10 great films about Scottish history

From Culloden to Ratcatcher: 10 for Burns Night.

25 January 2024

By Jamie Dunn

Culloden (1964)

Why have there been no major films about Robert Burns? On Burns Night, the question comes to mind. Surely his journey from lowly Ayrshire farm labourer to world-famous poet, via a string of passionate love affairs, is more than deserving of the big screen treatment.

Burns’s colourful life story isn’t the only significant chapter of Scottish history that warrants cinematic attention. Given the paucity of films produced in Scotland since the birth of cinema, it’s no surprise that the country’s rich heritage remains underexplored on screen. And when films have been made about the Scottish past, they tend to be of the tartan and shortbread variety, too swept up in the romantic image of the country to say anything insightful. 

Mel Gibson’s hugely successful Braveheart (1995) – a Hollywood production – is the perfect example. An impressively put-together epic, it’s brimming over with fist-in-the-air heroism and cinematic bloodlust, but it’s also full of deeply silly longueurs and sentimental speeches that get in the way of its undeniably rousing moments.

Here are 10 films that, for the most part, avoid the trappings of Highland romanticism to tell more artful tales about Scotland’s past. 

Rob Roy (1922)

Director: William P Kellino

Watch Rob Roy on BFI Player

The story goes that this historical biopic of folk hero Rob Roy was so anticipated that it caused gridlock across Glasgow on its opening night. It’s easy to see why. Rob Roy MacGregor had been immortalised by author Walter Scott in his best-selling series of Waverley novels. A popular figure in the early 20th century, even outside of Scotland, there had been several Rob Roy films made before this muscular, action-packed effort. 

The strapping David Hawthorne certainly looks the part as the stoic outlaw, and hundreds of Scottish soldiers were drafted in as extras, giving the film’s various action set-pieces an impressive heft. The main draw, however, is the expressive use of stunning locations in the Trossachs and around Stirling, with the Scottish landscape adding a majestic sweep to the melodrama.

Also worth seeking out is Michael Caton-Jones’s swashbuckling take on Rob Roy from 1995. Here, Liam Neeson is sturdy and likeable as the title character, but the picture belongs to Jessica Lange as Rob’s fiery wife Mary, and Tim Roth, who’s deliciously dastardly as the film’s chief antagonist. 

Macbeth (1948)

Director: Orson Welles

Macbeth (1948)

Shakespeare’s bloody tale of ambition and murder doesn’t bear much resemblance to the real story of Macbeth’s usurping of Duncan from the Scottish throne in the early 11th century. But then, when did the Bard let himself get bogged down by historical accuracy while spinning a yarn? Orson Welles’s breakneck adaptation, his first stab at Shakespeare on screen, was shot for peanuts over 23 days on a studio backlot usually reserved for B westerns. Despite, and perhaps thanks to the financial and time constraints, the result was a stylised and compelling piece of work.

Welles himself helped design the bravura sets. Cheap as they are, a frugal blend of craggy papier mâché and dry ice, they take on a gothic, nightmarish dimension when shot by future Psycho cameraman John L. Russell. As Macbeth, Welles is terrific, despite his wayward Scottish accent and a misguided headdress. “​​[My costume] should have been sent back,” Welles himself decried years later, “I looked like the Statue of Liberty in it.”

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

Director: John Gilling

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

The story of serial killers Burke and Hare is a gruesome one that still haunts the cobbled streets of Edinburgh. In 1828, the pair murdered 16 people in the city’s West Port area, making a pretty penny selling the victims’ corpses to a local anatomist, Dr Robert Knox, for dissection at his anatomy lectures.

This grimy horror from 1960 is the best of the Burke and Hare dramatisations on screen, not least for the expressive character work from the likes of Donald Pleasence, who’s utterly repulsive as William Hare, and Peter Cushing, who’s more ambiguous as Knox, a talented doctor who’s happy to turn a blind eye to murder in order to obtain cadavers to train his students.

John Gilling’s script pays close attention to class. A doomed romantic subplot concerning a bourgeois trainee doctor, one of Knox’s assistants, and a wild local lass who’s fond of a party and a filthy joke, played by Billie Whitelaw, highlights the disparity between the haves and have-nots in 19th century Edinburgh. Even with Monty Berman’s tasteful black-and-white cinematography, there’s a lurid quality to the images. The Scottish capital wouldn’t look this grotty and debauched on screen again until Trainspotting (1996).

Culloden (1964)

Director: Peter Watkins

Culloden (1964)

The brutality of war is laid bare in this 1964 BBC-produced docudrama, the first feature-length film from Peter Watkins. It transports viewers to 1746 and the sodden Culloden Moor, where the final battle between the Jacobite Scottish Highlanders and the English Army is to take place. The Jacobites, led by an inexperienced and foolhardy Bonnie Prince Charlie, are outgunned, outmanned and outmanoeuvred; it’s a slaughter. The battle lasts a mere 68 minutes, the same length as the film.

Watkins isn’t simply recreating the Battle of Culloden, though. His delicious innovation, which would become his signature style, is to shoot the event like it’s a piece of contemporary TV news reportage, complete with a plummy-voiced narrator, and a camera crew on the ground among the skirmish conducting vox-pop-style interviews with the beleaguered infantry and their commanders. It’s an inspired technique that brings this horrific 18th-century conflict vividly into the present.

