‘Cinema, Culture, Scotland: Selected Essays’, by Colin McArthur

This collection of essays presents to the public and to academics and researchers the first opportunity to read, in a single volume, ideas and arguments published by McArthur as book chapters or journal articles. The pieces are, as their editor Jonathan Murray suggests, the least accessible area of McArthur’s output, and it is a pleasure to read them here together, affirming their author as one of our most insightful and productive theorists. Essay after essay demonstrates his enquiries into aspects of Scottish imagery which evade traditional approaches, turns a critical eye on exhibitions, festivals, advertising, myths, transatlantic movements, the ‘Scottish discursive unconscious’ and the process of ‘Caledonianisation’. These terms invented by McArthur have often become widely used concepts for investigating Scottish culture.

The first of these essays was published in 1966, the most recent in 2022. They appeared in CencrastusCinemaScottish International ReviewScottish AffairsSight and Sound, in book sections, parts of exhibitions and many other forms. There was no publication too large or small to take McArthur’s work, which could be forceful and argumentative but was always political and, at its heart, immensely kind, understanding that the enemy of culture is triteness and that it is only the hackneyed, the stereotyped and the threadbare that has limited Scottish art.

McArthur’s greatest contribution still seems to be Scotch Reels (BFI, 1982), the critical accompaniment to Murray and Barbara Grigor’s exhibition Scotch Myths: an exploration of Scotchness in 1982. The discourses of Scottish film and television which it identified – Kailyard, Tartanry and Clydesideism – are still with us in film studies today, though now over-layered by more recent arguments. Such was the impact of this theorising on ‘Media Studies’ and its later replacement ‘the Creative Industries’ in colleges and universities that it was eventually almost possible to forgive McArthur and the Grigors’s exclusion of Scotland’s (then-) greatest directors, the two Bills, Forsyth and Douglas, from any mention. But today it seems possible to say that Scotch Reels’s greatest contribution was indeed the strands of Scottish image-making it identified than the exclusion of any individual.

Murray is right to point out in his introduction how McArthur’s use of parallel theories from beyond the UK has been at the forefront of his analysis. His early adoption of observations made by the Cahiers du Cinéma critics on, for example, popular American forms brought to Scottish cultural studies a strongly transnational angle, a welcome step away from the tendency of local critics to write ‘principally to, in or about Scotland, preferably lamenting the national condition’ (Carruthers, p. 40). Thus, readers of Cencrastus were made aware of the qualities of the directors Budd Boettiger and Anthony Mann, for example, and the opposing forces of industrialism and agrarian society, dominated by the single man on horseback, in McArthur’s essay on the Western. This examination of a form with seemingly little to do with Scotland helped McArthur to introduce the concept of the auteur to Scottish film studies and, as Murray points out, in to contact with the growth of structuralist and semiological theory. The resulting interest in the idea of new Scottish cinema and what it might achieve led to a vision of ‘an indigenous cinema which will take the world by storm’ (McArthur, p. 177), an ideal which, when The New Scottish Cinema essay was written in 1988, seemed almost possible. For McArthur, this dream was tarnished by the decision made by film-makers to revert to the Hollywood structure of story-telling, with reiterations of Tartanry in Braveheart and Rob Roy in the 1990s. In that context, it is interesting to read his judgement only two years later that funding bodies were ‘on a collision course with reality’, with later productions, drawing huge amounts of cash from European bodies, producing only ‘Europudding’ (McArthur, p. 220). This latter point is one with which Murray, here and in other publications, seems to agree.

The last essay in the volume is devoted, appropriately, to McArthur’s partner in collaboration, the film-maker Murray Grigor. Taking Grigor’s little-known documentary Clydescope (1974) as his example, McArthur follows Grigor’s journey down the river and its dodging of the tropes of Scottish imagery in its fresh look at the art, architecture and history of the Clyde coast. Grigor’s scope of reference beyond Scotland is again referenced as the source of this broader way of looking at things. The same might be said for McArthur, whose essays remind us of why he has been such a vital voice in Scottish cultural history: intellectual, national and international in outlook and happy to bring different traditions together. This book adds to our understanding of his persistent, intelligent probing and its impact on Scottish culture. Jonathan Murray is to be thanked for putting the collection together.   

Cinema, Culture, Scotland: Selected Essays is published by Edinburgh University Press

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References & Further Information

Carruthers, Gerard, ‘W. S. Graham, Born in a diamond screeched from a mountain pap’, Studies in Scottish Literature, 45.1: 39–55.

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David Manderson

David Manderson is a novelist, short story and non-fiction writer. His first novel Lost Bodies was published in 2011. He followed it with two Scotnote study texts about Scottish films with the ASLS before bringing out his fourth work, The Anti-hero’s Journey: the Work and Life of Alan Sharp with Peter Lang in 2023. He has also published widely in magazines, journals and online. He edited Nerve Magazine, ran a spoken word event at the Tchai Ovna cafe for a decade, curated the Real to Reel short film festival at the GFT, and a season of Alan Sharp films at the same venue in 2023.

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