Scottish production: feature films

To the best of our knowledge, only six narrative features films were produced by Scottish companies, filmed in Scotland and released in Scottish cinemas between 1908 (when The Bioscope began as a trade paper) and 1927.

  1. Rob Roy was produced in 1911 by the recently formed Glasgow company, United Films.. It was a screen adaptation of Pocock’s stage adaptation of Walter Scott’s novel, featuring the actor-manager, John Clyde, who had already toured the stage production widely in what was billed as ‘the national drama’. United’s Rob Roy has the distinction of being the first British ‘superfilm’, a three-reel film of 2,500 feet. It was filmed in and around Aberfoyle.

  2. Mairi, the Romance of a Highland Maiden was an amateur film made in 1912 in Inverness by a local photographer, Andrew Paterson. It was an ambitious film for an amateur, running for seventeen minutes, a romance of love and smuggling, using local amateur actors and filmed on the coast of North Kessock.

  3. The Harp King, produced in 1919, by the Ace Film Producing Company, arose out of one of the ‘cinema colleges’ which became popular after World War 1 to exploit the popular appeal of film stardom as a route to untold wealth. Directed by Max Leder, The Harp King, a romance running at five reels and produced in an open-air studio at Thornliebank, was a vehicle for trainee students, a fact which was noted, not entirely to the credit of the film, in trade press reviews.

  4. Football Daft (aka Fitba Daft) also came out of one of the colleges and also involved Max Leder. Produced by Broadway Stage and Cinema Productions, the film was based on a football sketch and adapted in a scenario written by James Howie Milligan to a two-reel comedy of domestic life, filmed in Rouken Glen and Sauchiehall Street, involving a tenement single-end, a football match, and a temperance reformer. It was well-reviewed in the trade press and was shown widely from Inverness to Campbeltown, and, from the evidence available, with at least one screening in England. The Dover Express of 17 November 1922, advertises Football Daft ( ‘A Scotchman’s Idea of the National Game’) to be shown in the The Queen’s Hall, Dover.

  5. The Life of Robert Burns, directed by Maurice Sandground for the Scottish Film Academy in 1926, is a seven-reel biography of the poet which seems to have been quite well-received by the public, with a screening at Glasgow’s Coliseum accompanied by the All-Scottish Picture Quartette and Choir. It was less well-regarded by the trade press and by the Burns cognoscenti. Commenting on the scope for exploitation, and praising its photography, The Bioscope noted it as a ‘jumbled up concoction of incidents in the life of Scotland’s national bard with some splendid examples of Scotland’s beauty spots.’ The portrayal of Burns, however, ‘leaves much to be desired’ and the actors ‘still have a long way to go before they earn the right to be named on the screen cast.’ In the same issue, the verdict of John S. Clarke, an authority on Burns, was that ‘The picture could be considerably improved by cutting out fully fifty per cent of the celluloid and then setting fire to the other fifty.’

  6. Glimpses from the Life of Walter Scott, also produced in 1926 by the same company and director, was even less successful. It was not reviewed in the trade press which suggests it was not given a trade show, and its circulation in the cinemas was much more restricted. Both films followed the relative success of Bonnie Scotland Calls You, a scenic compilation also directed by Maurice Sandground, accompanied by familiar Scottish songs to be sung by soloists and a choir, and the two films seem to have exploited Sandground’s skills as a photographer of landscape rather than his skills of narrative construction. Following the lack of commercial success of the Walter Scott films, the two ‘biopics’ were re-edited into a compilation, The Immortals of Bonnie Scotland, which is said to have been successful in Canada._ftnref1">[1]

Of these six films, only one film, Mairi, the Romance of a Highland Maiden - paradoxically, the amateur film “ still survives. It is still available in the Scottish Screen Archive collection (though there is always the hope that prints of other films are lying lost and yet to be discovered in an archive or an attic somewhere). It is also worth noting that most of the films are ‘one-offs’ by companies that did not go on to build a sustainable production capacity. And, finally, it is significant that only Football Daft seems to have been widely seen, even within Scotland. The United Films production of Rob Roy, despite its appeal to national sentiment, immediately came into competition with Gaumont’s Rob Roy, a one-reel romance also filmed in Rob Roy country and released in the same year. Despite high publicity, with a screening for the Lord Provost of Glasgow and the Magistrates at the Picture House on Sauchiehall Street, United’s Rob Roy seems to have been shown in a fairly limited circuit (Bioscope notes a screening in the Burgh Hall, Pollockshaws, and it was shown twice by Louis Dickson in Bo’ness Drill Hall). Mairi and The Harp King seem to have had local screenings, and only Football Daft circulated relatively widely within Scotland, and with evidence of at least one screening In England.

There are hints of other productions, some of which may have reached cinemas. In an article, ‘Producing in Scotland’ in The Bioscope on 10 February, 1916, ‘Scotty’, the Scottish correspondent (aka James McBride), reports on a studio in Glasgow operating under the name ‘Club Comedies’ with a staff of around twenty, with an American director, Mr Foote, who apparently has worked ‘in the best-known picture producing companies in the States’, and with a fully equipped technical production capacity. According to Scotty’s report, it had produced successful comedies “ which are not named “ which had been shown in cinemas, and it was currently rehearsing a new comedy to be released under the name His Highness. There is, however, no record in the trade press of its release, or of the release of any of the other comedies that Scotty apparently saw in a suburban Glasgow cinema.

In a further article in the Scottish Section, ‘Picture Producing in Scotland’ (The Bioscope, 11 December 1919), there is a colourful and optimistic account of production in Scotland, including reference to the Royal Studios in Wishaw, under the direction of Mr Syd St. Clair, already responsible for the production of three (untitled) ‘pictures’. In August 1920, Scotty also notes a new studio in Montrose directed by C.F. Partoon, a photographer with a distinguished record of making topicals which were shown as ‘Partoon’s Pictorial of Local Events’ in the Kinnaird Picture House, Dundee. Scotty is incurably optimistic and shares the view expressed by Partoon that there is no reason that feature films cannot be produced in Scotland. Partoon, it appears, has secured an ‘excellent story’, and is rehearsing actors including the author of the story, Gordon Crystal, and a ‘leading lady’, Miss Betty Willocks, ‘who will charm everyone who sees her work, and for whom there is a very bright future’. The production, The Greater Riches, will be shot in the Montrose studio with exteriors in and around Dundee. Mr Partoon, says Scotty, ‘has very pronounced ideas on the subject of motion picture production and photography, and the Trade may look with confidence to his first work, which will lack only one thing, and that is the stamp of amateurism’. Again, there is no record of the release of The Greater Riches. In December 1921, Scotty laments: ‘By the way, what has come over that company that was producing in Dundee and Montrose? Are the pictures they partly took ever to be finished, or must the venture be written down as abandoned?’ The evidence is that the venture was abandoned.

Despite best efforts, then, despite appeals to national sentiment, despite the outstanding success of film exhibition, and despite the international appeal of Scottish stories, Scottish history and Scottish literature, Scotland could not sustain a viable and indigenous feature film production sector. Even within Scotland the visibility of indigenously produced films was not high or comprehensive, and it had little or no impact across national borders. ‘Production’, said the Scottish Film Council as late as 1944, ‘is Scotland’s weak point.’_ftnref2">[2]

_ftn1">[1] Trevor Griffiths, The Cinema and Cinema-going in Scotland, 1896-1950 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p. 291

_ftn2">[2] See Griffiths, p. 279