Norman McLaren, the forgotten Scots Oscar-winner

Scottish film'maker Norman McLaren at work in the studio. Picture: Wikipedia [CC]
Scottish film'maker Norman McLaren at work in the studio. Picture: Wikipedia [CC]
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HE IS one of Scotland’s few Oscar winners yet remains virtually unknown in his home country.

But a campaign is now under way to bring proper recognition to the legacy of pioneering Scottish film-maker Norman McLaren, who won the best documentary Oscar for his film Neighbours in 1952.

The Scot, who went on to become one of the world’s leading animators – winning glory at the Berlin and Cannes film festivals, as well as the Academy Awards – is being celebrated properly in his home country for the first time.

The unveiling of a plaque at his birthplace in Stirling and a major exhibition devoted to his upbringing and the influence Scotland had on his career will herald months of events to coincide with the centenary of his birth.

Rare screenings of his work, live performances, exhibitions and workshops are being held in more than 20 venues across the country between today and the Commonwealth Games.

Organisers of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which will stage a major retrospective of his work this summer, have joined forces with the Film Board of Canada, where McLaren spent the last 40 years of his life before his death in 1987, to organise more than four months of celebrations.

Iain Gardner, artistic director of the McLaren 2014 season, said: “This is really the first proper celebration of his life and work in Scotland.

“I think very few people in Scotland will have heard of Norman McLaren before now. A few film fans will know of him, but probably as a bit of a footnote. I don’t think he is well-known in Stirling at all.

“However, he became one of the world’s top animators when he moved to Canada and he was undoubtedly one of Scotland’s greatest film-makers, if not artists.”

Highlights of the programme of events being held between now and the beginning of August include a special dance performance set to a backdrop of his films, screenings of the four surviving films from his student days, an exhibition celebrating McLaren’s ground-breaking film-making techniques, and more than 140 workshops in schools.

The plaque, erected by Historic Scotland under a scheme to recognise unsung heroes across the country, now has pride of place at 21 Albert Place, where McLaren was born exactly 100 years ago.

Martin Ross, of Historic Scotland, which launched a national commemorative plaque initiative with the Scottish Government two years ago, said: “We are bad at recognising people in Scotland who have gone around the world and done marvellous things.”

The house stands on the other side of the road from the Smith Art Gallery and Museum, which is hosting an exhibition mainly drawn from the vast array of material he sent back from the United States and Canada after he emigrated, as well as a photographic record of his early life in Stirling, and some of his work created at Glasgow School of Art.

Karl Magee, archivist at Stirling University, said: “Most of the material we hold was actually sent back by Norman to his parents, so it is quite a personal collection of letters, postcards, press cuttings and drawings he did for them. When he left home he promised to write once a week and tried to keep to that. It is a really important first-hand record of his life.”

The exhibition also features his eye-witness account of the Spanish Civil War, pictures of him hiking on Ben Ledi in the Highlands and even a colour home movie shot in the garden of the family home in the 1930s.

Douglas Biggar, McLaren’s nephew, who attended the unveiling of the plaque at Albert Place, said: “We’re very proud of what he achieved, but he was just Uncle Norman to us.

“We didn’t really know what the Oscars were when he won his award. It was just something that had happened in the family.

“He was always a very shy and unassuming man. I think he would be a bit embarrassed about all this.”

Ken Hay, chief executive of the film festival, said: “McLaren and his work are known and revered across the world; and yet in Scotland, he is largely unknown. His centenary is the perfect time for Scotland to get to know Norman McLaren, and his legacy.”