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Scottish Cinema’s Understated Linguistic Diversity: A Brief Overview of the Scottish Film Industry

Kristine Robbyn Chick


Scotland’s cultural revival of the last decades has been accompanied, in Scottish film, by an exponential increase in Scottish productions and co‑productions. However, the optimism with which we might greet this development is somewhat mitigated by a perceived lack of diversity.
Researchers generally concur that the dominant discourses and representations of modern Scotland in film are of white urban working class heterosexual male experience (Sillars, 2009; Martin-Jones, 2009; Hill, 2000; Lea et Schoene, 2003; Morgan, 2003; Neely, 2008), despite the decline of the industries, growing unemployment and evolving demographics. Seldom noted but directly related and relevant is that the rich heterogeneity present in the set of language varieties known as Scots (whose status as a distinct language rather than as a ‘deviant’ variant of English has been steadily undermined since the Union of the Crowns) is also lacking, so that Scots is now a language that is often only spoken at the margins of Scottish films, and increasingly limited to stereotyped comical characters. Hence the multilingualism inherent throughout Scotland, where both Scots and English are widely spoken, is undervalued. However, this has not always been the case, as we will see with reference to the films of Douglas’s childhood trilogy (1972–1978), predominantly in Scots, and Radford’s
Another Time, Another Place (1982), unique in Scottish film history as a bilingual film in Scots and non-subtitled Italian.
Given the dominance of the three myths of Scotland (Tartanry, Kailyard and Clydesideism), coupled with the prevalence of English as a commercially viable and culturally dominant language of cinema, Scotland’s multilingualism is rarely showcased, but nevertheless a handful of filmmakers have brought either community languages (such as Urdu, Punjabi or Polish) or foreign languages (such as German, Italian or Arabic) to Scottish screens. In these films foreign languages are linked to the politics of power, and brought to rural Scottish communities as a consequence of war, whilst the presence of community languages are to be found in films that explore diasporic communities and syncretic ‘new’ ethnicities, particularly in the urban setting.
The centrality of multilingualism in shaping and informing our evolving cultural identities and inter-cultural relations is often overlooked, to the extent that even when linguistic plurality is present in films, it is often passed over ‘in silence’. Accordingly, none of the Scots language films that will be discussed in this article are recognised as such in their technical production details in the industry. Similarly, the fact that filmmakers such as Douglas, Loach, Radford and Ramsay value foreign languages such as Arabic (Douglas), Italian (Radford), German (Douglas), Spanish (Ramsay), Urdu (Loach) has gone largely unnoticed. To understand and encourage further expression of multilingualism in Scotland, we might perhaps begin by admitting the linguistic diversity which already exists.

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  • 1 See Neely (2008) for further discussion of this point, particularly in reference to Margaret Tait a (...)

1John Hill has argued that only a national cinema can adequately address the specificities, preoccupations and experience of contemporary cultural life (Hill, 1992). Duncan Petrie however lodges the caveat that while this may be so, without the necessary support structures in terms of production, distribution and exhibition to guarantee consistent production of films, this responsibility will fall to a mere handful of individuals who will thus “by default end up carrying the burden of national projection” (Petrie, 2000, p. 172). The argument is further developed by Sarah Neely (Neely, 2008, p. 153) who stresses that the bias of funding organisms further limits the diversity of representations, because the support structures and individuals that choose which projects to dote with funds are not neutral and hence dramatically influence the tone—and I would add, also the linguistic diversity—of national output.1

2These arguments confirm those of film studies scholars such as Appadurai, Higson, Lim and Naficy who draw attention to the “limitations of the ‘national cinema’ paradigm” which, according to Lim, must no longer be taken as “a self-evidential category of analysis” but rather, if not completely cast away, ought at least to be problematized (Lim, 2012, p. 129).

3This raises the question as to what alternative categories might then serve as conceptual frameworks? Transnational cinema, world cinema, and accented cinema, as well as exilic and diasporic cinema are alternatives that have been suggested, paying tribute to the notion of both a world and a popular narrative form that in some respects are moving beyond the boundaries established by nation states.

4However, having thus acknowledged that the existence of a ‘Scottish Cinema’—or indeed almost any ‘national’ cinema—is debatable, it can nevertheless clearly be argued that there exist a handful of Scottish directors who have enriched the cinematic landscape, providing a much-needed internally generated perspective of Scotland.

5Since the mid-1990s, in tandem with what is generally acknowledged to be the Scottish cultural revival, the film production sector in Scotland (primarily located in Glasgow) has been steadily growing. Decreasing traditional financial dependence on London, the Scottish government recently doubled the Scottish film budget to £20m per year, facilitating the launch in August 2018 of Creative Scotland’s film unit, Screen Scotland, with former BFI executive Isabel Davis as Executive Director since September 2018. Davis is remitted with doubling the value of the Scottish film industry to £160m by 2022.

