The Outlaw King Filming Locations and Story of the King of Scots
Scotland’s most hotly-anticipated film of the year hit Netflix this month and beamed the story of one of our greatest-ever sons to worldwide audiences. Outlaw King delivers us into the hands of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, and his tumultuous journey from noble lord to hunted outlaw and from political fence-sitter to hero king and military genius. Working in partnership with VisitScotland, I was set the challenge of visiting as many of the Outlaw King filming locations as I could in 2 days – with the movie pretty much entirely shot in Scotland. With a huge digital following and a passionately engaged audience, it was another campaign to remember and without question one of my highlights of the year.
Background History in Brief
The Wars of Independence, dating from the 13th and 14th Century, marks arguably the most fascinating chapter in Scotland’s history. England and Scotland’s historic relationship has had plenty of bumps but this spell was undoubtedly an all-time low. The death of King Alexander III of Scotland in 1286, subsequent death of his granddaughter heir and eventual removal from power of the ineffective replacement King, John Balliol, had seen Scotland caught up in a chaotically uncertain succession crisis that’d make Brexit look tame. King Edward I of England had seized on this weakness and indecisiveness north of the border to take the crown of Scotland in all but name.
Crushing dissent with ruthless contempt, notably the resistance led by William Wallace in the final years of the 1200s, his desire to keep Scotland under his thumb was crystal clear. For those familiar with the Braveheart (1995) storyline you will be roughly aware of Wallace’s slice of this history. Astonishing victories at Stirling Bridge (1297) and daring raids into northern England gave him heroic status. It proved to be short-lived. Scottish disunity and the sheer power of Edward’s armies led to the dire defeat at Falkirk in 1298 that was the beginning of the end of Wallace’s momentum. He was eventually captured and hung, drawn and quartered in London in 1305.
The Role of Robert
That’ll be that then, you might think. Nah, this is Scotland, it’s never that conclusive. Step forward Robert the Bruce. Cautious and non-committal up to this point, his fierce desire to be king led to him breaking a truce with Edward, murdering his only real rival claimant for Scotland’s top job, John Comyn, and hurriedly being crowned as King of Scots at Scone in 1306. A calamitous defeat at Methven, the capture of his family, forced exile in the Hebrides and plenty of deep reflection and wound-licking were eventually ended with his surprise victory at Loudoun Hill in Ayrshire in 1307.
Edward I had by this time died and the throne would soon pass to his son, Edward II. The Bruce clocked up many subsequent victories across Scotland, culminating in the legendary 1314 success at Bannockburn against the latter tyrant. The Declaration of Arbroath followed in 1320 and the Edinburgh-Northampton Treaty of 1328 formally recognised Scottish Independence. This part of the saga was over, for a time at least.
The Outlaw King Filming Locations
Mugdock Country Park (Battle of Loudoun Hill)
The scene of the furious conclusive scrap that historically saw momentum swing firmly in Robert’s favour, the battleground is, in reality, little more than an empty and almost indistinguishable field. The mound of Loudon Hill was added artificially but the rural setting, big space and accessible location made this a great choice. The delicately picturesque treeline shown below stood out for me in the film – a fry cry from the surrounding unnatural slaughter that would have had all viewers gripped.
I was very fortunate to be shown around the site by Pamela, the Park’s Development Officer, and got the full run down on the lengthy and exciting filming process. Dozens of giant horses took over the car park area, massive tents were set up, ditches were dug, military roads were created and extras were everywhere as this typically serene spot was consumed by Outlaw King fever. I also understand the Park was used in numerous other short action scenes throughout the film.
Glasgow Cathedral (Greyfriar’s Kirk, Lord’s Hall)
The recognisable exterior of the Cathedral was used in the scene immediately after Robert’s murder of John Comyn. The murder itself occurred in the crypts, deep within the interior, where St Mungo himself was laid to rest. Dating as far back as the 12th Century, this is my favourite cathedral in the land and one of the very few remains of medieval Glasgow.
Glasgow University (Westminiser Palace interiors and grounds)
The Gothic architectural masterpiece that looms over the West End made numerous cameo appearances, primarily doubling as Westminister. Edward I could be seen practising archery and Edward II had his garishly vulgar pre-expedition swan scene in the cloisters.
