Scotland Films for Stay at Home Survival

I’m probably not alone in presently being on the cusp of insanity. Lockdown rumbles on and the sunny spring weather has sadistically tantalised us through the glass as our exciting plans for 2020 have generally been binned. But with signs that the virus is finally coming under some sort of control, albeit at a horrific cost to those that have lost loved ones and livelihoods, we can see that isolation at home has been necessary. In Scotland, we do seem to be on course for several more weeks of this before a gradual and phased easing of restrictions will take place. With that in mind I have some light relief in the form of Scotland film suggestions to give you the injection of Scottishness that you must surely be craving.

Not all of these films are excellent. In fact, you could probably build a solid case that several of them are pretty dire. But they eclectically cover pretty much all that is Scottish – whether capturing the timeless romantic eeriness of our Highlands, our tumultuous history or the grim reality of 20th century slum-life in our cities. Scotland has many faces, some easier to look at than others.

It’s also important to ponder what actually qualifies as a Scottish film. Scottish locations have been used in everything from James Bond to Batman over recent years, but they’ve certainly not been ‘Scottish’ films. Shot entirely in Scotland? Doesn’t seem fair either. Scottish cast or director? No, we’d be here all day. So, I’ve gone with a mish mash that have very Scottish elements at their core and those that, in my judgement, just ‘feel’ Scottish, for one reason or another.

Critical hat on. Step aside Rotten Tomatoes, I got this.

 

Braveheart (1995)

Very likely the first place your mind will go when thinking of Scotland films, the all-action, all-emotion blockbuster continues to wrack up the views 25 years later. I was in primary school at the time but still remember the furore as these Hollywood megastars were rocking up in little old Scotland to take on the challenge of bringing our most impassioned time period alive.

Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau et al did a great job of laying out the tragic rise and fall of William Wallace during Scotland’s 13th and 14th century Wars of Independence. Some historical inaccuracies aside, this was, for many, an education in a saga that every Scot carries in their bloodstream. The furious and relentless rise of the widower Wallace, his epic victory at Stirling and remarkable foray into northern England, the devastating defeat at Falkirk and subsequent unravelling of his impossible dream. It’ll have you researching and fact-checking in a frenetic fury afterwards.

A must-watch.

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wallace monument braveheart scotland films
Wallace Monument, Stirling.

 

Outlaw King (2018)

That it took until very recently for there to be a proper tribute movie to Robert the Bruce defies belief. A true sin of film history, it’s even more egregious given that many people’s opinion of the man was based on the rather wet character mis-portrayed in Braveheart. For it was The Bruce that saw-through Wallace’s mission for Scottish Independence from England and delivered the greatest military victory of all at Bannockburn in 1314.

netflix outlaw king

Outlaw King precedes Robert’s finest hour in that battle by several years and delves into his relative origins as a noble lord with simmering aspirations for much, much more. A complex man, the film is a truly excellent portrayal of someone caught in internal conflict during a time fraught with danger. Emotions will soar in this one and David Mackenzie, backed by a terrific cast, will continue to have many (including myself) praying for at least one follow-up sequel.

 

Trainspotting (1996)

Remember I was saying that some Scottish faces are easier to look at than others? There could be no greater case in point. A horrifyingly wonderful insight into the shadowy alleys of drug-riddled, depraved Scotland, it paints a very different picture to the twee ‘shortbread and tartan’ image of Edinburgh that most of us are more familiar with. Embracing that stark contrast with a sledgehammer, Danny Boyle created one of the iconic scenes of Scotland on screen when two of his cast of addicts opened the film by charging gracelessly down Princes Street with the authorities in hot pursuit.

A sad reality of late 20th century life, I imagine almost all Scots can personally recognise shades of the story and the characters within. Desperate, violent, simple, cringeworthily hilarious, and tragic. Needless to say, VisitScotland and co wouldn’t touch it with a barge poll for a while before reluctantly accepting that this is just as Scottish a story as the Bravehearts of this world. And as with Braveheart, don’t expect to feel too great about the world after watching.

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T2 Trainspotting, a 2017 follow up, is worth a watch too – even if it didn’t quite hit the same notes. The brilliant book by Irvine Welsh is even more graphic, if you can follow the language.

