Noble Savage the sequel

Lochs, heather, claymores, tartan, film directors. Geoffrey Macnab welcomes you to theme park Scotland

When Anglo-Welsh matinee idol, Ivor Novello, was on location, playing the lead role in the 1923 movie version of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he decided that his tartan costume was the most dashing thing he'd ever seen. He liked it so much that he wore it every day off-set. It was only when his co-star, Gladys Cooper, warned him that the locals didn't care for outsiders gallivanting round the heather in kilts that Novello reluctantly climbed back inside his trousers.

He may have offended local sensibility, but in using the Highlands as an excuse for sartorial experiment, Novello was following a long-established tradition: the clan chiefs had been doing roughly the same thing for more than 150 years. During the 19th century, as their many portraits reveal, these tartan-swathed lairds were a preening, strutting lot, determined to pander to the myth of the noble savage. (The emphasis, of course, was more on the nobility than the savagery. London drawing rooms, not barren glens, were the chiefs' natural terrain.) They even received the royal seal of approval. Despite the House of Hanover's efforts to extirpate the Stuarts, King George IV saw no incongruity in wearing a kilt on a state visit to Edinburgh in 1822. Then, in 1855, Queen Victoria built her castle at Balmoral, and the transformation of the Highlands into a glorified theme park was complete. As writer John Prebble put it in his book on the Highland clearances, they became "Britain's Alps, a stage for romanticism and healthy sport".

It is striking how many filmmakers use them for this purpose. Whether it be Ted Danson's scientist in Loch Ness, out shortly, or Robert Donat scampering up north for some Buchan-style adventure in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, or Bill Travers as the London civil servant who moves to an idyllic Scottish cottage and makes friends with an otter in Ring of Bright Water, or Wendy Hiller escaping from the Big Smoke in I Know Where I'm Going, the Highlands are treated less as a region in their own right than as a magical space in which characters, invariably from the city, can resolve their crises, whether spiritual, emotional, fiscal or otherwise. When the Highlanders themselves are portrayed, they're generally either hale, hearty and stupid (like Bill Travers's porridge-eating hammer thrower in Geordie), or sly eccentrics a la Ealing. History itself becomes part of the Highland brocade: in Korda's big-budget Technicolor version of Bonnie Prince Charlie (1947), the actual events of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion seem less important than landscape, costume and David Niven's coiffure.

It's only to be expected that movies should highlight the beauty of the scenery - the hills, lochs and wondrous skies. And it makes perfect economic sense for Scottish business agencies to encourage such a roseate vision. "You've seen the big film. Now come and see the wee country" was the logo the Scottish Tourist Board used to lure American fans of Rob Roy over to Britain. (Tourism from the US to Australia rose by over 20 per cent in the wake of Crocodile Dundee. Why, the Tourist Board asked, shouldn't Scotland benefit to the same degree?) While efforts were being made to entice holidaymakers on the back of movies, Scottish Screen Locations was doing its best to court overseas productions. It couldn't do anything about the notoriously inclement weather. It couldn't offer tax breaks like those being parcelled out by the Irish. Nevertheless, since the organisation was set up in 1990, incoming film-makers have spent in excess of pounds 50m in Scotland, much of it in the Highlands.

These film-makers seem as beholden to sublime myth as any of their predecessors. One inevitable casualty of the romanticism that persists in our representations of the Highlands is the people themselves: it's as if they spoil the view. The wealthy visitors who flocked north in the 19th century to fish, stalk and marvel at the scenery somehow contrived not to notice the poverty and suffering around them. As they gambolled in the heather, thousands of clansmen and their families were being evicted by their chiefs. The clearances carried on well into the 20th century.

By a neat irony, a key element in the romantic myth of the Highlands is the sense of loss. It's there in Walter Scott's novels, with their yearning for some golden age of bloody chivalry. It's there in the countless "laments" that pipers continue to play. It's there in celebrations of Bonnie Prince Charlie. (What else was he but a loser?) And it's there in movies - in the lost village of Brigadoon, even in Russell Mulcahy's Highlander, where MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), condemned to eternal life, sees his wife die of old age. But this is loss aestheticised; very different from the experiences of the Highlanders forced out of their homes.

True, there have been films about the evacuation of the Hebridean island, St Kilda. Director Michael Powell cemented his reputation with The Edge of the World in 1937, an elegiac drama charting the feud between two young men, one determined to stay put on the island, the other determined to leave. (Needless to say, they both love the same woman.) Bill Bryden's eerie, haunting "Film On Four", Ill Fares the Land (1983), told the story of the last two years on the island as experienced by a young boy. But such movies are rare.

Certain critics used to talk about the so-called kitchen sink dramas (Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, A Taste of Honey and so on) as "northerns" - Britain's answer to the western. They had a freewheeling spirit, a lawlessness that you'd never find in nice, polite pictures made in the Home Counties. While there's something glib and stereotypical about so geographically straitjacketed a model of British cinema, it is surely no coincidence that films like Rob Roy and Braveheart followed so quickly in the wake of the revival of the Hollywood western. In a sense, they're variations on the "oater", with the claymore standing in for the six-gun. (It shouldn't be forgotten that Alan Sharp, writer of Rob Roy, also scripted Ulzana's Raid.) But they also go out of their way to provide tourist eye views of the landscape. Perhaps the one "Highland" movie which is resolutely unwelcoming, visually, thematically and every other way, is The Wicker Man. The fate which befalls its policeman hero (Edward Woodward) - he's burnt alive in a pagan ritual - is one which many would wish on the film- makers, artists and writers who have gilded the heather for so long.

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