Film and Scottish Gothic

Posted by Kirsty MacDonald on March 02, 2009 in Dr Kirsty McDonald, Guest Blog tagged with

Post 4 (suggested soundtrack – Felix Mendelssohn, The Hebrides Overture (“Fingal’s Cave”*)

I mentioned in my first post the frequency of the ‘journey North’ motif in Scottish texts. This is particularly evident in film, both from within and outwith Scotland. English director Neil Marshall’s 2001 horror Dog Soldiers has already been cited, and the journey North is taken a stage further in his 2008 post-apocalyptic flop Doomsday (despite its many laughable qualities and adverse reviews, I rather enjoyed this – definitely a guilty pleasure). The film portrays the not too distant future, when a deadly virus breaks out in Britain. This, the Reaper virus, luckily appears to be concentrated in the north. The authorities quarantine Scotland in a successful bid to control and contain the outbreak. A wall is erected along the Scotland/England border and anyone unlucky enough to be on the north side is left to die. Twenty seven years later, the virus resurfaces in London, and a crack team of military types and scientists headed by Eden Sinclair – who is originally Scottish, sent away as a young child just before the border closed three decades before – must journey in to the ‘hot zone’ in the north in a bid to find survivors and therefore, hopefully, a cure. There are survivors, and left to their own devices and abandoned by all law and authority, this community has developed a number of ‘primitive’ and even barbaric social structures and practices, from medieval feudalism to cannibalism. This is highly derivative, and can be labelled a post-apocalyptic action movie in the vein of the Mad Max films. However, it does contain Gothic elements, such as the reversion to primitivism, and the abject and abjected other’s opposition to the ‘civilised’ south (cf. Robert Miles’ authoritative definition of the Gothic as reliant on the presence of the abject, in his essay ‘Abjection, Nationalism and the Gothic’).

Scottish directors themselves have self-consciously used this motif. David Mackenzie’s directorial debut was the multi-genre 2002 The Last Great Wilderness. This is a somewhat more sophisticated treatment of the journey North, although no less allusive to previous films. The setting is very recognisably the Highlands, and specifically a remote hotel retreat ‘somewhere on the way to Skye’. Those residing at the retreat have chosen to become ‘invisible’ by absenting themselves from society, journeying northwards from various urban centres to live a simpler, more primitive life. They seek escape from various problems, from domestic abuse, to agoraphobia, to paedophilic tendencies. The retreat is unwittingly stumbled upon by two southern interlopers who run out of petrol nearby. One, Charlie, is intent on reaching Skye to wreak revenge on the musician who stole his wife, and the other, Vince, is a male prostitute from London on the run from a contract killing order placed on him by a client’s husband.

There is a suggestion of the supernatural throughout the film, running concurrent with context. Its eerie setting in a vague and barren corner of the West Highlands, and the Gothic location of the remote hotel, is heightened by the suitably intense widescreen DV images of the desolate landscape captured by cinematographer Simon Denis. This suggestion is deepened by the religious cult-like practices carried out by the residents of the retreat as ‘treatment’ for their problems, including chanting, group singing meetings, fire walking, and the burying of the deceased in the nearby forest. The obvious allusion is to the pagan practices featured in cult horror film The Wicker Man (1973), and Mackenzie’s film has much in common with this earlier low-budget cult classic. In both, the north is a liminal hinterland, a wilderness on the margins, and the site of a primitive supernaturalism, or at the very least mysterious and archaic happenings. As the shaman-like Ruaridh, the therapist at the retreat, warns Charlie and Vince when they first arrive: ‘normal rules don’t apply around here.’ For now, no more plot spoilers – get hold of a copy for yourselves to find out how the situation is reconciled, or otherwise. (For more on the supernatural elements of the film, see my article ‘Against Realism: Contemporary Culture and the Supernatural’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature. Edinburgh: EUP. 2007)

These films, along with the texts discussed in previous posts, all have Gothic elements, and all intersect with Scottish literary or filmic traditions. Many are concerned with the north (often more specifically the Highlands) as locus of the primitive, the supernatural, the abject. This ultimately leads to an interrogation of the position of modernity and civilisation, usually – ostensibly – located in the south. But does this recurrent motif allow us to call these texts ‘Scottish Gothic’? Labels such as this invite interrogation and anatomisation, but are also useful shorthand for the way in which the Gothic mode translates and transforms under different pressures and in different contexts. If it makes sense to talk of ‘global Gothic’, why not then ‘Scottish Gothic’, since the very concept of globalisation rests on interaction and cross-fertilisation between communities, however ‘imagined’ they might be. If the Gothic is now a mode, having abandoned any sense of generic coherence some time ago, then tradition is what allows it to continue to have meaning. The definition of Scottish Gothic explored here rests upon such tradition, a useful staging point from which to develop ideas.


David Mackenzie. The Last Great Wilderness. UK: .Sigma Films. 2002.
Neil Marshall. Dog Soldiers. UK: Kismet Entertainment. 2002.
                          Doomsday. UK: Rogue Pictures. 2008.
Robert Miles. ‘Abjection, Nationalism and the Gothic’, in The Gothic, ed. Fred Botting. D.S. Brewer. 2001.


* ok, so not strictly Scottish or Gothic, being composed by German composer Mendelssohn following a visit to this spectacular natural ‘Gothic cathedral’ in 1830 (as discussed in the comments under ‘Haunted Highland Crunch’). However, it is sublime and terrifying, and is a piece of music that everyone should listen to in its entirety, preferably in a darkened room with plenty of candles burning, at least once in their lives…

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