 

The Legend of Barney Thomson (2015)

Defining black Scottish comedy, this Glasgow-set series of unfortunate events didn’t get enough credit. A stellar cast, including a memorable performance from Emma Thompson in particular, must have had a great time acting out a ridiculous yet somehow just-about-believable plot. A Bridgeton (a pretty rough region of the city, I lived there once so I get to say that) barbers manages to find itself at the centre of a serial killing spree. With the police closing in on local barber Barney (played by the always-good Robert Carlyle) as the culprit, his predicament lurches from dire to ludicrous as the net drops.

Easy watching and with plenty of laughs, especially for fans of the Glaswegian outlook on life.

 

 

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Exploring the story of the most famous woman in Scottish history, this modern take on Mary’s story is….interesting. Focussing very much on the strained relationship between Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie) there are some liberties taken with historical accuracy and, for most, it just didn’t quite make it despite the right ingredients. Unlike its numerous history-themed peers in this list, don’t expect much by way of riveting action, although the excellent performances from Ronan and Robbie help to compensate.

Although filming took place sporadically in East Lothian, Glen Coe and parts of the Cairngorms, it was disappointing not to see more of Scotland in there.

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Shallow Grave (1994)

This almost surreal film was a directorial debut for the soon-to-be-famous Danny Boyle and delivers plenty of youthful familiar faces, including Ewan Macgregor. The scene is set in Edinburgh New Town with three young normal-enough professionals going about their business in a shared flat. Drenched in insolent humour that gets increasingly dark as the story unfolds, it’s another easy-watcher.

Shot in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, there’s shades of Trainspotting, a little sprinkling of Goodfellas and The Shining creeps in ominously too. While it’s not going to be anyone’s favourite movie, expect a kind of unsettling mix of laughs, grimaces and jumpy moments. And murder, plenty of that too.

 

Local Hero (1983)

A piece of absolute genius, I don’t think you’ll find a more cleverly touching advert for Scotland than this 80s classic. It follows the story of ‘Mac’, a Texas oil executive sent to rural Scotland on an investigative work trip that slips into something much more personal and life-changing than he could have imagined. Scotland does its thing. Beautiful filming locations include Camusdarach Beach on the west coast and the serene Aberdeenshire village of Pennan. Watching it now, it’s dated sure but the core messages are still entirely valid and you’ll find yourself very easily getting swept up in it.

scotland films local hero beach
Camusdarach ‘Ben’s’ Beach.
pennan aberdeenshire local hero filming
Pennan village, Aberdeenshire.

local hero

Great direction from Bill Forsyth, a memorable cast including Peter Riegert and Burt Lancaster and a brilliant soundtrack ensure this will be forever have a special place in the hearts of all Scotland film fans.

 

The Wicker Man (1973)

Regarded as one of the all-time classic horror movies, this is one of those that will linger ominously in your memory. A Scottish policeman enters into a self-contained other world when investigating a disappearance on a remote Scottish island, finding himself caught up in a tribal nightmare that results in a horrifying climax.

Conducting the mad orchestra of islanders is the uniquely chilling Christopher Lee. A surreal maze of temptation, confusion and barbarity entrap the well-intentioned outsider in a terrifying spider’s web. Be warned, you may never look upon our islands quite the same way again.

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Filming locations included Plockton, Culzean Castle, various villages in Dumfries and Galloway and Skye’s inimitable Storr.

 

My Name is Joe (1998)

A Glasgow classic. That being said, if you’re not from Scotland (and probably from Glasgow actually) you might struggle with this one. Broad accents and insight into grim, crime-influenced deprivation and slum lifestyles make it a heavy watch. In the Trainspotting mould to an extent, director Ken Loach again touches on a side to Scotland, and the Scots, that don’t make it into the guidebooks. But to truly love and understand a place you need to tip-toe into the dark places occasionally too.

The highlight is a superb performance by lead Peter Mullan, as Scottish as they come.