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1974)

Director: John Mackenzie

The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil (1974)

This dazzling Play for Today film kicks off where Culloden ends. Adapted by John McGrath from the radical play of the same name, which he devised with his groundbreaking agitprop theatre group 7:84, it tells the story of the economic exploitation of the Scottish Highlands, from the forced evictions of farms during the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th century to the striking of oil in the North Sea in the early 1970s.

The form is as radical as the content. Directed by John Mackenzie, the film blends sketches, monologues and rip-roaring musical numbers from the play, filmed in front of an audience, with vivid recreations of the key moments during the Clearances and the hyperbolic news footage and archive clips documenting the oil discovery. It’s a heady stew, wildly entertaining and riotously funny, but brimming over with furious anger. 

Small Faces (1995)

Director: Gillies MacKinnon

Small Faces (1995)

Violent gang culture provides the backdrop to this lively teen drama, centred on three brothers coming of age in late-60s Glasgow, where gangs like the notorious Tongs rule the hardscrabble streets. The oldest brother has already joined a gang, but the middle brother looks to have found an escape through art school and a new girlfriend. The youngest and sharpest of the three, Lex, played with oodles of charisma by 14-year-old newcomer Iain Robertson, finds himself at a crossroads between these two paths. 

Director Gilles MacKinnon wrote the script with his brother Billy, mining their childhoods for their own brief brushes with the city’s violent underbelly. The result is a film alive with quirky details and surprising digressions. The sincere script is matched with vivid period detail and startling vistas of dilapidated tower blocks that failed miserably in their Corbusian ambitions to improve the lives of working-class Glaswegians. 

Ratcatcher (1999)

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Ratcatcher (1999)

Lynne Ramsay’s knockout debut feature takes place in 1973, when Glasgow was in transition. The last of the city’s slum housing stock is being torn down, with families being rehoused to shiny new estates on the outskirts of town. James, the film’s 12-year-old protagonist, is growing up with the rest of his family in one of these to-be-demolished schemes. He spends his childhood dreamily playing by the murky waters of the neighbouring canal that are becoming more rat-infested by the day thanks to a prolonged bin-men strike. 

Ratcatcher is full of cruelty and pain. A child drowns in its opening minutes. Other children are physically and sexually abused, and if they’re lucky, simply neglected. Even in the film’s darkest moments, though, Ramsay is alert to the poetry of life, which is exemplified by her film’s sublime shifts into moments of magic realism. Ramsay seems to know that, like the city of Glasgow itself, ugliness and beauty often sit side by side.

The Eagle (2011)

Director: Kevin Macdonald

The Eagle (2011)

Kevin Macdonald’s The Eagle didn’t quite take flight on its release, but this old-school historical drama is sturdy and stirring, and much better than the “poor man’s Gladiator” it was dubbed by critics. Based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s beloved Boys’-Own adventure book The Eagle of the Ninth – which took inspiration from the historical records of a real Roman legion that disappeared on an expedition north of Hadrian’s Wall – the film follows a young Roman centurion (Channing Tatum) in 140 AD as he sets out to discover what happened to the missing legion and its commander, his father.

More akin to a gritty western or downbeat war movie than a sword-and-sandals epic, The Eagle is distinguished by its robust action set pieces and luminous cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. Tatum acquits himself well and has chemistry to burn with his co-star Jamie Bell, a feisty Caledonian slave who soon warms to his Roman master. 

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Director: Josie Rourke

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

After Macbeth, the member of Scottish royalty most popular with filmmakers is undoubtedly Mary Stuart. And who could blame them? Her life was an eventful one, filled with romance, political and religious intrigue and a whole heap of betrayal. Katharine Hepburn played her in John Ford’s Mary of Scotland (1936), while Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson went toe-to-toe as Mary and Queen Elizabeth I in 1971’s Mary, Queen of Scots – for many the definitive version of Mary on screen. Josie Rourke’s messy but compelling 2018 effort deserves a mention, though, for attempting to bring this near-mythic character down to a human level. 

Saoirse Ronan is excellent as Mary, who’s steely but vulnerable as the defiant young queen attempting to outmanoeuvre the various men in her court plotting her downfall. Like the 1971 version, the rivalry between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth I (played here by Margot Robbie) is the heart of the picture, and, similar to that film, an apocryphal final act showdown between the queens (they never met in person) brings fireworks. The fun script by House of Cards’ Beau Willimon revels in the chaotic shenanigans of British politics, and is complemented nicely by Rourke’s sharp compositions and flair for the melodramatic.

Outlaw King (2018)

Director: David Mackenzie

Outlaw King (2018)

In lieu of Braveheart, here’s another action epic concerned with the War of Scottish Independence. David Mackenzie’s film is a more even-headed affair; historians found its version of history to be closer to the official record than Gibson’s bombastic Oscar-winner. But Outlaw King is no less dynamic, delivering plenty of gore and battles for those seeking it.

Chris Pine cuts a dashing figure as Robert the Bruce, and delivers a decent Scottish accent along with the brooding intensity. Similarly handsome is the Scottish landscape: its Highlands, Lowlands, beaches and lochs have rarely looked better on screen. Less pretty is the Battle of Bannockburn, which Mackenzie stages with much verisimilitude, which means it’s a horrifically bloody, muddy, utterly brutal scrum that rings all the truer for its messiness.