  • 2 See Neely (2008) and Petrie (2000) for more detailed discussion of the funding processes currently (...)

6While in general the range of films made thus far represent a limited scope of views, due in part to the particularities of the funding process—which often limit diversity in favour of a safe product that will perform well in the international market—a plurality of voices in Scottish film is nevertheless emerging.2 While less than twenty Scottish or Scottish co‑productions were developed in previous decades such as the 1970s or 1980s, that had doubled to roughly forty films in the 1990s, before reaching the current production rate of roughly six films a year in the two decades since 2000 (Creative Scotland, 2014). Problematically, this upsurge in production is not paralleled in the distribution sector, so many locally produced films are never shown. Nevertheless, this growth in production has meant that a small handful of individual filmmakers no longer have to carry the mantle for the whole nation, as was often the case in previous decades. Added to this is the dominance of Hollywood productions, both in theatres and on internet media service providers such as Netflix and Prime.

7Illustrating the above point, such is the dominance, within Scottish film history, of Bill Douglas’s work in the seventies, or Bill Forsyth’s in the eighties, that critics identify two distinct schools of Scottish film to have emerged over the past forty years: light mainstream comedies partially inspired by the more upbeat elements in the bittersweet films of Bill Forsyth, and a darker more socially critical, intensely personal and often autobiographical ‘art house’ tradition of films made by directors who could loosely be defined as acolytes of Bill Douglas (Petrie, 2000, p. 158).

Scots: a set of language varieties

8Before moving on to a discussion of a selection of key Scottish films and languages used therein, let us consider the status of Scots. As linguistic John Corbett observes, the history of Scots in the Scottish media is less easily charted than that of Gaelic. One of the reasons for this is that while both English and Gaelic can be depicted as distinct languages, for centuries, the power imbalance, cultural dominance of England and colonial ideology have led to Scots being presented as merely a ‘deviant’ form of English. Geographical location is also key: “More than in Central Scotland, Scots in the North-East is perceived to be a linguistic entity distinct from English, and is focused by code-switching, rather than the code-mixing characteristic of the Central Belt.” (Macafee, 1999, p. 3)

9Scots can be understood as the term for a set of language varieties “whose presence in the media is diffuse”. Muddying the waters further, while Scots has a vocabulary, grammar and accent distinct from English, it also shares much vocabulary and grammar with English, rendering the two language varieties “usually mutually intelligible” (Corbett, 2008, p. 20). I enter the caveat that in fact, while English is almost without exception intelligible to speakers of Scots, Scots is not in fact necessarily intelligible to speakers of English, in particular if those speakers have neither lived in Scotland, nor been exposed to the language variety. Even within Scotland, speakers of different varieties of Scots are at risk of being mutually unintelligible.

10Added to this, there is currently no regularized pan-dialectical normative orthography governing the written transcription of Scots, and there is on-going debate as to whether a normative or regularized orthography is even necessary (see Eagle, 2013 for detailed discussion). Admittedly, the question of normative orthography is of lesser relevance to Scottish cinema studies than to literature, but is nevertheless pertinent in that the lack of normative orthography may serve to undermine recognition of Scots as a legitimate and distinct language or dialect. This problem is further compounded and made directly relevant to cinema when adaptations of works of literature that were written and published in the Scots language, such as Alan Warner’s 1995 novel Morvern Callar (written in Oban dialect) or Trainspotting (Irvine Welsh, 1994) are adapted to the screen featuring characters speaking anything from Standard English to a diluted form of Central Urban Scots.

11Despite the diverse Scots varieties spoken across the country, the full spectrum of language varieties are typically not represented in cinema. Instead, “given the stereotypical gritty realism associated with televised and filmed Scottish drama, most of the Scottish voices heard in films are more or less diluted versions of urban Central Scots” (Corbett, 2008, p. 28). Given film’s capacity to record, transmit, and conserve oral traditions, accents, languages and dialects, regardless of whether they be transcribed or not, this situation can be regarded as regrettable.

The gradual effacement of Scots in Scottish film

12In this section we will consider the role of language and the gradual effacement of the Scots vernacular, as witnessed in Bill Douglas’s autobiographical Childhood Trilogy in the seventies, and two more recent films by Lynne Ramsay: Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002).

13Bill Douglas, who in many ways could be described as the father of the Scottish feature film, is increasingly recognized as a world-class filmmaker whose mastery of montage cinema is on a par with Eisenstein’s. And yet somewhat uniquely, as Petrie explains, Douglas also “dissolves the essential opposition” between montage cinema and Bazinian realism, by drawing not only on the Soviet school of Eisenstein and Pudovkin, but also on the progressive and supposedly antithetical aesthetics of filmmakers such as Dreyer, Murnau, Stroheim and Flaherty, who invest the image with a powerful resonance and potential to expose ‘reality’ (Petrie, 2000, p. 159).