 

Rob Roy (1995)

In a similar, less successful, vein to Braveheart this fanciful historical depiction is still a decent watch. Exploring the tumultuous 18th Century life of Rob Roy Macgregor, a young Liam Neeson kicks plenty of English arse while dealing with personal tragedy and moral quandaries throughout. Stoic man of honour, he is depicted in a very favourable light in the face of his greedy Anglicised enemies. Magnificent Highland scenery steals the show for me, during what ultimately becomes a Highland version of Cowboys and Indians (Redcoats and Clansmen). Rob Roy himself, in reality, still holds a legacy split between Highland rogue and murderous outlaw.

Also starring Scottish favourite Brian Cox, Jessica Lange and Tim Roth as the odious, fictional, villain.

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Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Comfort and Joy (1984)

Two Bill Forsyth films (That Sinking Feeling being another) that are very dated these days but that will have Scots of a certain age purring with nostalgic delight.

Following the best efforts of dizzy Cumbernauld teenager Gregory to get the attention of an unexpected female addition to the high school football team, it’s bizarre from the get-go. Scots will get plenty of chuckles, others will likely just be lost.

Comfort and Joy delves into the odd world of Glasgow’s ice cream wars of the 1980s (to an extent at least) and sees a local journalist getting caught up in a turf war between two Italian families looking to dominate this seemingly most innocent of markets. Yip, daft. But also good for a few chuckles.

 

Robert the Bruce (2019)

Hot on the heels of Outlaw King, this new tribute to maybe the greatest Scot of all is a sequel of sorts to Braveheart. Without the budget for epic battles and Hollywood stars, it mimics Outlaw King in delivering a big hit on the emotions and leaves you hoping for a follow-up. Led by energetic Scottish history fan Angus Macfadyen (continuing his role from Braveheart) the plot centres around the Bruce at his lowest moment, after Wallace’s death and before Bannockburn. Alone, defeated and scunnered, he would be the comeback king indeed.

scotland historical films

I’m personally delighted that both this and Outlaw King focussed much more on Robert the man, giving a very human feel to someone trapped in a seemingly impossible inner conflict. And it was a conflict very much shared by all Scots, at a time when choosing a side would never hold bigger consequences.

 

Extra niche Scotland films:

Ring of Bright Water (1969)

Always a difficult one to hunt down, it’s still one of my personal favourites amongst the ‘oldies’. Documenting a man’s touching relationship with an otter, with some basking sharks thrown in, it’s an alluring advert for our magnificent west coast. The book by Gavin Maxwell is worth seeking out too.

 

Filth (2013)

Another Irvine Welsh-inspired look beneath the surface of our ugly side, the twisted life of a bigoted and deeply troubled Edinburgh police detective is gruesomely presented. Plenty of drugs, sex and violence as you might expect. The odd inappropriate outburst of laughter too.

I’m glad James McAvoy was squeezed in somewhere (for me the greatest Scottish acting talent in circulation these days).

 

Brave (2012)

An animated Disney production in the Beauty and the Beast mould that brings to life the story of fictional medieval Scottish Princess Merida. As headstrong and iron-willed as any red-haired Scots lass, her story is one of strength and independence as fantasy and Scottish traditions clash happily-ever-afterly. Backed by a strong voiceover cast, kids will love it (a good few adults will too).

 

The Angel’s Share (2012)

A more light-hearted Ken Loach number, this runs with the delightful possibility that a down-on-his-luck father can turn his life around with some support from Scotch whisky. If only, eh?

 

Stone of Destiny (2008)

Bringing to life the amusing tale of the Stone of Scone being taken from Westminister Abbey and brought ‘home’ to Scotland in 1950 by four daring Scottish students keen on proving a point, it delivers some heart-warming moments but struggles to live up to its possibilities.

 

Highlander (1986)

Setting Highland folklore and sci-fi nonsense on a collision course was always going to be interesting. Throw in some Queen rock anthems and Sean Connery (I’m appalled this is the only Connery film in this list) as an immortal Egyptian sword master and you can see what kind of mood you’ll need to be in for this one. It’s not for everyone.

 

Under the Skin (2013)

An eerie, disorientating sci-fi that provides plenty of exercise for the imagination. Scarlett Johansson arrives from another planet and drives about Glasgow in a van abducting men. No, really. Unnerving as it was to see this superstar driving around my streets (it was not exactly the tourism-friendly parts of the city that featured either), it was more conventionally pleasant to see Glen Coe and Tantallon Castle making appearances between abductions.

