Eight of the best Scottish documentary films

FROM shipbuilding to pigeon flying, the rich tapestry of life in Scotland has been captured by generations of documentary filmmakers, writes Chris McCall

Paul Feegan's Pouters


Commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde is today a shadow of its former self, as the remaining yards survive on navy or government contracts. But this 28-minute film provides an insight into the industry’s glory days, when cruise liners and bulk carriers were built at yards stretching from Govan to Greenock. Directed by Hilary Harris and vividly narrated by Kenneth Kendall, it was produced by Glasgow-based Templar Films for the Clyde Shipbuilders’ Association. The film was more than a promotional tool. It was named Best Short Live Action Subject at the 1962 Academy Awards – becoming the first Scottish production to win an Oscar.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise


Lisa Ross, one of those featured in the BBC documentary series The Scheme. Picture: Robert Perry

Peter Watkins’ docudrama still attracts plaudits more than 50 years after it was first broadcast by the BBC. It presented the final battle of the 1745-46 Jacobite rising in the style of modern war reporting, and was praised for its cinematography as well as its use of non-professional actors. Watkins’ use of hand-held cameras – then a rarity – gave it the feel of a documentary made a century before film-making was invented.


St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross attracted fascination long before it was abandoned. Hailed as a masterpiece of modernist architecture, the building was still being used to train priests when Murray Grigor arrived to direct a short documentary. The film now provides an invaluable insight into how St Peter’s was originally intended to look before it was stripped of its interior fittings and left to rot in the mid-1980s.


Lisa Ross, one of those featured in the BBC documentary series The Scheme. Picture: Robert Perry

A Hollywood film star narrating a documentary on their home town may sound indulgent. But this production was commissioned by the local authority with the serious purpose of marketing the city to tourists - and it’s hard to think of a better leading man than Connery, born and raised in Fountainbridge. Directed by Murray Grigor, the 30-minute film is beautifully shot and shows an Edinburgh moving at a far slower pace than today. As Connery himself notes, the city “seems to have been built as a film set.”

ONLY A GAME? (1986)

This five part series was the first social history of football to be broadcast in the UK. The documentary, produced at a time when TV coverage of the sport was confined to highlights packages and cheesy chat shows, aimed to explore its cultural importance and why it had become so firmly entrenched in Scottish public life. Among those working on the series was the late author William McIllvanney, who also narrated each episode. Only a Game? is today best remembered as the initial inspiration for the long running football sketch show, Only an Excuse?, starring Jonathan Watson.


This BAFTA-winning six part documentary series followed the lives of several families living in the Onthank and Knockinlaw housing estates in Kilmarnock. While broadly sympathetic to its subjects, some of whom readily admitted to issues relating to drug addiction and alcoholism, it was predictably condemned by local politicians as “poverty porn”. It briefly made tabloid stars of several of those featured, including Bullet the dog.

Read More

Read More
Peter Ross: The Best Laid Schemes

POUTERS (2012)

Doo fleein’ – or pigeon flying – is a Scottish sport that dates back centuries. Wooden doocots, usually around 20ft in height, can be found in towns and cities across the country, particularly in Glasgow. Paul Feegan’s short film captures the beauty and competitveness involved in this idiosyncratic pastime. Pouters won a host of awards upon release at several short film festivals, including ones in Glasgow, Hamburg and Berlin.


A documentary feature commissioned as part of the cultural programme accompanying the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, From Scotland With Love is created entirely from archive footage from the National Library of Scotland and Scottish Screen Archive. There is no narration and none of the scenes are identified, although certain towns, such as Largs, are instantly recognisble. The documentary is instead brought to life by an original soundtrack by Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote.