I Know Where I’m Going (1945, Michael Powell)
Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) is on her way to the Hebridean isle of Killoran (a made up place, filming was done on Mull) to marry a rich industrialist. Joan’s materialistic approach to life is challenged by her experiences in Scotland. Especially when she begins to fall for a fellow traveller, a Naval Officer played with remarkable charm by Roger Livesey. The whimsical elements are never overdone by Michael Powell and the suggestion the Scottish landscape can have a profound effect on an outsider was revisited by Bill Forsyth in Local Hero (1983).
Whisky Galore (1949, Alexander Mackendrick)
Pompous Captain Waggett (Basil Radford) attempts to prevent a group of Scottish Islanders raiding a stricken vessel filled with whisky but they outwit him at every turn in this wonderful Ealing comedy. More cynical than its twee reputation suggests, there’s a none-too-friendly warning implied here for incomers. Learn to fit in or leave.
Culloden (1964, Peter Watkins)
A sober antidote to the romantic myths that have sprung up around the battle of Culloden Watkins drama-documentary presents an even-handed unsentimental account of the battle from both sides. Everybody with an interest in Scottish history should see this.
Macbeth (1971, Roman Polanski)
Orson Welles 1948 version is the more imaginative, but Polanski’s brutal approach suits the play. The violence is intimate and gruesome. Given events in his life prior to filming you can understand why he never held back. John Finch is a fine Macbeth. Bizarrely it was funded by Hugh Hefner who intended to broaden his interests into film production though this remains his only production.
The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)
Scotland’s weirdest film is a horror musical contrasting dour Scots Calvinism with Paganism. Morally upright Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) is summoned from the mainland to find a missing girl. The Islanders are clearly nuts, even the ones who aren’t Lindsay Kemp. There’s bawdy singing in the local pub, couples fornicating outside it, and Christopher Lee reciting Walt Whitman to a snail. A cinematic one-off, unsettling in its use of locations and quite how anybody thought they could replicate this either through a remake or a sequel is beyond me.
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1974, Billy Wilder)
Holmes and Watson take the sleeper train to Inverness to solve a case involving a beautiful amnesiac, a sextuplet of missing circus performers, and the Loch Ness monster. A ruined masterpiece, United Artists cut a third of the film. Miklos Rozca’s music is appropriately melancholy. Robert Stephens is a wonderful Holmes, world-weary and funny. Wise enough to know romantic feeling is best avoided but unable to help himself when he meets a woman who proves to be his equal.
My Way Home (1978, Bill Douglas)
The final part in a trilogy based on Douglas’s own childhood. Jamie’s (the late Stephen Archibald) harsh upbringing was the focus of My Childhood and My Ain Folk. Now 17, he is used to feeling worthless, being hit, or being patronised by those higher up the social ladder. While carrying out his National Service abroad, he is befriended and drawn out of his shell by an upper-class Englishman. Jamie’s realization that he can fulfill his artistic intentions is one of cinema’s most moving and hopeful coming-of-age stories.
Gregory’s Girl (1981, Bill Forsyth)
Hard to pick between this and Forsyth’s Local Hero, but Gregory’s Girl just shades it for its originality. Gawky schoolboy footballer Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) makes the mistake of telling his coach that football is only a game. Blasphemy! As punishment he’s put in goals and his place in the team goes to a girl, Dorothy (Dee Hepburn). Gregory is smitten, but unfortunately he is as hopeless off the pitch as he is on it. Forsyth isn’t so much interested in football, as the pains of adolescence and the humour he can derive from both. It’s also as far as I’m aware the first Scottish film to be set in one of the New Towns that sprang up in the late 70’s.
Highlander (1986, Russell Mulcahy)
Handsome, French-accented antiques dealer Russell Nash has a dark secret, he is Scottish. MacLeod has been around for a few hundred years and now resides in New York. While its quirky star Christopher Lambert is generally considered to have attempted the worst Scottish accent at the movies, his detractors are missing the point. This is a movie about an immortal engaging in an ongoing battle through the centuries to win a mystical prize. There is no need for realism. Besides, Lambert is not the first Scot to speak with a French accent; Mary Queen of Scots for instance, was more Catherine Deneuve than Cathy from Kelvingrove. If you are snobbish about watching action movies, content yourself with viewing Highlander as mediation on being an emigrant; you can leave your homeland behind, you can change your name, you can decapitate a whole bunch of people, but you’ll still find yourself day-dreaming about the place you came from.
Morvern Callar (2002, Lynne Ramsey)
Few films have captured the longing to escape from a small-town existence better than Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel, Morvern Callar. Supermarket check-out girl Morvern awakes to find her boyfriend has killed himself. On his computer is a finished novel which she claims as her own. Keeping his death a secret, Morvern makes some money by winning a publishing deal and travels abroad. The film has its flaws. Warner’s novel is very funny but Ramsay has yet to show any signs of having a sense of humour at all. Samantha Morton’s decision not to attempt a Scots accent means Morvern sounds like she’s an incomer rather than a girl who’s never been far from her hometown. Despite this Ramsay fashions an elliptical, near wordless gem, in which Scotland feels like the loneliest place on earth and life is elsewhere.