The Screen Machine: A reel adventure

IF YOU LOGGED ON TO GOOGLE Earth on the evening of Tuesday 10 March 2009 and zoomed in on Barra, a tiny Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides on the furthermost edge of the Atlantic, you might wonder what the white and blue rectangle at the edge of the pier in Castlebay could be.

On closer examination, you'd read the cryptic words "Unfold Your Imagination" written on the roof of a 36-tonne truck. But would you be any the wiser?

If you could see inside you would find 80 islanders, many with jaws dropped and bottles of Irn Bru suspended en route to mouths as images of the brutality of life in the Mumbai slums are intercut with scenes of Jamal Malik being tortured by police in Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire.

But the tension inside Screen Machine: Take 2, Britain's only mobile cinema, which tours 25 locations in the islands and highlands of Scotland, is nothing compared with the angst suffered by driver-projectionist Iain MacColl and the drama of the previous 48 hours to bring the most-talked about film of the year to the island.

As MacColl put it: "They'd crucify me in Barra if I didn't bring them Slumdog."

MacColl's struggle to take one movie to the Outer Hebrides began two days earlier on Sunday, when Force 10 gales swept the Western Isles and The Minch in one of the worst storms of the winter.

MacColl was due to take the Screen Machine truck on the 3pm ferry from Oban to Barra – a journey taking more than five hours and as it's the winter timetable, the only sailing for the next two days.

The text message from the ferry company to passengers saying "today's sailing to Barra has been cancelled, next sailing 10/3/09 as timetabled" spelled potential disaster for McColl's plans because the 3:30pm sailing, the only one on Tuesday, would not allow him sufficient time to set up the cinema at Castlebay for its "gig" that evening.

And with a strict set of tour dates for the Outer Hebrides encompassing Castlebay, Daliburgh, Liniclate, Lochmaddy and the Isle of Harris, "if you lose your slot, you lose your slot" and the truck moves on to the next location.

The race was on.

After inquiries about getting on a 3am freighter from Oban failed to yield any success, the only thing for it was to head up to the Isle of Skye, drive across to Uig and board the Monday evening ferry to Lochmaddy on North Uist. MacColl would then have to drive the mobile cinema down to South Uist, park overnight on Monday, before catching the morning ferry from Eriskay to Barra. The diversion will add 270 miles to MacColl's journey, weather permitting.

The unpredictability of storms and the havoc they wreak along with the potential to change people's destinies has been a central tenet of a number of classic Scottish films. There's Michael Powell's I Know Where I'm Going (1944), filmed on Mull, about a young woman's journey to her wedding to a rich industrialist on a remote Scottish island being stalled by gales, leaving her to fall in love with a local laird instead.

And Alexander MacKendrick's Whisky Galore!, the 1948 Ealing comedy based on Sir Compton Mackenzie's novel of "love, larceny and liquor" has fog grounding the SS Cabinet Minister. Filmed on Barra, it follows the true events of 5 February 1941 when the SS Politician sailing to New York broke up on rocks in the shallow Sound of Eriskay with around 264,000 bottles of whisky among her cargo, leading to a salvaging operation by islanders.

MacColl, 55, a former long-distance lorry driver, is the beating heart of the Screen Machine, and a man who would move heaven and earth to share his love of cinema with an audience.

He traces this passion for film back to his boyhood in Tighnabruaich, Argyll, when he used to help the man from the Highland and Island Film Guild, the early travelling cinema in Scotland, carry the projector into the village hall, before progressing to wiring up lamps and collecting tickets.

MacColl works a 16-hour day, two weeks on, two weeks off, returning home to Tighnabruaich in between shifts, and handing over to another driver, Neil MacDonald.

Ron Inglis, director of Regional Screen Scotland, the development agency whose role is to bring the cinema-going experience to remote and rural communities throughout Scotland, describes the Screen Machine as "the jewel in the crown".

The first Screen Machine started out 12 years ago and running costs are now approximately 230,000 annually, with major funding coming from Scottish Screen and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. Up to 23,000 people a year see a movie on board, bringing in vital ticket sale revenue.

Scotsman photographer Ian Rutherford and myself travel with MacColl across Skye, wondering if the lashing rain and dark clouds above the snow-capped Cuillins will scupper our plans for the next two ferry journeys at the last minute yet again. Tales of the cinema pass the journey time and the anxious wait.

MacColl says: "The most popular film we've ever shown was Mamma Mia! People queued for two hours for tickets to get in. I put on white dungarees, silver boots and a great big belt and a gold wig and went out into the audience and I danced every night when the credits rolled. I grabbed someone from the audience and got them up dancing. If people leave laughing and joking I've done my job.

"Let's face it, everybody's got problems. But when you walk through that door into the Screen Machine everything disappears. That's because the essence of cinema is escapism."

There have been some other, perhaps less expected, successes.

"In some quarters ministers were rounding up their flocks to come and see Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ, which is a very, very graphic film. Iain MacAskill, the minister on Benbecula, said to me 'Iain, you know, you could be in the ministry. You're just like me, travelling round spreading the word.' "

MacColl recalls his first encounter with religion on Harris. "We don't show films on Harris on Sundays because of the Wee Frees. The Sabbath is important to them. The first time I went to Harris for a two-night Friday and Saturday night stint, a delegation came up to me on the Friday.