14The subject of whether or not Soviet montage cinema is diametrically opposed with Bazinian realism and whether, if so, the two can be reconciled may be debatable, and discussed at length elsewhere. Suffice to say here that examples of each can be found in his powerful, at times harrowing films, but that, despite critical acclaim on the continent for his first feature-length film, which won the Silver Lion in 1972, back in the UK Douglas struggled to receive financial investment as a director. Therefore he made only four films, and is best known for his first three, which constitute the seminal autobiographical trilogy My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973) and My Way Home (1978). In stark black and white, with no extra-diegetic music, the films depict the childhood and late adolescence of a boy named Jamie. The opening scenes of My Childhood are filled with joyous dialogue, where one cannot make out distinct conversations but rather the collective banter of a community, as mine workers leaving the mine chat amongst themselves at the end of a day’s work. In a highly romanticized scene, Jamie looks on from a distance as gleeful children jump into their fathers’ outstretched arms. In these opening scenes, language serves not to communicate specific meaning, but instead almost as music; the distinct conversations are indecipherable, but the contented ambiance of family and community is created. Significantly, Jamie, present at the mine only to scrounge around for scraps of coal, is clearly excluded and wistful. The narrative rapidly reveals that he lives as though orphaned, with his maternal grandmother and half-brother in extreme poverty.

  • 3 In my classification of voice as empathetic sound, I was inspired by Michel Chion’s description of (...)

15Voice and language, though indecipherable, have a positive role in the opening scenes, where voice is less as an instrument of verbal expression than of empathetic sound.3 In sharp contrast, from then on, the Scots language—only rarely used in the first two films of the trilogy, which are predominantly ‘silent’—is invested almost uniquely with a destructive force, to label or criticize, from My Childhood’s first audible words of dialogue: “Yer selfish!” to insults exchanged between neighbours “Ye hoor!” or between family “She wanted tae destroy ‘im!”, “He ne’er cared aboot me”. Language is also the vector of learning and loss, “Where’s ma ma?”, “She’s deid”, “Whit does deid mean?” And finally, language is something to be exchanged, when Jamie forms a filial bond with a German prisoner of war, and begins to teach him English, while learning German, only to lose this surrogate father too, at which point language acts as a barrier and Jamie is unable to understand his final farewell.

16Scots is the dominant language in the Douglas trilogy, centred as it is on a working class mining community, whilst ‘polite Scots’ and Standard English are spoken by the middle class characters in the films, such as the head of the orphanage who advises Jamie not to return to his kin in My Ain Folk. Later, in My Way Home Jamie is stationed in North Africa, received pronunciation (RP) English is spoken by the cultivated young man and fellow soldier who, through kindness and playful sensitivity towards Jamie, stands out as unique in the films and offers the hope that Jamie may finally find something akin to home, far from Scotland.

17This migration of Jamie far from Scotland and his affinity with the gentle speaker of RP English can be construed as a reflection of the uncertain status of Scotland in the late seventies, firmly depicted as a place to escape from. Craig comments that “The Trilogy has been viewed as an iconic overturning of the nostalgic representation of the Scottish nation” (Craig, 2009, p. 59) thus heralded by critics, but according to Craig, in his elaboration of a theory of nostophobia, the Trilogy further confirms that “the narratives of Scottish films are driven by modes of escapism”, in this case of the working class individual’s ability, and even need, to transcend the boundaries of his working class experience (ibid., p. 67) It is a salient point that the phobia identified by Cairn for home can also be seen to be extended in the films to a phobia for the mother tongue, with the Scots language gradually abandoned as Jamie’s evolution through the Trilogy progresses.

Trouble left unsaid in Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher

18Providing a point of transition between the films of the two directors discussed in this section, Douglas is commonly cited by critics as a precursor to one of Scotland’s few female directors, Lynne Ramsay (Wilson, 2003, p. 109; Martin-Jones, 2010, p. 19). While this comparison holds some validity, it ignores a key component of Ramsay’s signature style, the surrealist influence of Maya Deren. Beyond that, it is true that both filmmakers’ first films include dialogue spoken in Scots, stem from a school of European art house cinema, and explore childhood from the perspective of a young boy growing up in a working-class environment who experiences death and mourning, and who is often painfully silent.

