Scottish Cinema: national cinema or regional cinema?

This piece was originally written as part of my Ph.D., rewritten for a journal but not published, lost (!), and now found. The issue of scale in the UK film industry – local, regional, national, global – has not been adequately addressed, and this piece attempts to establish some sort of rational for thinking about how a particular part of the UK (Scotland) can be thought of as part of the British nation without destroying what is unique about Scottish cinema. Duncan Petrie’s work on cinema in Scotland provides an approach that recognises and attempts to solve this problem; and I find it much more successful than Martin McLoone’s confused use of spatial metaphors. Although it seems a little dated in the films it refers to, the problems identified in talking about the cinema of the UK’s so-called ‘Celtic fringe’ are still relevant.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has been described as a ‘multinational state,’ comprised of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, that lacks a coherent national identity (Rose 1982). Given this situation it is far from clear that filmmaking in the United Kingdom may be defined as a single British national cinema, rather than as a set of national cinemas that is comprised of English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish cinemas. British cinema studies frequently regards English cinema as being co-extensive with British cinema, and treats Scottish, Irish, and Welsh cinemas as ‘national’ cinemas in their own right. However, this approach is problematic as Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales do not exist as independent and sovereign nation-states in their own right, while marginalising the diverse cultural geography of England. In this paper I discuss the problems of describing the cinema in terms of geographical categories (e.g., centre, periphery, national) in two discussions of contemporary Scottish cinema, and I argue that Scottish cinema is best understood as a regional cinema of the UK.

Cinemas of the Celtic fringe?

Martin McLoone makes a distinction between the Anglo-British cinema and the cinemas of the ‘Celtic fringe,’ in which he includes Wales, Scotland, and, to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland. (He does not include Cornwall in this categorisation of the cinemas of the periphery). McLoone states that in the past, British cinema was synonymous with an assertive, middle-class, metropolitan Englishness. The Celtic fringe was not ignored by this cinema, but was ‘traduced into playing a peripheral and heavily circumscribed role within the larger national project.’ The centrality of the English and their continued right to dominance was, he states, reinforced by an ‘internal colonialism’ in which the ‘metropolitan urbanity’ of the English was set in counterpoint to the Celtic fringe that was projected as being a wild, romantic, and essentially irrational place peopled by loveable rogues. This internal colonialism was ‘dependent upon a strict division of labour in which English and Englishness predominated and the Celtic fringes and their primitive languages were marginal’ (McLoone 2001: 52).

McLoone argues that recent films such as Human Traffic (Justin Kerrigan, 1999) and Late Night Shopping (Saul Metzstein, 2001) challenge the dominant colonial traditions of the British cinema, leaving behind the stereotypes of tartanry and kailyardism (which he associates with all non Anglo-British cinemas) and recasting the relationship between centre and periphery. He characterises them as presenting an attitude of ‘anywhere-but-traditionally-British,’ and representing ‘a kind of decolonisation of Britain’s Celtic fringe’ (McLoone 2001: 52). McLoone writes that the cinemas of Britain’s Celtic fringes have a double focus: they produce films that are ‘concerned to explode myths and move beyond the regimes of representation that have been bequeathed by dominant British cinemas down the years;’ and that they also explore the dominant nationalist responses to the centre.

Above all, this is a cinema that is no longer content to operate on the margins. These are cultures that are no longer content to be peripheral and exploited partners in a strict cultural division of labour. In fact, this new cinema has pushed peripherality into the centre and now operates on the very cutting edge of a contemporary cultural debate about identity (McLoone 2001: 54).

McLoone is right to identify a transformation in the relationship between the constituent parts of the UK in the 1990s, and that this transformation has been represented in the cinema.

However, this argument is problematic. First, McLoone does not examine the role of territory coherently. He initially states that Human Traffic and Late Night Shopping make little reference to their locations (respectively, Wales and Scotland) and are characterised by an ‘urban placelessness,’ a sense of ‘dislocation’ and ‘inbetweeness;’ and yet it is clear that his argument is based precisely upon an awareness of space, territory, and an awareness of place, as the genesis of these films on the Celtic fringe is described as ‘very important’ (McLoone 2001: 51). As a consequence, it is not clear at what territorial scale the Celtic cinema should be understood: McLoone refers to them as ‘national’ cinemas but never suggests how they might exist as such within the nation-state of the United Kingdom. In fact, as fringe cinemas they must be considered as part of a British national cinema. As it is to be defined in terms of its relation to a central point, and the statement that ‘this new cinema has pushed peripherality into the centre and now operates on the very cutting edge of a contemporary cultural debate about identity,’ is linguistically very troubling: how can a fringe cinema place the periphery at the centre whilst it is on the edge? As McLoone describes it, contemporary Celtic cinema longs to be both at the centre and on the periphery.

