Review Summary: "At the back of my mind, I was always hoping I might just get by..."
With Glasgow's Commonwealth Games now upon us, the coming days are sure to flood British television with athletic marvel, intersected by images portraying Scotland in all its scenic, picturesque glory. At such a crucial stage in its history, such brochure-worthy shots provide a handsome, refreshingly non-politicised view of the nation and its countryside, yet equally overlook another face which forms just as significant a slice of its fiercely proud identity. This, certainly, is the view of filmmaker Virginia Heath and cult Fife songsmith Kenny Anderson (aka King Creosote) who in conjunction with the Games' Cultural Programme have produced From Scotland With Love
, a beautifully tuned visual and musical exploration of the themes rarely paraded by the media at large. Compiled entirely from archive footage, the 70-minute film does sneak in the occasional glimpse of iconic landscape - the lochs, the border mountains, the highlands - but its true focus is placed on the nation's more human side; the lives of ordinary folk whose minds are of course occupied by hopes and dreams, but whose realities consist of merely getting by, knowing their place and providing for those they love.
Steeped with the sense of tradition that's long run rife in his music, Anderson's score is the perfect component to these individual's stories, being both stark in tone and thematically linked throughout its 12-song stretch. It's not music drawn from personal experience, nor indeed from sympathy of the trials of his 20th century forebears. Instead, what he's composed is a wistful yet fond ode to a time gone by - in many ways a peaceful phase in Scotland's history, shorn as it was of border conflicts and independence calls, yet still permeated by war, social unrest and deep personal trial.
At the root of it all, it was also a time defined by continuing industrial growth, so it's of little surprise that much of the film pivots on matters of graft and labour. This includes passages devoted to ironworks, peat and fish gathering and one particularly striking scene showing women assembling rifles while their husbands and sons march off to battle, but the most impressive moments, both of the film and the accompanying record, tend to center around more complex and emotionally charged material. This is very much true of 'Pauper's Dough,' a sublime slow build which soundtracks footage documenting the social turmoil which engulfed Scotland in the early 1900s. In keeping with the 'head above water' stance punctuating many of these songs, it tells not of grim struggle, but of heart and resilience; its key message "you've got to rise above the gutter you're inside" proving particularly inspired amid scenes of mass protest and tanks converging upon 1919's Battle of George Square.
The most moving sequence of all, however, doesn't concern those who stayed tied to Scotland's fate, but rather those opted to up stakes, seeking the pastures and promise of a life abroad. It's a significant sentiment, not only because the nation's entire Gaelic contingent was born from immigration, but also due to the harrowing uncertainty with which 'Miserable Strangers' treats it. Sure, their homeland could hardly hold a candle to glittering allure of New York, especially in an era when the American dream remained unblemished to the outside world, but even the most optimistic traveler would surely have harboured doubts. Would they adjust to the cultural and environmental contrasts" Would they be able to secure a living wage" Would they ever get to lay eyes upon their families and friends again" In Anderson's words, was it the end of the beginning, or the beginning of the end" Set to tender glockenspiel and wonderful, faltering falsetto, it's a call bigger than many of us will make in our lifetimes, and ultimately one which presents a poignant notion - that maybe, just maybe bonnie old Scotland isn't quite so bad after all.
Clearly, this type of conundrum was by no means unique to one region, and despite its specific focus it's this universality which makes From Scotland With Love
such a triumph. Reflecting on this, Anderson recently told The Quietus that "in many ways, the film and music's not about Scotland - it's about any industrialised nation. None of the details, none of the social fabric, is inherently Scottish at all." Had this not been the case, the project could just as easily have been titled FOR Scotland With Love, but that would scarcely feel appropriate for a succession of images which can resonate with all, and a score whose deeply personal notes dig just as deep as a standalone piece.
Here's hoping that amongst their coverage the BBC find time to broadcast a repeat!