19Whereas Douglas’s Trilogy is set in the mining village of Newcraighall (now a suburb of Edinburgh) in Ratcatcher Ramsay gives voice to a marginalised community not on the outskirts of Edinburgh, but in the heart of Glasgow’s Govan neighbourhood, where it is both set and filmed. Ratcatcher centres on 12-year-old James and his community over the course of several weeks one summer in the mid-1970s, a period marked by social unrest and strikes across the UK and the Glasgow bin men were on strike. While Govan is infamous for poor housing and individuals experiencing multiple deprivation, this was exacerbated by inadequate local and national government action following the decline of the ship-building and related industries. A point of suspense overhanging the narrative centres on the family’s hope that they will soon be re-housed by the council, but in the meantime they live in over-crowded conditions and surrounded by the stagnant waters of a dis‑used canal. The dramatic event which structures the narrative takes place here, as James and his best friend Ryan engage in a moment of play fighting in the water, which results in James shoving Ryan further into the canal’s murky waters and running away, thus unwittingly killing his friend.

20Following his best friend’s death, James’s intimate experience of disintegrating innocence, although seldom explicitly verbalised, is matched by the growing piles of disintegrating waste accumulating around his community, so that the leitmotifs of decay, both moral and material, are echoed throughout the film. Linguistically, as with Douglas’s child protagonist, Ramsay invites us on a journey where often language fails to fall from her main character’s lips. Framing and mise-en-scène allude to James’ sorrow and guilt, but as Wilson simply puts it, James “does not frequently verbalize his feelings” (Wilson, 2003, p. 116). Ultimately James chooses to escape his pain by drowning himself in the place where his friend drowned, thus confirming, albeit pessimistically, the aforementioned mode of escapism which haunts so many Scottish films. The dying child’s final dream, floating submerged in the canal’s cold dark waters, is of he and his family moving into the newly built house he had visited earlier in the summer.

21Despite the fact that this vision of moving into the house is framed on either side by James drowning, some critics, such as Wilson, have confounded the ‘real’ space of the ideal house earlier in the film with the ‘dream’ space of the idealized house ‘dreamt’ as James dies, thus imagining a far more redemptive ending to the film than Ramsay actually provides us with. Wilson concludes that “While it is by no means certain that James will survive his ordeal and prove able to emerge from the stillness of his mourning to move into the empty space of the new house, the film nevertheless images this prospective move as progress” (ibid., p. 122). It seems to me that the logic of the film suggests, on the contrary, that this move will never happen. Furthermore, the fact that the only way to bring it on screen is through the dying child’s vision of an unattainable future, is, as I have written elsewhere, “a bitter indictment against government policy and systemic failure to cope with the crippling housing shortage that further decimated and marginalised the already suffering working classes in the post-war decades” (Chick, 2016, p. 5).

Language reflecting political and social marginality

22Political, social and economic marginality is highlighted in the film through language. Ratcatcher draws on the contrast between the Scots language and Standard English to elicit reflection on the hierarchy of power and authority administered to the margins from the political centre, London.

23From a postcolonial perspective, the use of Scottish vernacular instead of Standard English signifies an act of rejection of the metropole’s control of both communication and the means of communication, a rejection which itself can usefully be interpreted as the abrogation not only of the language (Standard English) but more profoundly also of “[…] imperial culture, its aesthetic, its illusory standard of normative or ‘correct’ usage, and its assumption of a traditional and fixed meaning ‘inscribed’ in the words” (Ashcroft et al., 1989, p. 38, in Dìaz, 2009, p. 37).

24The language spoken by James and his community is Scots (the Glaswegian dialect of Central urban Scots). The community’s language contrasts starkly with the RP English of the voices of authority on the televised news: the ‘experts’ and commentators impose their own ‘external’ language, words and official interpretation on the events of the summer. In so doing, they undermine the legitimacy of the strikers’ cause and, with the authority invested in Standard and RP English as the dominant culture’s language, effectively ‘re‑write’ the story of the community’s experience in a pro-establishment, anti-strike context in the news broadcasts shown on television sets not only across Britain, but also in the very living rooms of the neighbourhoods affected by the strikes.

Reconciling specificity and universality

25Two films with strong female leads have raised the issue of reconciling linguistic authenticity (when it comes to the Scots language varieties on‑screen), and the question of wider comprehensibility of Scots south of the border and beyond. Both Ramsay’s Morvern Callar’s and Glazer’s Under the Skin’s (2013) lead protagonists are—or at least seem to be—English women in Scotland: Morvern (Samantha Morten) and ‘the alien’ (Scarlett Johansson) respectively.

