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.

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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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