The natural connection
Back in 1953, the Hollywood producer Arthur Freed came to Scotland to look for locations for Brigadoon, a fantastical musical about a Scottish village that emerges from the mists of time for just one day in every 100 years. A local film critic took Freed on a tour of some of Scotland’s most atmospheric and beautiful locations. Sadly, though, on this occasion Freed concluded there was nowhere in Scotland that looked quite Scottish enough for his needs. So he went back to Hollywood, recreated Scotland in the studio and filled it with Americans dressed in tartan.
The ghost of Hollywood’s mythical version of Scotland has haunted the nation ever since. For almost a century, cinema has borrowed Scottish scenery and plundered Scottish history, and then made up the rest.
Ask any filmgoer from America or Europe or even England what Scotland is like, and they will say mountains. These are the quintessential images of Scotland that have prevailed on the screen: rolling heather, dramatic mountain scapes, treacherous coastlines and isolated communities living off the land. Arthur Freed aside, this is the Scotland filmmakers love to put in their movies. If you want a beautiful or dramatic outdoor location, Scotland fits the bill.
So when the Hogwarts Express takes Harry Potter and friends to wizard school, it is the Glenfinnan Viaduct the train crosses, taking the apprentice wizards into Glen Coe where magic happens in the valleys and forests.
In When Eight Bells Toll, when a flare is fired from a helicopter, it is Fingal’s Cave that gets lit up in the night.
In one version of The 39 Steps, Dumfriesshire provides the place Richard Hanney escapes to.
When James Bond needs an ancestral home to retreat to to face off the baddies in Skyfall, it is Glen Etive that provides the setting.
For Hollywood and other visiting filmmakers, Scotland means the Highlands, the huge expanse of mountains that take up the northern half of the country. The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of Scottish people live in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Central Scotland, or in Aberdeen, Dundee and the towns on the East Coast.
But visiting filmmakers want mountains, and rivers; romance and adventure. They want the myth of Brigadoon.
It’s not until the Scottish setting becomes part of the story, a narrative element or a catalyst for drama, that something more interesting happens. In these kinds of films, the environment is often symbolic of something much more meaningful, universal, human.
The film Soft Top Hard Shoulder is essentially a road movie where the central character has to drive through Scotland to his father’s birthday. But the eventful crossing through long mountain roads becomes a symbolic personal journey of discovery. Seachd, the inaccessible pinnacle is our only Gaelic film. Here, the conquering of the treacherous mountain charts the young boy’s growing up. Helen Mirren’s The Queen has a memorable encounter with a highland stag that compels her to endure.
In other films, the Scottish environment, its landscape and biodiversity become inextricably linked to ideas of identity. Who we are as people, and as a nation, is seen to be shaped by our environment.
And herein lies one of the key themes of our Natural Scotland film programme. What do the images of Scotland in films say about us as people, as a nation, as a culture? Often times filmmakers seem to say that a life of isolation away from cities and community make Scottish people introspective, gloomily obsessed with religion and drink. The earliest film in our programme hails from 1917 – a film called Pride of the Clan. Its opening titles talks of “the primitive people of the north” who still live off the land like we are stuck in time.
Once Scottish filmmakers come into the picture, though, a more realistic – perhaps even cynical – comment on what Scotland is like starts to appear.
Only a Scottish filmmaker could make a film like The Wicker Man which uses Scottish locations to chilling effect in a story about a sinister sect on a remote island who resort to pagan practices and human sacrifice when their crops fail. Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero cleverly subverts and pokes fun at the old Hollywood myth about what Scotland is like. And only a Scottish writer like Irving Welsh could deliver the searing criticism of that mythic image of Scotland that comes in Trainspotting.
Natural Scotland on Screen's programme of screenings and events looks deeper at these ideas and tries to draw some conclusions.