26Morvern Callar is based on the novel of the same name by Scottish author Alan Warner. The novel was written as Morvern’s first person narrative in the distinctive Oban dialect, and yet Ramsay cast Morton, speaking in her native Nottingham accent, in this role. The criticism this casting choice engendered was predominantly reliant on comparison with the commercially successful Trainspotting (Doyle, 1995) and its liberal use of Renton (Ewan McGregor)’s Scottish accented voiceover. Writing about Ramsay’s adaptation of Morvern Callar for the screen, critics extrapolated that eliminating the Oban dialect that was such a distinguishing characteristic of the novel would inevitably result in a negation of the film’s cultural specificity. Especially highlighted was the idea that Ramsay’s choice represented a missed marketing opportunity for the film, rather unfortunately lauded as “the female Trainspotting (see Neely, 2008, p. 160).

27As Dwyer notes, accent and dialect serve to locate narratives in precise locales and thus are potentially alienating to spectators, whereas English is the language of Hollywood, and Hollywood has undeniably “promoted the universalization of the English language as the idiom of speaking subjects” (Dwyer, 2005, p. 304). As the Scots dialogue of the Douglas Trilogy and Ratcatcher may impede comprehension beyond Scotland, one can hypothesize that Ramsay’s choice was driven by a desire to seek out a wider audience, and perhaps also marks a certain concession towards market forces and the perpetual “tension between authenticity and comprehensibility (which) is an ongoing concern for productions that are shown outside Scotland” (Corbett 2008, p. 28). However, the allure of casting an actor as talented as Morton should not be under-estimated either.

28The fact that Johansson adopts an English accent in Under the Skin failed to gather the same criticism; the novel upon which it is based is written in Standard English. As in Morvern Callar the supporting characters speak the local dialect, and this, along with the authentic settings and fly-on-the-wall footage guarantees that, regardless of the dialect, accent or language spoken by the leading actor, the narratives are identifiably located in precise locales.

29Turning the tide and bringing Scots back to the small screen is Outlander (2014–), featuring extensive Scots and Gaelic dialogue; both languages serve not only to add authenticity to the script but also at times to isolate the English character, who must rely on the willingness of speakers of these tongues to translate for her, or else remain an unwitting observer.

Gaelic language films

30In contrast to the situation for films in the Scots set of language varieties, British state support for Gaelic language and culture is manifest through the “1990 Broadcasting Act’s establishment of a Gaelic Television Fund of £9.5m per year” (Martin-Jones, 2009, p. 108). This has since grown to £12.5m per year, subsequent to the Scottish Executive’s decision in 2007 to attribute an additional £3m annually. Despite the ‘renaissance’ that Gaelic has enjoyed since the 1980s, it is still in decline, so that Gaelic remains a minority culture and language in Scotland, spoken by just 1% of the population (less than 60,000 individuals).

31While Gaelic language films are rare, they are more easily identifiable than Scots films, given the distinctly different qualities of the language. The mid-nineties saw a plethora of Gaelic language short films, largely thanks to the short-lived Geur Gheàrr scheme. More recently, Seachd: The Inaccessible Pinnacle (Miller, 2007), based on the short film Foighidinn (Miller, 2003) explores the mythical and fantastical qualities of Gaelic storytelling, and even claims to be the first Gaelic feature film, yet according to Martin-Jones this title is held by Hero (Platts-Mill, 1982).

32Although it is not unheard of for a film, even a mainstream Hollywood one such as Braveheart to contain some Gaelic dialogue, As an Eilean (Alexander, 1993) is rare in Scottish film in that it contains “a large proportion of Gaelic language dialogue” (Martin-Jones, 2009, p. 107). As an Eilean’s narrative stresses the importance of education and the oral tradition in safeguarding and transmitting Gaelic language and culture. The film itself, like its adolescent main characters—Callum and Kirsty—plays the role of ambassador promoting Gaelic. Martin-Jones (2009) decries the tendency to discuss contemporary Scottish film in terms of images of a national identity, arguing in favour of recognizing the existence of multiple Scottish identities, or of “Scotlands” (Crawford, 1997, p. 93 and Martin-Jones, 2009, pp. 106–7). In this context he stresses a viewing of Gaelic films as expressions of a cultural and linguistic minority identity in Scotland. Although Martin-Jones notes that when a character in As an Eilean posts a letter to his brother in New Zealand “thereby acknowledging centuries-long emigration from the Gàidhealtachd to various points on the globe”, curiously, both as critics and as spectators we are led to believe that this pattern has been one way, with no reciprocated immigration to the Gàidhealtachd despite the fact that “the historic identity of the Gàidhealtachd as a nexus of various trade routes” is evoked in the film (Martin-Jones, 2009, pp. 110 and 109 respectively).

  • 4 This of course is historically accurate: Robert the Bruce would have spoken the Anglo-Norman dialec (...)

