Brian Ferguson: Outlander gives Scots studio hope

Outlander cast and crew during filming at Blackness Castle. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Outlander cast and crew during filming at Blackness Castle. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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The big deal that is TV series Outlander will boost hopes for a Scottish film studio, writes Brian Ferguson

Trying to get out of Edinburgh’s rush-hour usually takes longer than the whizz up the M9 or M90 to Perthshire, and on one of 2014’s first truly spring-like days last week, the stress involved in trying to dodge queues of traffic on the way out of the city quickly dissipated as I headed to the outskirts of the Highlands.

The last time I’d driven into Doune was to speak to the team behind the local distillery which had just won a starring role in Ken Loach’s latest film, The Angels’ Share. Two years later the world of film and television had lured me back for something a little bit bigger – TV show Outlander, which started using Doune Castle as its main outdoor location last autumn.

I only began to get a sense of how huge Outlander will be when I conducted an impromptu interview with its star, Sam Heughan, at the Scottish Baftas ceremony last year. My twitter feed went into meltdown when I posted the resulting piece – and ever since I’ve had a snowballing following of fans hanging on every word I mention about the show.

Author Diana Gabaldon has sold 25 million Outlander novels around the world and there are obviously huge expectations over the first series which will air in the US in the summer. Some 300,000 people have viewed the first trailer, featuring just a minute of footage, while a new “teaser” was seen by more than 10,000 people over the weekend.

It was not until I stepped on to the vast set at the medieval castle, where hundreds of production crew, cast and extras were milling about, that I realised how big a deal Outlander is.

With a budget in excess of £50 million as it films in Scotland for around 38 weeks, it is by far the biggest investment in a film or TV series in Scotland, with its estimated £20m worth to the economy easily outstripping the impact of films like Brad Pitt’s World War Z, or Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

I’m too cynical to think it was coincidence that a crucial report on the prospects of a film studio being built in Scotland finally appeared just two days after the media were allowed on to the set of Outlander. Delivering a major studio complex may prove easier said than done, with several hurdles to be overcome, including ensuring the project is a viable proposition, finding the cash without breaching state aid rules, and choosing a location to keep indigenous film-makers happy.

Yet if £7m in public money can be found for the Disney-Pixar film Brave, an animated feature set entirely in Scotland but largely made in Hollywood, surely it is only matter of time before sci-fi fan Alex Salmond sets the seal on the project.