Screen revival for Scotland's forgotten film collection

MORE THAN 13,000 rolls of film that could contain precious footage from Scotland's cultural and historical past are finally to get an airing.

The collection has been gathering dust in a storeroom for 20 years but will now be made available to the public, thanks to a pounds 377,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, it was announced yesterday.

Among the cans of film stored unopened and uncatalogued in a basement in Glasgow may be one of the lost masterpieces of early Scottish cinema, perhaps the first version of Rob Roy from 1911, or Fitba' Daft - a comedy that neatly combines the national passions of football and whisky.

Most of the cans have been there for decades, and some give off a pungent smell that betrays the presence of "vinegar syndrome", a chemical reaction capable of destroying film within hours.

The cans belong to the Scottish Film and Television Archive but a lack of staff and money has meant it has never been possible to view the hours of film that were stashed away.

John Archer, chief executive of parent body Scottish Screen, said the archive was a "national treasure" containing a unique film record of Scotland over the past 100 years.

"This award means a very great deal, not only to Scottish screen but to the history and culture of Scotland generally," he said.

The oldest piece of moving imagery in the collection shows the Gordon Highlanders leaving Aberdeen to go to South Africa for the Boer War in 1899.

There is a slim chance that the extra specialists recruited may turn up one or more of the so-called "lost masterpieces" of Scottish film. At a time when Scotland is consumed with issues of national identity and history, it would be quite a coup for the archive if it was able to turn up the 1911 version of Rob Roy.

Janet McBain, curator of the archive since its formation in 1976, thinks there is "just a smidgen of hope it is lying there in the dark". The archive has production stills from Rob Roy but the film itself has vanished. Another missing masterpiece is the first three-reel film made in Britain, The Harp King, a romantic melodrama from 1919.

Glasgow really took to another lost film, Fitba' Daft, in which a temperance observer mistakenly drinks whisky and becomes besotted with football. Made in 1921, it ran for an unprecedented six weeks without a break in the city, but was last seen in 1946.

"Clearly the themes of whisky and football had a strong resonance in the west of Scotland," Ms McBain said.

Feature films will be rarities among the cans as they, with newsreels, were returned to distributors. Instead there is likely to be film of sports days, works outings, educational films and forerunners of home videos.

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