33David Mackenzie’s historical drama about Robert the Bruce, Outlaw King (2018), produced by Glasgow based Sigma Films and California based Anonymous Content, distributed by Netflix, and with a budget of $120m, is reportedly Scotland’s most expensive film to date, and contributed as much as £17.5m to the local economy. Rather clumsily edited, perhaps due to the 20 minutes cut following its premier at the Toronto International Film Festival, Scots (more precisely early Scots or Northern Middle English) and Gaelic are absent, despite the clear opportunity, in this historical epic, for a variant of each to be spoken. For instance, regarding Gaelic, the language was widely spoken across Scotland at the time during which the film is set. When newly crowned as the King of Scots, but with an army of only 40 men, Robert the Bruce flees to Islay, where the islanders would undoubtedly have spoken Gaelic in the 1300s, as they did long after (the majority of inhabitants in all parishes of Islay were Gaelic-speaking even in the first quarter of the 20th century). Gaelic was not outlawed by the Crown until 1616, and Bruce himself would have been a fluent Gaelic speaker as it was his mother’s tongue. The absence of Gaelic would not be as remarkable, were it not for the presence in the film of dialogue in French: not long after leaving Islay and returning to the mainland, the Bruce addresses a handful of newly-freed French prisoners in French, for no apparent reason other than to show audiences that this was a language he mastered.4

Community languages and ‘exotic Scotland’

  • 5 See Martin-Jones (2010, pp. 70–2) for detailed discussion of economic incentives.

34As Glasgow continues to position itself internationally as a favourable environment for filming,5 and Scotland is marketed to the Bollywood industry as an ‘exotic’ tourist destination for location filming, ties between Mumbai and Glasgow are consolidated. The immensely successful Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Johar, 1998) and the popular Pyaar Ishq aur Mohabbat (Rai, 2001) are just two examples of Hindi language films containing many sequences and emblematic scenery and monuments filmed in Scotland. However, they are foreign productions. To find community languages such as Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi or Arabic in Scottish cinema is extremely rare; England has thus far been more successful in offering linguistic variety, in films such as Chadha’s 1993 Bhaji on the Beach (English and Punjabi) and 2002 Bend it Like Beckham (English, Punjabi and Hindi); Winterbottom & Whitecross’ 2006 The Road to Guantanamo (English and Urdu), Gavron’s 2007 Brick Lane (Bengali and English); De Emmony’s 2010 West is West (English and Punjabi) and Morris’s 2010 Four Lions (English, Urdu and Arabic), to name but a few.

35The well-established Chinese-Scottish communities, already known as a silent minority, remain absent from filmic representations, as do newer diasporic communities such as the Polish. In the domain of identity politics the lack of representation of cultural minorities and community languages are indicative of the continuing dominance of a monolithic identity still too often imposed upon Scottish culture.

36Pratibha Parmar’s Nina’s Heavenly Delights (2006) is one of very few films, along with Loach and Laverty’s Ae Fond Kiss (2004), to give any indication that there is a significant South Asian diaspora in major Scottish cities. Set in Glasgow, Parmar’s semi-autobiographical film eschews realist modes of expression in favour of a mildly Bollywood-inflected love story between Nina and her co‑chef. The innocent tone of the film and its optimistic resolution of the family’s dramas contrast with the ‘miserabilist’ depictions of Glasgow to which spectators are accustomed. Indeed the naïve tone of the feature, which Parmar herself describes as an “urban fantasy”, is unusual for the filmmaker, whose profound poetic documentaries have positioned her as fiercely dedicated to challenging simplistic definitions of identity, violence against women and ethnic and gendered discrimination. In terms of identity politics, as in Ae Fond Kiss, the characters of South Asian origin seek to reconcile their desire for personal freedom with the expectations of their immediate family, and common to Parmar’s work, this culminates in a “celebration of the multiplicity inherent in the identity of any individual” (Whitehead, 2008). Nevertheless, from the perspective of giving voice to community and marginal languages, the characters speak in standard Scottish English, so that despite Kenyan-born UK citizen Parmar’s South Asian ethnicity, it is Ae Fond Kiss which provides aural space to Urdu as spoken by communities living in Glasgow.

  • 6 Loach and Laverty’s other Scottish films include Carla’s Song (1996), My Name Is Joe (1998), Sweet (...)

37With a Gaelic title, borrowed from a Burns poem, Ken Loach and writer Paul Laverty returned to Glasgow for their fourth Glaswegian/West of Scotland film in what has since become a quintet.6 As in all of Loach’s Scottish films, Scottish dialect and code-mixing between Scottish English and Scots is prominent, but Ae Fond Kiss has the merit of also giving voice to Glasgow’s Pakistani diaspora. The British Asian community is comprised of a diverse range of intersecting communities originally from the Indian subcontinent, who speak several Modern Indo-Aryn languages (including Punjabi, Urdu, and Bangali).