Cheerful stuff, it ain’t, but you’ll be up all night mulling it over.

 

Wild Rose (2018)

Something significantly more upbeat, this edgy heartwarmer is so very Glasgow. A troubled penniless lassie, fresh out of the jail and with a couple of kids to juggle with her dream of making it big as a country singer takes life by the jugular. Plenty of emotional bumps gets her to her promised land of Kentucky, yet like so many Glaswegians (including this one) she finds that what she’s been chasing is not so far away after all.

The incredibly talented Jessie Buckley leads a terrific lineup, here’s a teaser to get you going. There might be a happy tear or two.

 

Restless Natives (1985)

A warning as to the effects of urban boredom (how timely), two Edinburgh youths take it upon themselves to start comically holding up Highland-bound tourist coaches. Motorbikes, clown masks and a Robin Hood/Butch and Sundance mentality turn them into unlikely local heroes, celebrated by everyone except the authorities. It’s every bit as daft as it sounds.

 

Sunshine on Leith (2013)

A kind of musical within a film. Yeah. It follows the story of two young lads coming back from military service to Edinburgh to begin their searches for love. Peter Mullan is in it so there’s that.

 

The 39 Steps (1935)

Strictly one for the old movie fans, this 30s black-and-white Hitchcock classic sees an innocent Canadian holidaymaker in London caught up in a murderous spy ring that forces him to flee from the authorities to hide in…..you guessed it. Even if the style is lost on you, just to confirm that Glen Coe and the Forth Rail Bridge have hardly changed in almost a century is extremely satisfying.

 

Right, that’s quite a Scotland film list! Bases covered, I hope. Weigh in with your thoughts, opinions and tips – this is a line-up that could go on and on and on…..

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32 Comments

  1. Uh…I think you left out “The Bruce” (1996) with Sandy Welch and Brian Blessed.
    At the time I thought that was quite a reasonable movie (although I’ve never been a Brian Blessed fan).
    Did you ever get to see it?

  2. Hi Neil,
    Great list, way to go, I think I have only seen about 50% of the above so will remedy that in the upcoming weeks.

    Not sure if you have considered adding a few classes from Future Learn (www.futurelearn.com) ?
    In the past year or so I have taken their classes on Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and The Scottish Highland Clans. If you sign up to the “free” course you can do the course, but don’t get the certificate. At that price you canny go wrong laddie!

    John Muir Trust has a Wild Places newsletter at the moment with some nice videos and Walk Highlands always recommends some good books, Nan Muir Living Mountain and The Evidence of things not seen by WH Muir.

    Nothing like being a well prepared tourist, you see more and can chat at another level…

    All the best and thanks again
    Andy

    1. Very much agree Andy, you’ll understand a place on a much deeper level with plenty of background research, watching and reading. Living Mountain is a long-term favourite read. Not heard of these Future Learn courses but will check it out. Happy watching in the meantime!

  3. You could add Edie for its GORGEOUS scenery and plucky main character. And a really old one, I Know Where I’m Going, which I saw eons ago on our PBS station, and which sent me to Mull on our first visit to the UK.

  4. Great article as always, Neil … even a few movies I have missed included therein. I’m sure every reader will be adding his/her personal favourites so my apologies but I cannot resist the temptation to mention Hector with the great Peter Mullan, Mrs. Brown (Billy Connolly) and here’s one for the entire family “What we did on our Holidays” with the amazing David Tennant (and Billy Connolly) … the scenery is absolutely stunning and how easily I can relate to the Valhalla scene as a wee laddie growing up back ‘home’ , outside playing with his pals from morning till dusk.
    Perhaps in a future article, you could share favourite Scottish songs and artists, traditional (e.g. Corries, Calum Kennedy, Moira Kerr, etc.) and more modern, of which there have been so many – I just have to shout out Donnie Munro of Runrig fame). Thanks again for a wonderful piece (with jam on it). Please stay safe and healthy (Whisky Galore) and keep up the great writing … you are my Local Hero!

