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Bringing 20th century Scotland to the screen

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04 February 2022

Bringing 20th century Scotland to the screen

Professor of Film

Friday 4 February • Viewing time: 1 minute

Our researcher’s BAFTA nominated documentary From Scotland With Love – commissioned for the 2014 Commonwealth Games – has become a touchstone of Scottish identity, and helped bring a new kind of history to audiences around the world.

2014 was big for Scotland. It was the year of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Scottish independence referendum, two major events that shone a spotlight on the country and its people. To mark this historic moment, I was asked to create a film that would reflect on national and cultural identity – and put Scotland up on screen.

As a Professor of Film in the Department of Media Arts and Communication, my research is very much practice-based. I’ve spent years writing and directing distinctive films that experiment with narrative form. For this project, I was interested in using cinema to explore identity, culture and memory, while telling the story of people who are often missing from mainstream history.

After months of research at the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive (NLSMIA), I wove together thousands of images into a compelling narrative. The result? From Scotland With Love (FSWL) – a 75 minute feature film created purely from archive footage, with original music by Scottish singer/songwriter King Creosote

Since its premiere, FSWL has been shown at cinemas and events around the world, reaching millions of people. Its ‘new kind of history’ is also engaging diverse audiences, including the Scottish diaspora, school children, new migrants and communities living with dementia. 

The making of From Scotland With Love

I carried out my initial research at the NLSMIA, where I viewed hundreds of films ranging from family archives to government documentaries, protest films, ads and B-movies. From these, I chose over 4000 images relating to universal themes of 20th century Scotland, including love, loss, emigration, war, work and leisure. These were then arranged thematically in the edit room, without any voiceover or narration. I wanted to let the footage speak for itself – and give audiences space to find their own meaning there. 

From the outset, it was important to me that FSWL told the story of ordinary Scottish people. By simply showing them work, play, dance and live, I wanted to create a new kind of ‘history from below’. Central to this was an emphasis on women, who are so often absent from mainstream narratives about the past. Key sequences in the film, such as one where we see them working in a lino factory, helped shine a light on their hidden experiences.

Music is also a vital part of the film. While constructing the visuals, I worked alongside the composer (King Creosote) and sound designer, so each process shaped and influenced the other. This unique approach helped add another layer of meaning to the footage and bring out its emotional story. For example, evocative images of fisher-lassies gutting fish inspired ‘Cargill’, a love song about life at a fishing port from a female perspective. 

A cultural touchstone

FSWL premiered with a fantastic live performance of the score at the 2014 Commonwealth Games Cultural Festival in Glasgow. It had an amazing reception, encouraging audiences to reflect on, and celebrate, Scottish history and culture. Since then, it’s been released in more than 60 UK venues, screened at festivals around the world, and aired by the BBC 10 times.

The film gained particular significance in the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, when questions of national identity were front and centre. To engage the public with these themes, we took FSWL to over 20 regions as part of a tour of defining Scottish films. From the Borders to the Highlands and Islands, it enabled people to take part in discussions about what it meant to be Scottish at this crucial time. I found it very moving to see audiences inspired to get involved in their own history, with many of them sharing photos and memories at the screenings.

FSWL has also been shown at a number of culturally defining events, including the opening of the new Forth Road Bridge and the National Museum of Scotland exhibition about the history of Scottish popular music. Further afield, it engaged the Scottish diaspora via film festivals in the US, Canada and New Zealand. Their positive feedback showed how much they valued seeing their culture reflected from afar.

Crowded beach in Scotland
Still courtesy of National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive / Faction North Ltd

Reaching new audiences

The film is also inspiring young people across Scotland. For example, the NLSMIA education and outreach team uses it in creative workshops for a range of different age groups, from school children to university students. In Edinburgh, it inspired pupils from a deprived school to make a film about their own community, and in 2017, it was added to the educational platform Scotland on Screen. Recently, the NLSMIA, Screen Scotland and the British Film Institute partnered with Into Film to produce a new learning resource based on FSWL to help teachers and young people engage with their history and culture, and develop their filmmaking skills. 

Interestingly, FSWL has also been used to introduce new migrants and asylum seekers to Scottish culture and traditions. The film’s lack of dialogue and focus on universal themes make it particularly accessible, as language isn’t an issue. I’m pleased that my work has played a small part in supporting these groups as they arrive in a new country.

And the film’s reach doesn’t stop there. It’s been shown to people living with dementia in over 70 care homes, community centres and hospitals, as well as at two special dementia-friendly screenings for the Glasgow Film Festival 2020. We found that the film really worked in these settings, where its unique mix of archive footage and music evoked powerful memories and created a strong sense of community for people living with dementia, their caregivers and families.

Preservation and innovation

FSWL couldn’t have been made without the NLSMIA, which goes to show just how important it is that archives are preserved for future generations. Not only has the film highlighted the cultural value of archive film to audiences around the world, it’s shown how it can be used in new ways to tell different kinds of stories. 

Our unique approach to reflecting a nation’s history is making waves in the filmmaking world. Production companies in Norway and Ireland are adopting our collaborative, non-dialogue, music and archive method to create new films, and it was used in We Are All Migrants – a film looking at European migration. FSWL has also been recognised for its innovative distribution techniques, which combined cinemas, live events, TV, album release and promotion by King Creosote’s label Domino Music.

More than just a film

When I began working on FSWL, I never imagined the kind of impact it would have. What started out as a beautiful, poetic film, a unique take on 20th century Scottish history, has become a cultural touchstone that’s captured millions of people from all different walks of life. It’s been a huge labour of love, and I’m incredibly proud to have been able to share the story of ordinary Scots whose names didn’t make the history books.

The film has now taken on a life of its own, with audiences continuing to find new meaning in it. For example, it was recently shown at Phosphorescence Festival in relation to its use of movement and dance, while Patti Smith and King Creosote performed the song from its protest sequence to mark the start of COP26. Looking forward, I hope it continues to enrich lives, bring joy to as many people as possible and inspire them to engage creatively with their history and culture.

Staff

Virginia-Heath

Professor Virginia Heath

Professor of Film

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REF 2021 Research Excellence Framework logo

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Research partners

Faction North Ltd

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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