Second, the concept of Celtic cinemas as ‘fringe cinemas’ is dependent upon a simplistic model of the centre and the periphery in the UK that fails to account for the diversity and complexity of British political and cultural geography. For example, Rose (1982: 11) has argued that there is no nation associated with the UK state: ‘No one speaks of the “UKes” as a nation;’ while Michael Keating (1988: 10) suggests that ‘the United Kingdom lacks even a term for the common “nationality” of its citizens.’ Robin Cohen writes that,

British identity shows a general pattern of fragmentation. Multiple axes of identification have meant that Irish, Scots, Welsh and English people, those from the white, black and brown Commonwealth, Americans, English-speakers, Europeans and even ‘aliens’ have had their lives intersect one with another in overlapping and complex circles of identity construction and rejection. The shape and edges of British identity are thus historically changing, often vague, and, to a degree, malleable – an aspect of British identity I have called a ‘fuzzy frontier’ (Cohen 1994: 35).

In light of the complications with regard to the appropriate terminology that can be applied to the UK and its citizens, it is unsurprising to find that, in the opinion of Gamble and Wright, the ‘British have long been distinguished by having no clear idea about who they are, where they are, or what they are’ (2000: 1). McLoone’s model that neatly divides contemporary cinema in the UK into a Celtic ‘us’ and an Anglo ‘them’ is unconvincing given the complicated nature of identity in the UK and lacks the required flexibility to deal with the ‘fuzziness’ of what it means to be British. Furthermore, it is a model that assumes the Celtic fringe exists a single entity and does not respect the differences between Wales, Scotland, and Ireland – territories that do not share a single Celtic culture, a border, or history – whilst ignoring Cornwall completely.

Third, McLoone assumes that England can be represented unproblematically as a homogenous entity, and fails to acknowledge that the North East, the North West, Yorkshire and Humber, and the South West all have strong regionalist movements (largely inspired by the Scottish Constitutional Convention), and each makes significant claims to a unique identity and wish to see that identity represented on film. Films such as Blue Juice (Carl Prechezer, 1995), Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996), and 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) are as concerned with issues of centrality and peripherality, regional cultures, and regional identity as films emerging from the Celtic fringe of the UK. These films dramatise the shift from traditional heavy industries to cultural industries in the late twentieth century, and make the case that the rest of the UK needs to recognise this shift and reorient their mental maps of the regions. They emphasise the vitality of regional subcultures (surfers, brass bands, Madchester), and make the case that the nation should respect the uniqueness and diversity of the regions, recognising their contribution to the cultural life of the United Kingdom. The challenging of traditional images of the North of England, for example, is as much a part of contemporary British cinema as the challenge to the traditions of tartanry and kailyardism (see, for example, Redfern 2005).

Terminology and industry

A similar problem with terminology arises in attempting to describe the relationship between the United Kingdom and Scottish cinema. Duncan Petrie’s analysis of recent Scottish cinema has been inspired by the upsurge of creativity in Scottish filmmaking in the mid-1990s. At the root of this film boom is the sense of alienation felt by many Scots from the Conservative governments of the 1980s, and the ‘bold new affirmation of Scottish cultural creativity and self-expression’ that accompanied this political dislocation (Petrie 2000a: 153). This upsurge is identifiable in the critical and commercial success of ‘Scottish’ films such as Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994), Small Faces (Gillies MacKinnon, 1996), Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996), Orphans (Peter Mullan, 1999), and Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999) that have introduced a new generation of filmmakers (e.g., Andrew Macdonald, Danny Boyle, Lynne Ramsay) and actors (e.g., Ewan Macgregor, Robert Carlyle) to the world of cinema. At this time a number of international productions including Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995), Rob Roy (Michael Caton-Jones, 1995), and Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996), also represented Scotland to audiences around the world, and, in the case of Braveheart particularly, were adopted by Scottish nationalist organisations. Petrie cites the emergence of a new indigenous institutional framework and new sources of film finance that as the most important developments in creating the conditions for the development of recognisably ‘Scottish’ cinema. The merger of a number of pre-existing bodies to form Scottish Screen in 1997, the establishment of the Glasgow Film Fund in 1993, and the distribution of lottery money by regional arts councils has stimulated film production and film culture on a sub-national level in the UK. Similarly, the Scottish film industry has benefited from a number of programmes to develop and showcase new talent throughout Scotland, and it is through short film programmes such as Tartan Shorts, Gear Ghear, and Prime Cuts that filmmakers such as Peter Mullan and Lynne Ramsay have come to the fore.

For Petrie, the development of Scottish filmmaking from the mid-1990s represents a significant change in the representation of a Scottish identity in the cinema.

Until recently, the cinematic representation of Scotland has been largely an external creation, produced by and securing the commercial needs of a London-based British film industry, or occasionally Hollywood. The repertoire of images created by an emerging Scottish cinema represents both a challenge to and an extension of certain dominant cinematic projections of Scotland and the Scots dating back to the earliest days of the medium (Petrie 2000b: 1).

