“Scotland was like a character in the movie, not just a location," says Jenni May-Dennis, President of the San Antonio Highland Games, held annually in Texas. 

The movie is A Merry Scottish Christmas, brought out by American channel Hallmark, known for the cringe worthy but loveable festive films it churns out every year. 

It’s not the first time the Christmas movie market has tapped into the romanticisation of Scotland - Netflix released A Castle for Christmas in 2021, which follows a best-selling American author as she travels across the Atlantic for Christmas, falls in love with a Scottish castle and attempts to convince the duke who owns it to sell it. 

Hallmark’s take on Christmas in Scotland also involves a duke, but it puts much more emphasis on highlighting Scottish traditions, to quite an extent. The San Antonio Highland Games community in Texas immediately organised viewing parties for last month's premiere, to discuss the film and its portrayal of a country they love and are fascinated by.

A Merry Scottish Christmas first came to Jenni's attention as she flicked through the calendar she has printed out detailing every holiday movie being shown on Hallmark and other channels from 14 October through to New Years’ Day, which she shows me over Zoom. 

Hallmark movies are a big deal during the festive period in the US. This year, A Merry Scottish Christmas is one of 42 new Christmas movies the channel has released. They may be light-hearted with an often predictable plots, but they attract huge audiences. On the night of the last US presidential election, more people tuned into Hallmark than to CNN’s coverage of the results.

Read more: Well here it is, Merry Christmas... a history of festive No 1s

In the film, Scott Wolf and Lacey Chabert play estranged siblings who travel to Scotland to reunite with their mother for Christmas, when a big family secret is revealed. 

The concept of returning to the land of one’s ancestors resonated with the Texan-Scottish community, says Jenni. “We have lots of folks whose dream is to retire to Scotland. There’s a bit of that in a lot of our members and so the plot kind of resonated that you would be accepted there.”

When planning the viewing parties, Jenni, who has never been to Scotland before but has been involved in San Antonio Highland Games for 16 years as a way to celebrate her Scottish roots which go back six generations, hoped there would be plenty of examples of Scottish traditions in the film to discuss, and she was not disappointed. 

A scene in which the siblings eat haggis for breakfast was a talking point in Texas. “It was a little unnerving. We do have places that serve haggis, but it would never be in the morning. 

"They announce they are going to have a traditional Scottish breakfast and one of the characters asks ‘what is haggis?’ I couldn’t even listen to the explanation because I just kept thinking to myself, haggis for breakfast, that doesn’t sound right!” Jenni says. 

The Herald:

Hallmark could not have done a Christmas movie on Scottishness without bagpipes making up a large portion of the soundtrack. 

The Highland Games that Jenni’s committee organises in southern Texas is the only time attendees really get to hear the instrument live, she says. “There isn’t a lot of bagpiping happening out on the streets of San Antonio, Texas, but there were a lot of bagpipes everywhere around the village in the movie. People play bagpipes all the time.

“That was a big question we all had - is it really that common to hear bagpipes everywhere you go in a small village in Scotland? The group were really excited about that because they love that kind of thing, but it’s never going to happen in South Texas.”

Another standout for the US audience was the wardrobe, predictably made up of an array of tartans and kilts. Attendees at the San Antonio Highland Games viewing party were particularly shocked by how many different kilts each character had. 

“For us around here, most people don’t have lots of tartan kilts. You have one or maybe two. So the questions were about dry cleaning and the upkeep of the kilts. The costuming was a really nice backdrop to the whole movie,” Jenni says. 

Read more: Treasure Island, Pavilion, Glasgow strikes gold with four star panto

One aspect of A Merry Scottish Christmas universal to Hallmark Scottish films is the Christmas trees and decorations everywhere. 

Alick Hay saw the castle that has been in his family for almost 300 years transformed into a winter wonderland decked with Christmas trees in June this year when the crew came to film. 

The Herald:

Duns Castle in Berwickshire was the setting of parts of the film, with the rest of the scenes having been shot either further north in Inveraray or in the Irish country of Kildare near Dublin. 

The owners of the property were approached only six weeks before filming, which Alick, who has hosted film crews at the castle before says is “very short notice”. 

“They were under considerable time pressure because of the screen actors guild strike in America,” he added. “It’s obviously troubling for them that they filmed this in June as it’s supposed to be a Christmas movie and all the leaves are still on the trees.”

Alick points out that a lot of the Scottish aspects are over exaggerated and slightly stretching of reality, but he liked the film and how it presented his family castle.

“It was charming. It was very good fun. A little overly Scottish at times. But I think that’s what the Americans think the Scottish are like when they’re having fun.”