Muiravonside Country Park (Selkirk Forest)
This vast woodland park near Falkirk saw various fight scenes and will have dished out plenty of surprises to locals stumbling by. Another serene place that has an untouched and uninterrupted feel to it, this was presumably exactly what the crew were looking for. As with many on this list, it’s also been a repeat filming location for the Outlander crews as well and I’m glad to see that such spots are firmly on the radar of location scouts as Scotland continues to be in high demand.
Linlithgow Palace (Scone, Perth Castle Courtyard)
One of Central Scotland’s historic titans, the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots is without doubt among the most evocative of our ruins. Huge in scale, it manages to retain much of its aura despite its gutted appearance. Again, it made numerous appearances – doubling as Scone where Robert was crowned and for several military shots involving Aymer de Valence and his men in Perth.
Seacliff Beach (closing beach scene)
I’ve long loved East Lothian’s Seacliff, with the obscenely stupendous ruin of Tantallon Castle perched on the cliffs behind it. I consider this amongst the most dramatic vistas in Scotland. The emotionally charged beach reunion of Robert and Elizabeth at the film’s conclusion was shot here (although there was some CGI used on the ruinous backdrop). An inspired choice among the Outlaw King filming locations and, for visitors to East Lothian, this place is a must.
Craigmillar Castle (Bruce Castle & Village)
The primary castle of the film, Edinburgh’s Craigmillar is a terrific choice. In a fabulous state of repair, its sturdy exterior matched with an interior labyrinth of nooks and crannies give it a big personality. It was the Bruce Castle and also appeared as part of the Kildrummy Castle scenes where Bruce’s family were seeking refuge. Robert’s forces took it back from the English in a tense combat scene but it was arguably most memorable as the site of the audience’s introduction to Marjorie and Elizabeth. It did not take long for Elizabeth to endear herself to a sceptical Scottish audience…..
Dunfermline Abbey (Westminister)
Doubling as Westminister we saw many memorable scenes filmed in Dunfermline as Edward I vented his fury at the dissenting Scots from afar. The call to ‘raise the dragon’ went out from here as did his amusing outburst ‘I am so sick of Scotland!’. The Abbey is also the resting place of Robert the Bruce’s body and it is thought that both he and Elizabeth were interred here, alongside many other legendary Scottish historical figures, including as far back as Saint Margaret in 1093. Today, alongside majestic Romanesque pillars and vibrant, storytelling stained glass, a gory figure of Robert’s skull can be viewed. The copy was taken when his tomb was opened in the 18th Century and one of the biggest discoveries in our history was made. Oh to have been the folk that stumbled on this one….
While logistics, and limited light, meant I could not cover all of the filming locations in two days, these guys deserve a big shout out:
Rothiemurchas – one of the most impactful scenes of them all was shot on Loch an Eilein when Robert’s beleaguered forces were attempting to cross to Islay and were ambushed by the Macdougalls. The frantic attempt to get on board their boats and the horrific death of Robert’s brother, Alexander, were made all the more memorable with rugged Highland vistas to back them up.
Skye – Skye’s peaks, beaches and bays were unsurprising choices and were repeated backdrops for Dumfries-shire and Islay in particular during filming.
Castles – Doune, Blackness, Portencross and Borthwick. Screen favourites Doune (the Douglas castle) and Blackness (Elizabeth’s place of imprisonment in Yorkshire) were joined by Portencross (a backdrop of English landscape) and privately-owned Borthwick, which featured as Rowallen Castle.
Berwick Old Bridge – doubling as London Bridge it was crossed by both Edwards on their furious journeys north to deal with the troublesome Scots. Berwick was the only location not actually in Scotland…however it would have been according to the borders of 1320. Nicely done.
The Film – My Outlaw King Thoughts
Loved it. I laughed (surprisingly), I cried (unsurprisingly), I threw things, I took it out on the sofa, I cheered and I beamed with pride at how well the movie portrays this great land. It was great to get the thrill of seeing familiar filming locations under new guises and to see Scotland’s landscapes and built heritage sites looking spectacular. Just as good was the historical accuracy shown throughout (with the odd exception). The characters were wonderfully depicted and developed, the action scenes were literally breathtaking and the pace was relentless.