38In Just a Kiss, “through each of the Kahn children, the development of hybrid or syncretic cultural identity is shown in three progressively more accented stages, from the more traditional older sister Rukhsana, via the hesitant middle ground occupied by Casim, to the consciously rebellious Tahara” (Chick, 2020, p. 11). Social anthropologist Steven Vertovec describes this production of hybrid cultural phenomenon as “new ethnicities” formed in youth who have grown up in “the cross currents of differing cultural fields” (Vertovec, 1999, p. 20).

  • 7 Reflecting the sectarian divide which is still rife in Scotland, Rangers is Glasgow’s Protestant fo (...)

39Some of the most frequently quoted lines of dialogue in the film are the outspoken Tahara’s bold assertions on identity and cultural expectation, made to classmates and her family. When the character of Tahara declares herselfnot Pakistani” to her father, and to her school assembly proudly asserts that she is a “Ranger supporter” and “Muslim” (both of which are highly provocative assertions in a Catholic Glaswegian school7), these moments provide on‑screen crystallizations of the afore-mentioned phenomenon Vertovec describes, of young people self-consciously selecting aspects of culture and identity from more than one source.

40In fact Tahara’s assertions are also cohesive with Ballard’s analysis: drawing an analogy between cultural and linguistic practise he observes that “Just as individuals can be bilingual, so they can also be multicultural, with the competence to behave appropriately in a number of different arenas, and to switch codes as appropriate” (Ballard, 1994, p. 31).

41The expression of self-conscious identity formation expressed so vividly through the character of Tahara is particularly relevant to Scotland, which is historically more ‘open’ to immigrants than its Southern neighbour, and falls “In line with the philosophy of civic nationalism and its perception of citizenship as being based on residency, rather than birth or origins” (Chick, 2020, p. 11).

42As I have discussed in more detail elsewhere, researchers in Glasgow have found that “the extent to which members of the Glasgow-Pakistani Muslim community reject mainstream British values is paralleled phonetically in their accents” and researchers identify three sub-groups. Thus, in their sociophonetic study of /t/ in Glasgow-Pakistani girls, Alam and Stuart-Smith confirm that:

[…] fine phonetic variation which indexes ethnicity is in fact indexical of local ethnic identity. In other words, they found that the girls speak differently depending on their cultural affiliation. Classed in three different degrees, like the Khan children, they found that those who identify with and conform to traditional Pakistani culture (such as Casim’s older sister, Rukhsana) retain linguistic markers indicating this, while those who clearly appropriate many aspects of the host culture and simultaneously reject elements of their own heritage adopt linguistic traits of the Glaswegian and/or British accent that reflect this. (Chick, 2020, p. 11)

43Although this fine phonetic variation is not mirrored precisely in Ae Fond Kiss, it is worth noting that Rukhsana eschews both the use of local Glaswegian dialect and those local customs not in harmony with her faith, while Casim and Tahara each adopt, to progressively more pronounced degrees, both cultural practises typical of Glasgow and linguistic uses typical of central urban Scots dialect. We can, notably through linguistic markers, accent, dialect and languages in the film, note that Ae Fond Kiss is not just about present-day Scotland, but also the global context of intercultural relations, cultural transformation and the development of hybrid and syncretic cultural identities.

Foreign languages in Scottish film

44Another Time, Another Place includes sequences in Italian, without subtitles.

  • 8 Their first collaboration was Michael Radford’s 1980 adaptation for the BBC of Jessie Kesson’s auto (...)

45The Italian diaspora accounts for nearly 2% of the Scottish population. Another Time, Another Place was the second collaboration8 between novelist Jessie Kesson and director Michael Radford. The point of view is that of the young woman Janie, whose energy and thirst for life is stifled by the oppressive nature of her community and husband. A small group of Italian prisoners of war is held on her farm, and their Italian language dialogue inhabits the soundtrack without subtitles, thus highlighting—for spectators who are not fluent in Italian—their foreign, unknowable ‘otherness’. This also posits the Italians as transient members of this landscape, dislocated from and incomprehensible to the locals. Consequently, in Another Time, Another Place the place and presence of non-Scottish language and non‑Scottish speakers in Scotland is rendered as at best temporary and entirely separate from—or parallel to instead of interacting with—the place inhabited by the native. On the other hand, despite her desire for change and to escape the limitations of her native town and culture, the female protagonist is portrayed as an involuntarily permanent inhabitant of Scotland, for whom the mysteries of Italian culture and the Italian language remain unsolvable, unknowable. Thus language is used in the film to highlight the gulf that separates the rural inhabitant from the rest of the world, reinforcing the notion of the imposed insular condition of the rural Scottish native, in this case almost held hostage by community and spouse.