    1. Very good points Gordon – I deliberated long about including Mrs Brown. Connolly almost swung it, it just didn’t ‘feel’ Scottish enough for me. Personal choice, but an excellent film and big fan of Judi Dench too! I’ve never heard of the Tennant one, will look into that! Whisky Galore I’ve only seen the new version and thought it fell short but I should watch the orignial.

      That’s interesting re music. Problem is I’m not a musical guy really, any opinions from me would be woefully amateurish. Who doesn’t love Runrig though. 🙂 Stay safe as well, hopefully we can be out enjoying nature again soon!

  5. OMG, thank you!!!! I have a wifi tv a s can get most anything, so I have hopes of finding most on the list I want to see. Your summaries are priceless!

    1. Good stuff Patricia! Most are available on Amazon Prime, some need to be rented. One or two are not but you can hunt them down on DVD. Happy watching!

  6. Great suggestions Neil! I’ve had Local Hero in the queue for a while now. A suggestion for an absolute fluff romcom (which I can’t imagine you’ve seen) but has delightful Isle of Man scenery is the Decoy Bride. No epic battle scenes, but David Tenant wearing tartan bell-bottoms is noteworthy. It will leave your feeling like you just got a cuddle from your Scottish gran and maybe ate one too many of her favourite licorice all-sorts.

    1. Local Hero is glorious! Not to be taken too seriously but it captures a lot of the Scottish psyche superbly. Never even heard of Decoy Bride but seems they did a fair amount of filming in Scotland as well as Isle of Man, so it certainly applies. I shall seek it out!

      1. Aw yay Julie! Nice to know someone else has seen it! It is wonderfully quirky and the soundtrack is rather sweet.

  7. Has anyone heard of Orphans?? 1998. First Scottish movie in “ English” that had subtitles to interpret the heavy accents. Very black humor, would love to know others opinions.

    1. Missed my radar Kathy, great suggestion! Will look into that one and big fan of Douglas Henshall (I saw him in the supermarket recently actually) and Peter Mullan.

    2. Kathy, I saw Orphans when it came out, probably at the DCA, which tends to show “not block-busters”. If I recall, it had a very limited release and tbh, I’m gob-smacked that it was 22 years ago. I do remember I enjoyed it, with that cast, how could you not. For such a wee country, we punch above our weight in so many ways.

  8. I believe “Whiskey Galore” (the first version) deserves mention on this list although the second version was pretty good also!

    1. Can’t say I’ve seen the original, thought the new version was grim so omitted it for that reason but I’ll need to dig out the oldie for a proper look!

  9. My husband and I watched The Legend of Barney Thomson today. Thanks for the recommendation! We love a black comedy!

  10. I’ve only seen Braveheart and Brave! I’ll have to check these out. While not a movie, I love Outlander too.

  11. Great list Neil, pity I’ve already seen every single one 😁 am glad you stipulated the original 39 Steps, and not the remakes.
    I would add Neds, written and directed by Peter Mullan. It’s not an easy watch though, had me grimacing and keeking through my fingers more than once.
    That scene of The Angel’s Share on the railway platform had me and my chum helpless with laughter. As did virtually the whole of That Sinking Feeling, when I saw it many, many moons ago. Such raw talent. And you should watch the original Whisky Galore, it’s very funny and you’ll just keep going “oh that’s what’s his name?” to yourself.
    You could do tv box sets, etc. next, loads to choose from, both good and not so good. And as for books, that list would be very long.
    Take care, stay safe.

    1. Someone knows their Scottish movies then! Neds I considered watching with a view to inclusion but felt I’d covered that base with My Name is Joe and, especially for international audiences, didn’t want to go too heavy on that part of Scottish culture as might put folk off ever visiting again! Haha. I’m definitely going to watch it for personal enjoyment however, thanks for the tip! The original Whisky Galore too, was disappointed with the new version. TV and books I’ll certainly consider – depends how long the old lockdown continues for I suppose! Stay safe.

    2. Hi Jacqui G, Scottish boxsets sounds like a great next list. I’ll start you off with some maybe slightly more obscure ones:

      Low Winter Sun (2006) – set in Edinburgh and starring Mark Strong (who also starred in the US-remake) along with Brian McCardie – and Bert Kwouk!

      Wedding Belles (2007) – an Irvine Welsh tale with a fantastic Scottish cast.

