Feature: Going to the Pictures, Scotland at the Cinema Exhibition

Whether you’re aware of it or not, Scotland has had a long love affair with cinema.  Our country’s own productions over the years have perhaps been hit and miss, but the Scottish people, it would seem, have always been fascinated by the glow of the silver screen and tempted to see its latest offerings.  If the National Library of Scotland’s summer exhibition “Going to the Pictures: Scotland at the Cinema” is any indication, this love affair still continues.

A treasure trove of archive footage, photographs, film posters, and various other memorabilia, the exhibition traces Scotland’s relationship with film from its tender beginnings up until the present day.  The first public screenings of moving pictures in France in December 1895 by the Lumière brothers were soon replicated in Scotland, with the first film presentation in Scotland taking place only four months later, in April 1896.

As word of this fantastic new medium spread, a craze began and the public were clamouring for more.  Families such as the Greens, the Kemps and the Biddalls showed short films at fairgrounds and in music hall programmes all over Scotland, providing spectators with a chance to whet their cinematic appetites.

The exhibition is organised in linear form, with the very beginnings of film shown in newsreel footage and various curiosities.  This leads to the silent era, then on to the sumptuous glamour of the 1930s, the war time escapism of 1940s cinema, the darkness of the 50s, the liberation of the swinging 60s and so on, up to the present day.  Mary Pickford smiles at you, mid jig – in tartan – from the glossy poster for 1917’s The Pride of the Clan, which shows an early interest in Scotland as a location for filmmaking.  Sure, Pride of the Clan was filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey, but it’s the thought that counts.

Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart” at the time, hangs on a wall along with fellow silent star Lillian Gish, whose 1927 film Annie Laurie is another interpretation of the old Scottish song, albeit in Hollywood terms.  These objects reside alongside a volume of poetry written by Rudolph Valentino, an original script for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 The 39 Steps, an original puppet of Mr. Cosmo, the Cosmo Cinema (now the Glasgow Film Theatre)’s mascot, as well as a toy theatre adaptation of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film Hamlet, complete with card and paper miniatures of its characters.  It’s wonderful to think that a time existed when a plaything such as this was seen as cool; a sentiment which I fear is no longer the case.

The popularity of cinema spread rapidly, and several cinemas sprang up all over the country: the Embassy Troon, Edinburgh’s New Victoria, the Playhouse Stornoway and the Elgin Playhouse to name but a few.  The Second World War had a massive effect on the country as a whole, but interestingly, unlike food and other items, cinema tickets were not rationed.  Huge crowds of cinemagoers lined the streets outside Scotland’s picture houses even during blackouts, the allure of the latest Hollywood spectacles offering a welcome escape at a time of great austerity and fear.

Cinema attendance in Scotland has rarely relented since.  Although there are not as many cinemas as there used to be (in 1938, Glasgow had more cinemas than Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen combined), there are more cinema screens per person in Scotland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and Scottish people go to the pictures more often than those in any other part of Britain.

This is a love affair which has been passionate from the beginning, and carries on in earnest.  May it last for many years to come.

“Going to the Pictures: Scotland at the Cinema” runs until 28th October at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

By David Rush

(Originally published in Edition One, October 2012)var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);