have just been up to Scotland for atmosphere’, says Charles Calvert of his 1921 production In His Grip. ‘I can assure you it would have been impossible to get the Scotch atmosphere down here’, but, having secured the atmosphere, he shot the scenes in London. For the practicalities of film-making, accessibility outweighed authenticity, and atmosphere could be created cinematically rather than reproduced photographically. The Highland seascape of Maurice Tourneur’s The White Heather was shot in Los Angeles harbour, and Jeanie Deans arduous journey to London in A Woman’s Triumph (1914) was shot in Cuba.

The imaginary map of Scotland is one in which cities and urban life are barely visible behind the hills and glens, villages and castles, peasantry and nobility of a geographically and historically dislocated ‘Highlands’. As imaginary as the landscapes, ‘Scotch’ characters are the stern and unbending Presbyterian father who cannot adjust to the new ways, the mother longing for her diasporic son, or the diasporic son longing for home, the dispossessed aristocrat seeking new money and a return to social dignity, or the winsome lass who may be the dispossessed aristocrat’s best hope. And there are many soldiers: Highlanders rescuing villages under attack in the colonial wars, or in the European war of 1914-1918.

On 1 February 1917, in The Bioscope’s ‘Scottish Notes’, Scotty reports:
I am going to advocate that every American producing company which attempts to produce a Scottish picture should have a Scotsman on their staff to keep them right as to what is the correct wear for the ladies and gentlemen of the land o' cakes. We do not all wear kilts and Glengarry bonnets ... We have had Peggy [Triangle, 1916], now are given A Daughter of Macgregor [Famous Players, 1916], and, in the near future, are to have Mary Pickford in The Pride of the Clan [Mary Pickford Company, 1917], and the Scottish dress in each will be a laughing stock to every Scottish man and woman who sees them.

There are also reports of audience hilarity at the attempts to reproduce authentic ‘Scotch’ dialect in the intertitles. For Scottish audiences, it may have been easier to identify with Tom Mix or with Pauline and her perils than it was to identify with ersatz Scots. A survey of advertisements and reviews in the local press also suggests that distribution of many of the US ‘Scotch’ films were not distributed in the UK or had limited release in Scotland. To the extent that these films were aimed at a folk memory it was not necessarily a Scottish folk memory. The issue, then, is not one of identity but of the way in which Scotland functioned in the imaginary map of the world. Of Sir Walter Scott, Ann Rigney argues that he

provided a blueprint for imagining a relationship to the past that was eminently suitable to conditions of life in the nineteenth century, characterized as it was by increasing mobility, the growing power of the media, urbanization and mass migration._ftnref2">[2]

In the early twentieth century, Scott’s ‘blueprint’ transferred quite smoothly to cinema. Scotch locations, Scotch characters and Scotch narratives map Scotland’s place within the international imaginary both as a repository of the wildness of the Highlands - a European equivalent of the American West - or as a memory within a diasporic and urbanized culture of a lost past of the rural, the home, a vanishing and romanticized nobility, and a secure and simplified morality.


_ftn1">[1] Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883), in The Unabridged Mark Twain vol. II, Lawrence Teacher (ed.), (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1979), pp. 422-3.

_ftn2">[2] Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 4