46The gradually emergent lingual, cultural, and gender-based plurality seen in some of the films discussed in this chapter suggests that Scottish film may be evolving towards offering the public a representation of culture based much less on the severely oppositional and contrasting stereotypes and identities historically imagined (including the Kailyard, Tartanry and Clydesideism identities), and more on a burgeoning and innovative heteroglossic cohabitation between many identities and languages. While no doubt a hierarchy and image of a ‘normative or standard Scot’ will remain, the transcription to the screen of alternatives may at last provide an avenue for the expression of so much that hitherto was repressed, or simply not expressed, in particular as regards minority identities.

47In the seventies, with the almost complete absence of maternal figures in Douglas’ films, the mother tongue itself (in this case urban Central Scots) is abrogated: the films are almost silent in an aural transcription of the silence and emotional distress of the orphaned child. In comparison, in the nineties Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, with its profusion of female characters, as mothers, sisters, friends, and neighbours, is replete with dialogue in the Scots tongue. While Douglas’s film reflects the hesitantly uncertain state of the nation in 1978, and is ultimately pessimistic about the possibility of its young Scottish protagonist’s ability to find or be ‘home’, particularly in Scotland, twenty years later in post-devolution Scotland, on the surface Ramsay would appear to be less ensnared in the questions of national representation that are typical characteristics of the ‘Scottish predicament’. And yet, her films are barely more optimistic about the protagonists’ ability to be, or belong, in Scotland, with suicide or flight being two avenues of escape favoured by her films’ protagonists.

48The dominant actors in a culture inevitably influence the ways in which people are represented, or represent themselves. From a cultural standpoint, the dominance of men in Scottish society is discernible not only in the three myths of the nation commonly applied to cinema (Tartanry, Kailyard, and Cyldesidism) but also in accessibility to leading roles in the industry. So bleak is Scottish cinematic history in terms of female directors that it was not until 1992 that the first Scottish film by a woman was made (Blue Black Permanent, Margaret Tait). As such, Lynne Ramsay’s award-winning Ratcatcher (1999) was only the second Scottish feature directed by a woman. The production of popular cultural narratives is still dominated by male writers and directors, and despite the decline of the industries, increase in unemployment and service sectors, and the growing ethnic diversity of the major cities, Scottish culture is still overwhelmingly represented from a male perspective and as white and working class.

49However, these are not the only determining factors governing diversity of representations. Because the hadith discourages representational art, resistance in Muslim communities (especially Sunni) towards the acting and directing professions means that the emergence of an indigenous Scottish-South Asian filmmaking culture is uncertain, but the community is active and innovative in other medias, such as radio, internet broadcasting, and the music industry, with some potential for cross-over and acceptance within the communities.

50Finally, Martin-Jones (2009) examines films that either renegotiate or reject the Kailyard, Tartanry and Clydesideism myths of the ‘nation’, dominant images of Scotland in film that were identified by McArthur in 1982 but continually nuanced since. Despite the temptation to analyse cinema’s potential for constructing national identity, he contemplates the increasing representations on screen of variant ‘regional identities’ that sometimes—but not always—engage with the three prevailing myths, and argues in favour of avoiding assimilating regional with national, thus moving away from discussions of monolithic national identity, by admitting Scotland’s diverse and distinct regional and minority identities.

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1 See Neely (2008) for further discussion of this point, particularly in reference to Margaret Tait and the Scottish Arts Council.

2 See Neely (2008) and Petrie (2000) for more detailed discussion of the funding processes currently and historically in place in Scotland.

3 In my classification of voice as empathetic sound, I was inspired by Michel Chion’s description of empathetic music in Le Son (Paris, Armand Colin, 1984).

4 This of course is historically accurate: Robert the Bruce would have spoken the Anglo-Norman dialect of French spoken by his father’s family and parts of the Scottish aristocracy at the time.

5 See Martin-Jones (2010, pp. 70–2) for detailed discussion of economic incentives.

6 Loach and Laverty’s other Scottish films include Carla’s Song (1996), My Name Is Joe (1998), Sweet Sixteen (2002) and The Angels’ Share (2010).

7 Reflecting the sectarian divide which is still rife in Scotland, Rangers is Glasgow’s Protestant football club, whilst Celtic is traditionally Glasgow’s Catholic club.

8 Their first collaboration was Michael Radford’s 1980 adaptation for the BBC of Jessie Kesson’s autobiographical novel of the same name, The White Bird Passes (1958). See Petrie (2004, p. 76).

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Kristine Robbyn Chick, « Scottish Cinema’s Understated Linguistic Diversity: A Brief Overview of the Scottish Film Industry »Études écossaises [En ligne], 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 31 mars 2021, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Kristine Robbyn Chick

Kristine Robbyn Chick is a PhD teacher, researcher and translator at Département des Langues et Cultures, Université Toulouse 1 Capitole.

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