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Scottish Film Culture Before 1938

The First Films of Scotland Committee

Scottish Film Culture Between the Committees

The Second Films of Scotland Committee


Distribution & Exhibition


Scottish Film Culture Before 1938

The first Films of Scotland Committee was set up in 1938.  In a BBC radio programme broadcast the same year, John Grierson (1938, March 31) traced the history of the Films of Scotland Committee to a speech he made in Stirling in 1937 that was taken up by the newspapers, and to the Scottish Film Council's attempt to establish a Scottish film movement.  Earlier in the programme Grierson announced; 'This year Scottish pictures are being made under proper Scottish auspices and for the first time' (p. 2).  This was not in fact the case.  As this section will outline, Scottish pictures were being made under 'proper Scottish auspices' as early as the turn of the century. 

The First Films of Scotland Committee
The First Films of Scotland Committee, set up in 1938 by the Scottish Secretary of State and the Scottish Development Council. Its members included documentary filmmaker John Grierson and authors Neil Gunn and James Bridie.

The First Scottish Films

Moving pictures were shown for the first time in Scotland on 13th April 1896, in the Empire Palace Theatre, Edinburgh, then on 26th May at the Skating Palace in Glasgow.  Arguably the first Scottish film, The Departure of the Columba from Rothesay Pier (1896), was screened at the Skating Palace in the same year.  The Bailie (1896, May 27) reported that 'Nothing could be finer than the representation of the Gordon Highlanders leaving Maryhill Barracks.  The picture lasts several minutes, and was repeatedly applauded, as the swinging gate of the Highlanders stirred the patriotism of the audience'.  In the same year George Green, a travelling showman, brought moving pictures to Scotland as one of his fairground amusements, screening the films during the Christmas Carnival at Vinegar Hill Show Ground, east of Glasgow Cross (McBain, 1986a). 

Local Topicals

Scottish showmen also shot and screened local scenes to draw an audience for their moving pictures.  This gimmick was picked up by early cinema exhibitors who made short home made news reels:

"These local topicals, often shot by a projectionist or a manager of a cinema, would record an event of some standing in the local community, one that would be likely to draw a big crowd.  Popular subjects were gala days, sports meetings, a work's outing or the unveiling of a war memorial.  The camera-man would be instructed to get as many shots as possible of the faces in the crowd and close-ups of the participants.  A few nights later, and with a storm of publicity, it would be announced that this film, specially taken for that particular picture house, would be shown for the next three nights." (McBain, 1986b, p. 46)

Filming Seawards the Great Ships
Promotional films also dominated the work of the second Films of Scotland Committee. The production still above is from Seawards the Great Ships (1960) produced for Clyde Shipbuilders' Association and the Central Office of Information.

In the late 1890s these local topicals toured various regions of Scotland on circuits that extended up into the Shetlands.  One of the exhibitors was William Walker, whose coverage of the 1898 Braemar Gathering was the first film seen by Queen Victoria.  It was screened at a Royal Command performance at Balmoral on 28 October 1898.  From 1910 Scottish cinematographers began to make short promotional films.  These included The Making of a Great Daily Newspaper (1911), produced by D.C. Thomson in Dundee to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Courier as a daily paper, and From Wool to Wearer - The Romance of Pesco Underwear (1913), a film about the manufacture of gentlemen's hosiery commissioned by Peter Scott and Company of Hawick.  From 1914 small production companies, such as Paul Robello's Topical Productions were set up.  'Local topicals' became increasingly popular, and in 1918 George Green's family began exhibiting regular issues of their Scottish Moving Picture News, later becoming British Moving Picture News (McBain, 1986b).






Alan Harper
Alan Harper, founder of Campbell Harper Films, who worked on a number of the Films of Scotland documentaries of the 60s and 70s.

Promotional Film and Film Societies

From the end of the 1920s a number of production companies were formed to produce commissioned promotional films.  In 1928 Scottish Film Productions, later becoming Russell Productions then Thames and Clyde Film Company, was established by Stanley Russell and Malcom Irvine in Glasgow, and in 1930 Campbell Harper films was founded in Edinburgh by Alan Harper (McBain, 1986b).  Two other companies specialised in instructional and educational film; Zest Films, set up by Graham Thompson, and Elder Delrimple Films.  Delrimple and Jimmy Gillespie filmed their trip from Cape Town to Cairo and screened it to school children in the Gorbals who, as a consequence, probably saw their first camel before they had seen their first cow; an early example of the way in which the mass media, contributed to the experience of the 'shrinking' or compression of space that began in the mid-nineteenth century and that theorists have argued is a formative feature of modernity (cf. Harvey, 1995).

During the same period Scottish film culture became increasingly consolidated at an institutional level with the creation of film societies, guilds and libraries.  In 1929 the Film Society of Glasgow was founded, followed in 1930 by the Edinburgh Film Guild and the Scottish Educational Cinema Society, established in the west of Scotland for the production, study and presentation of educational films.  In 1931 Glasgow Co-operative Film Library was set up, and in 1933 Glasgow mounted Britain's first amateur film festival.  The festival grew out of the Meteor Film Producing Society, and became the cutting edge of amateur film making with prize-winners such as Norman Mclaren, Stuart McAllistair and Eddie McConnell quickly moving into professional production, including work for Films of Scotland.  In 1934 the Federation of Scottish Filmmakers Society was formed, in 1935 the Scottish Educational Cinema Society merged with the SESSA to become the Scottish Educational Film Association, and in 1936 the Scottish Federation of Film Societies was founded. 

Scottish film culture was given further institutional consolidation by the state when Scottish Film Council was established in Glasgow in June 1934 with the approval of the recently formed British Film Institute.  The Council, which had four panels; entertainment, education, social service and amateur cinematography, established the Scottish Film Office in 1938.  Up until 1938 then, Scottish film culture may be characterised by three key features; Scottish film production is almost exclusively non-fictional, specialising in promotional or educational documentaries, it is supported by a strong network of film societies, festivals and libraries, and it is becoming increasingly centralised in its organisation, a centralisation partly engineered by the State.  When the first Films of Scotland Committee was set up in 1938, these three features were distilled in its organisation and remit.

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Author: Richard Butt Images are drawn from the SCRAN database.