      Jute City (1991) – John Sessions stars along with Peter Mullan, Dougie Henshall and an acting debut for Fish (Derek Dick.) A fantastic soundtrack by Dave Stewart (Eurythmics.)

      The High Life (1994) – Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson with Siobhan Redmond in a sharp and witty evolution of their “Victor and Barrie” characters.

      The Field of Blood (2011) – Set in a 1980s Glasgow newsroom, Jayd Johnson leads a strong cast including Peter Capaldi, David Hayman and Ford Kiernan performing a Denise Mina script.

      Down Among The Big Boys (1993) – this is part of the Peter McDougall thread for Play For Today which also includes one of Billy Connolly’s early performances in Just Another Saturday (1975). A sharp script delivered by a clean-shaven Connolly and Dougie Henshall.

      The Advocates 1991 – a cast of heavyweight Scots actors explore two cases in the High Court in Edinburgh. Look out for local leading-light, Tam Dean Burn.

      Takin’ Over The Asylum (1994) – Highly-acclaimed gentle comedy-drama starring Ken Stott and a young David Tennant.

      Looking After Jojo (1998) – written by Frank Deasy and directed by John Mackenzie, this was made after Trainspotting but is set a few years before Trainspotting. Bobby Carlyle, Ewen Stewart lead an enormous (by the standards of 2020) cast with their stand-out performances.

      Sea of Souls (2004) – a thoughtful and reflective paranormal investigation drama headed by Bill Paterson and Dawn Steel, Appearances by Peter Guinness, Dougie Henshall, John Hannah, Colin Salmon, Georgie Glen and Siobhan Redmond.

  12. Hi Neil – here are an additional ten suggestions to help you while away the lockdown days, enjoying Scottish films.

    Hallam Foe (2007) – a very Celtic feel and great visuals of Edinburgh. A David Mackenzie script. (Watch out for a Maurice Roeves.)

    Young Adam (2003) – Another David Mackenzie script. Ewan McGregor, Tida Swinton and Peter Mullan lead the Scots in the cast. A cameo by the sublime Arnold Brown too.

    Ratcatcher (1999) – Lynne Ramsay’s debut as writer and director. Bleak at times but also rich with a great performance by Tommy Flanagan at the beginning of his on-screen career.

    Morvern Callar (2002) – Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay after her first success with Ratcatcher.
    The Big Man (1990) – based on the William McIlvanney novel, Kenny Ireland, Johnny Beattie, Ian Bannen, Peter Mullan and Billy Connolly support Liam Neeson.

    Soft Top Hard Shoulder (1992) – Peter Capaldi’s adaptation of a Frank Capra take, Possibly Scotland’s first road movie?

    The Illusionist (2010) – Sylvain Chomet who had been living and working for years in Scotland animates 1950’s Edinburgh beautifully. An adaptation of a Jacques Tati screenplay.

    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) – Adapted by Muriel Spark from her own novel, a barn-storming performance by Maggie Smith resonates with many Scots.

    Just to stir the pot a wee bit, I’d argue that A Simple Twist of Fate (1994) has a Scottish feel to it. Directed by Glasgow-born Gillies MacKinnon, Steve Martin’s adaptation of Silas Marner has strong connections to Scotland (IMHO I think a line can be drawn between the final scenes in L.A. Story (1991) and this lovely little film which premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival.)

    Gillies MacKinnon also made Small Faces (1996) with a great cast of Scots actors but which might be seen as being in the same genre as Trainspotting, NEDS and Ratcatcher.

    Keep safe and well!

    1. Terrific line up Andrew! Have seen a few but several I’ve never even heard of so will get on the case, thanks for the tips! I do love a good barn-stormer 🙂

  13. Hi Neil,
    Thanks for this list. I have not seen all of those, but will most certainly give them a look (e.g. I have only read Trainspotting, but never watched the movie).
    Stay safe!

    1. If you liked the book (and understood the dialect) then sure you’ll enjoy the movie, and maybe T2 as well!

  14. There’s Edie (already mentioned by someone above) with Sheila Hancock, and a very depressing movie called Shell, almost exclusively filmed near Dundonnel, if I’m not mistaken.

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