A word on the history
Wallace was given an important mention but was not dwelled on. I feel that was essential as his appearance (his arm’s at any rate) in Berwick was the moment that sent Bruce into a head-spinning inner conflict. That moment was massive in this film as Robert was undoubtedly a calculating man and was weighing heart and head, desperately trying to decide when the timing would be right to break from cover. His father’s caution and the sheer scale of Edward’s army faced off against his desperate desire to be king over a better Scotland. Wallace’s murder tipped him right over the fence as renewed popular fury gave him the support he knew he would need.
The murder of John Comyn, Bruce’s hasty crowning at Scone and his disastrous defeat at Methven were all superbly delivered, respecting historical accuracy. His family’s resulting dire fortunes and his own virtual exile in Scotland’s isles were emotionally presented with the kind of impact that speaks volumes for the director’s ability and sensitivity. The audience could feel every bit of the torment and strain on Robert – particularly with that moment on the Islay beach where he hopelessly wielded his sword and came so close to breaking down.
The one big gripe I have is with the concluding Battle of Loudon Hill. While the battle itself was simply epic (and with no kilts to be seen, they came later), the role played by Edward II got my eyebrows going. He was not actually at that battle and would not have been in the thick of the action like the Edward we saw on screen. The Scots would also certainly not have allowed such a high-value prisoner to just walk free afterwards, vomit-covered or otherwise. With the possibility that this may be a stand-alone story though, I do appreciate the need for the film to be closed and for the two leaders on either side to have had a conclusive role in the climax.
If a sequel were to have been pre-agreed, I suspect the ending would have been very different. Edward II was at Bannockburn and hopefully this on-screen adventure is not over yet.
A word on the characters
I found the relationship of Robert and Elizabeth, and Robert’s daughter Marjorie, the most emotionally-charged of them all. Elizabeth was magnificently played by Florence Pugh and her strong character took mere seconds to be emotionally accepted by the audience. She was one of the goodies straight away and her protectiveness towards Marjorie and loyalty to Robert was extremely moving. While Outlander has romantically swept us all up in recent times, this was a love-story based on fact and the hoped-for reunion on Seacliff Beach made for a beautiful ending. Whether the Bruce was a big romantic softy or not can neither be confirmed nor denied with certainty but, for me, Mackenzie got the balance right between dour and serious Scotsman and a man with strong family values.
Special mention to Robert’s inner circle as well. His loyal brothers, Angus Og Macdonald and, of course, James “The Black” Douglas, were outstanding contributors to the film’s dynamic. Douglas was a legendary fighter and a true friend and ally to Robert throughout his conflicts. His manic, borderline psychotic portrayal was a definite stand-out. His family lands stripped from him because of his father’s loyalty to Wallace, James was none too happy about how besmirched the name Douglas had become and felt the need to scream it repeatedly at his English enemies in conflict. ‘What’s ma f**kin’ name?!?’ would have had us all chuckling inappropriately between grimaces in that Loudon Hill bloodbath.
My relentless weekend ended with a viewing on the big screen for me at Glasgow Film Theatre. The director, David Mackenzie, and producer, Gillian Berrie, were in attendance for a Q&A afterwards giving me first-hand access to the background of the film’s early origins. Gillian noted the need for this chapter of Scots’ history to be broadcast and for the story of Robert the Bruce to be properly told – it all began with that. Grossly unfair treatment at the hands of the Braveheart scriptwriters left him firmly in the shade of Wallace in many people’s minds and yet his efforts were, in truth, much more impactful. In that, Outlaw King unquestionably delivers.
What an adventure. A campaign that saw a gigantic reach across social media and a response to the film that has been almost entirely positive ends with an exhausted blogger crawling into bed and allowing himself a cheeky smile of satisfaction. I was joined on this campaign by fellow Scotlander, The Castle Hunter, and his passionate account (with further historical input) can be found here. Do you feel Outlaw King did justice to The Bruce’s story? Did you enjoy it as a film? And, crucially, will you join me in the clamour for a sequel?
This project was sponsored by VisitScotland to promote the Netflix release of the film. It will astonish no-one that my passion for this kind of campaign is entirely genuine and that these Outlaw King filming locations get my hearty endorsement as great destinations to visit, particularly if you are a fan of the movie.
Movie images above courtesy of Netflix.
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