However, the extent to which this Scottish cinema may be regarded as a ‘national’ cinema is unclear. Petrie defines the ‘new Scottish cinema’ primarily in terms of a sphere of indigenous practice, and describes it as a ‘national’ cinema (2000a: 162). However, he acknowledges that Scottish film production and reception only has meaning in relation to the rest if the United Kingdom:

Scottish productions rely heavily on securing deals with British distributors and being shown in cinemas across the United Kingdom, Scottish cinema-going representing only 10 per cent of the UK total for audience figures. … the new Scottish cinema still needs to be seen in the context of the wider British cinema. The new Scottish cinema is a distinct and meaningful identity but as yet its status should be understood in terms of a devolved British cinema rather than full independence (Petrie 2000a: 166).

In regarding the new Scottish cinema as a regional cinema of the United Kingdom it is possible to regard it as representing ‘a distinct and meaningful identity’ without the confusion of the label ‘national,’ which Petrie admits is inadequate at the same time as he employs it. The term ‘national cinema’ implies a degree of homogeneity in recent Scottish cinema that is unwarranted since not all contemporary Scottish films are nationalistic in their attitude: Trainspotting, for example, equates Scottishness with heroin addiction, and the main character’s ultimate escape from both afflictions is to be found in London – the very Anglo centre that McLoone rejects. A regional approach makes it possible to distinguish between the different discourses of Scottishness, from separatism (what Connor [1977] referred to as ethnonationalism) and more moderate (e.g., bourgeois, progressive, or social democratic) forms of regionalism (Keating 1998). This is not to deny that a Scottish national cinema may at some point in the future emerge; but as Petrie seeks to document historical changes in Scottish filmmaking, the use of the term region allows us to be more precise in describing the texts and contexts of the cinema in the United Kingdom since the 1990s.


Adopting a regional approach to contemporary Scottish cinema brings the role of space, place, and territory to the fore without the confusion that is evident in the models of McLoone and Petrie. It is an approach that can be applied to contemporary Northern Irish and Welsh cinemas, as well as the various cinemas of England, making it possible to take on overall view of British cinema since the mid-1990s rather than seeing each part of the UK in isolation. The category of the region is preferable to the nation in discussing the industrial, textual, and spatial relationships between the cinemas that represent various identities (Scottish, Welsh, Yorkshire, Londoner, etc.) within a single nation-state (the United Kingdom) in an era of devolution. By introducing the concept of the regional to the study of contemporary British cinema it is possible to examine the relationship between Britishness and regional identities without relying upon a simplistic core-periphery model, recognising the geographical diversity of culture in the United Kingdom, and allowing us to relate these films to their historical and political moment. Luckett (2000: 91) states that regional difference is ‘increasingly included as an important part of British multiculturalism,’ but in relying on confusing and simplistic spatial categories the analysis of contemporary Scottish cinema runs the risk of becoming evermore parochial as it becomes conceptually remote from the rest of the nation.


Cohen, R. (1994) Frontiers of Identity: The British and the Others. London and New York: Longman.

Connor, W. (1977) Ethnonationalism in the first world: the present in historical perspective,’ in M.J. Esman (ed.) Ethnic Conflict in the Western World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press: 19-45.

Gamble, A. and T. Wright (2000) The end of Britain?, The Political Quarterly 71 (1), 1-3.

Keating, M. (1988) State and Regional Nationalism: Territorial Politics and the European State. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester-Wheatsheaf.

Keating, M. (1998) The New Regionalism in Western Europe: Territorial Restructuring and Political Change. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Luckett, M. (2000), Image and nation in the 1990s, in R. Murphy (ed.) British Cinema of the 90s. London: BFI: 88-99.

McLoone, M. (2001) Challenging colonial traditions: British cinema in the Celtic fringe, Cineaste 26 (4), 51-54.

Petrie, D. (2000a) The new Scottish cinema, in M. Hjort and S. Mackenzie (eds.) Cinema and Nation. London and New York: Routledge: 153-169.

Petrie, D. (2000b) Screening Scotland. London: BFI.

Redfern, N. (2005) ‘We Do Things Differently Here:’ Manchester as a cultural region in 24 Hour Party People, EnterText 5 (2) 2005: 286-306. [Available online:, accessed 19 March 2009].

Rose, R. (1982) Understanding the United Kingdom: The Territorial Dimension in Government. London: Longman.

About Nick Redfern

I am an independent academic with over 15 years experience teaching film in higher education in the UK. I have taught film analysis, film industries, film theories, film history, science fiction at Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Central Lancashire, and Leeds Trinity University, where I was programme leader for film from 2016 to 2020. My research interests include computational film analysis, horror cinema, sound design, science fiction, film trailers, British cinema, and regional film cultures.

Posted on March 19, 2009, in British Cinema, Scottish Cinema. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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