6:30am, August 30, 2021

I’m 57 years old, sitting outside Shetland’s St Magnus Bay Hotel, overlooking a mirror-still loch, wondering what to do with the rest of my life. Deciding that my future lies in writing a book about Scottish films, I email my boss resigning from my position as Professor of Law at Glasgow University, and wake my wife up and tell her what I’ve done…

Two-and-a-half years later, after 3,000+ hours of identifying, researching and watching every Scottish film I could get my hands on (376 of them) my unimaginatively titled book, Scottish Films, is completed. I define a Scottish film as being feature length, set at least substantially in Scotland, and screened in a cinema. Scottish films don’t have to be shot in Scotland (Brigadoon); not all films shot in Scotland are Scottish (Avengers: Endgame).

This list is my top 20. There are bad, OK, good, and great films, but we’ll disagree as to which good film is better than another. And brace yourself – Local Hero is not on the list; I limited myself to one film per-director.

20 Scheme Birds (2019)

In this searingly honest documentary, made by two Swedish directors, Ellen Fiske and Ellinor Hallin, we follow four years in the life of Gemma and fellow residents of her Motherwell housing estate.

The Herald: Orphans Orphans (Image: free)

19 Orphans (1998)

Peter Mullan has directed two strong Scottish films, Orphans and Neds. Glasgow-set Orphans follows the fate of four siblings the night before their mother’s funeral. It provides a rich tapestry of vignettes of Glasgow life, along with punchy wit and dialogue.

18 Limbo (2020)

Edinburgh-based Ben Sharrock’s Limbo follows asylum seekers in a hostel in North Uist. The opening scene is one of the best in Scottish cinema.

The Herald: Sunset SongSunset Song (Image: free)

17 Sunset Song (2015)

There was reason to worry when it was announced that the film of Scotland’s most-loved novel was to star model Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie. Director Terence Davies’ faith was not misplaced – she is terrific. The film is beautiful, and luxuriously slow.

16 The Angels’ Share (2012)

Of Ken Loach’s four Scottish films, The Angels’ Share stands out for lambasting Scottish stereotypes often seen in cinemas. It’s occasionally hilarious and has a warmth often missing from Loach’s films.

15 The Ghost Goes West (1935)

In this wildly entertaining hokum Robert Donat plays an ancestral ghost, and the current laird of a rundown castle, selling it to a clueless American millionaire. Having reconstructed the castle in California, the millionaire puts on an ‘authentic’ Scottish experience which must be seen to be believed.

The Herald: The 39 StepsThe 39 Steps (Image: free)

14 The 39 Steps (1935)

The best of early Hitchcock films, with Robert Donat’s Richard Hannay pursued by police and villains across the Scottish Highlands. Part romantic-comedy, part spy-thriller The 39 Steps retains its verve. The 1959 version with Kenneth Moore is poor; the 1978 Robert Powell version more menacing.

13 The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970)

Roddy McDowell (featured in a decent version of Kidnapped in 1948) was keen to make a film with Ava Gardner, choosing as his source an early British ballad, updated to the late 1960s and the Borders. The cast includes Ian McShane, Joanna Lumley and Stephanie Beacham. This would make a superb double bill with The Wicker Man.

The Herald: Young AdamYoung Adam (Image: free)

12 Young Adam (2003)

David Mackenzie’s film of Alexander Trocchi’s novel is an important work in Scottish cinema, starring Ewan McGregor, Peter Mullan, and Tilda Swinton. Set largely on a barge, this shows parts of Scotland rarely seen in cinema.

11 La Mort en Direct (Deathwatch) (1980)

On release this sci-fi film by French director Bertrand Tavernier was dismissed as fanciful. Decades before Big Brother and ChatGPT it features AI-written novels and focuses on a woman participating in a reality TV show. Shot largely in Glasgow it’s a great record of the city and gave Robbie Coltrane his first film appearance.

10 Gregory’s Girl (1980)

Bill Forsyth’s first three films are central to Scottish cinema. That Sinking Feeling was the first indigenous Scottish film to secure a release; Gregory’s Girl was a UK hit; and Local Hero had international reach. Gregory’s Girl is my favourite (but probably not yours). I’m pulled in by its universality. Most of us have been either an awkward teenage boy, clueless with the opposite sex, or an assured teenage girl who knows boys are clueless. Never, ever, watch Gregory’s Two Girls.

9 Breaking the Waves (1996)

Lars von Trier’s film deals with large themes – love and family, religion and sacrifice, life and death, and is harrowing. It relies on a brilliant performance by Emily Watson in her first film. When I first saw it I was so devastated that I vowed I would never watch it again.

The Herald: The Prime of Miss Jean BrodieThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Image: free)

8 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969)

Jean Brodie is deeply flawed, and Maggie Smith nails it. Edinburgh is such an important character in the film it’s impossible to imagine this in any other setting. Director Ronald Neame made another good Scottish film in 1960, Tunes of Glory.

7 Ratcatcher (1999)

Lynne Ramsay’s first film, set amid the 1973 Glasgow bin strike, sits firmly in the British social-realist tradition. The cinematography is stunning; the largely untrained cast excel. While the background is one of stifling social deprivation, there is too some joy to be found.

The Herald: RatcatcherRatcatcher (Image: free)

6 Red Road (2006)

In Andrea Arnold’s Red Road Kate Dickie occupies a near all-seeing position, monitoring police CCTV cameras. She seeks revenge on a man responsible for the death of her husband and daughter, with surprising consequences.

5 The Wicker Man (1973)

Nothing here should work – the premise is preposterous, some of the casting is bizarre, and the film was at first hacked to pieces in the editing. And yet, perhaps because of these flaws, the sense of all-pervading weirdness works. The same director’s The Wicker Tree doesn’t.

4 Under the Skin (2013)

Alan Rickman wrote, after seeing Under the Skin, ‘this is something very special’. Departing from the disturbing novel the film delivers its own brand of disturbing, with Scarlett Johannson’s alien ‘Female’ harvesting humans. Famously, the shoot involved Johannson soliciting random men on the streets of Glasgow from her van. Director Jonathan Glazer is responsible for 2023’s Oscar-winning Zone of Interest.

The Herald: Trainspotting Trainspotting (Image: free)

3 Trainspotting (1996)

Following Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle made an era-defining second film, the reputation of which continues to grow. Trainspotting established careers and became, briefly, the fourth highest grossing British film of all time.

2 The Bill Douglas Childhood Trilogy (1972 – 1978)

I treat this trilogy as a unified whole. 1972’s My Childhood may be the first truly indigenous Scottish film, and the trilogy was vital in the development of Scottish filmmaking. Made with no prospect of commercial success, these largely autobiographical films are a remarkable record of a life well-lived.

The Herald: I Know Where I'm Going!I Know Where I'm Going! (Image: free)

1 I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

Not just a great Scottish film, but a great film. If you don’t trust me, turn to Martin Scorsese or Mark Cousins. At a time when Scotland was largely reduced to shortbread-tin clichés in cinema, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made a beautiful film, fully respecting our country and its people.


The Herald:

Mark’s book, Scottish Films, published by Steamer Point Publishing in a limited edition of 375 copies, is available at sppscottishfilms.co.uk.