"They very politely asked 'how long does it take you to set up and open the cinema?' At that time it took longer than now, so I said it was about two and a half hours. Then they said 'So, the film will finish at 10pm? That's quite good, you'll only be half an hour into the Sabbath.' It was a very diplomatic way of telling me to finish up on time and obey the rules."

The films don't always meet with full approval. "I always like to have a word with the audience when they leave," says Iain. "Mind you, if they don't like a film they act like I've made it and directed it. It's all 'Iain, what was all that about? The ending's rubbish.' "

Eventually the three of us catch Monday evening's sailing from Uig to Lochmaddy. Almost two hours later we arrive in the Outer Hebrides. MacColl drives the Screen Machine through the darkness until a full moon comes out to illuminate a succession of small lochs along the route. The road is interspersed with road signs saying "otters crossing", but we don't see any.

We spend the night at the Borrodale Hotel in Daliburgh on South Uist awaiting the Tuesday morning ferry from Eriskay to Barra. After a drink in the bar the staff close up for the night and go home, leaving us in sole charge of the 12-bedroom hotel.

MacColl, a trusted regular during his cinema tours, makes breakfast in the morning before the staff return.

It's now Tuesday morning and Slumdog Millionaire is due to be shown at 8:30pm that night. We drive over the causeway linking South Uist to Eriskay, past a group of mischievous-looking Eriskay ponies. Standing 12-13 hands high, these ponies were traditionally used for carrying seaweed and peat and look like they'd as soon bite your bum as accept a carrot.

All around you, if you know where to look, are interesting snippets of Scottish history. On the left as you cross the causeway is the stretch of water where the SS Politician went asunder.

The beach by the ferry is known as Coilleag Phrionnsa (Gaelic for the Prince's cockle-shell strand) in recognition of where Prince Charles Edward Stuart put ashore from the French ship Du Teillay on July 23, 1745 – his first steps on Scottish soil.

After a 40-minute crossing the Screen Machine reaches Barra, an island just eight miles by five miles with a population of around 1,400. It then heads for its pitch near Kisimul Castle – the seat of the Clan MacNeil.

MacColl says, "right, I'd better make a cinema" and in a well-organised operation begins levelling up the truck with blocks of wood. "We don't want folk sitting with their cans of juice lying at an angle," he says.

Then, in an origami-style feat of engineering, he expands the size of the lorry to magic up a miniature, but fully fledged, cinema.

The door is unlocked and inside past the small box office and through the Art Deco doors are the rows of seats waiting for tonight's audience. The back seat is reserved for the usher – a local person employed by the hour.

"I keep a box of tissues for them, ushers are very emotional and can start crying during the film," says MacColl.

On the wall is a poster stating "Strictly No Chewing Gum" which has led to situations where youngsters, worried they might be put out, have voluntarily handed over packets of chewing gum to the usher for safe-keeping in a kind of "amnesty" situation.

But the ultimate deterrent must surely be the torch MacColl shines, on occasion, through the projectionist's window, straight onto an offender's head.

Inside the projection room is a glimpse into another, increasingly rare world of cinema still using 35mm film on numbered reels, each the size of cartwheels.

"There are plans to switch over to digital later this year. But if we lose 35mm we'll lose a lot of the art of film," MacColl says. Digital technology brings its own computer problems, with the standard advice of "switching on and off" not being ideal for a cinema audience caught up in the moment. Another fascinating feature is the wind monitor determining the angle at which the truck is parked – if this isn't "just so" the noise from gales could drown out the soundtrack.

Leaving MacColl underneath the Volvo FH12 truck, checking its hydraulics and still talking film – "there's a bit of Brief Encounter in all of us" – I walk round Castlebay hoping to meet some older residents who may remember Whisky Galore! being filmed and the days of the early travelling cinema.

Outside the Co-op I bump into James MacInnes and his friend Angus MacNeil, both 72. Mr MacInnes remembers himself and other pupils from Craigstone Primary appearing in the classroom scene in Whisky Galore! with Gordon Jackson as George Campbell, the young teacher afraid to tell his harridan of a mother he had proposed to his girlfriend.

"Gordon Jackson was very, very friendly. It was all very exciting for us. Almost the whole school was in the film. We didn't know who all the film people were but we got a Christmas party that year at the end of it all."

Mr MacNeil said: "We used to go to Castlebay Hall on our own on Saturdays to see cowboy and Indian films. You had to be well-behaved or you'd be put out. We'd seen cowboys and such in comics but this was for real."

Fans of Whisky Galore! should act quickly and book accommodation for Barra's first ever Whisky Galore! Festival, which is being held from 18-20 September as part of the Homecoming Scotland celebrations. The film will be shown on the walls of Kisimul Castle at the launch, in local halls and there will also be ceilidhs and tours of the film's locations.

An ideal base would be the Craigard Hotel, overlooking Kisimul Castle and where many of the scenes for the film were shot. The Craigard's bar also contains the Holy Grail – a bottle of "Polly" whisky, albeit consumed, from the SS Politician, safely ensconced in a glass case. For whose who can't wait for the festival, Whisky Month, also part of the Homecoming events, being held in May, offers plenty of scope for whisky enthusiasts.

But back at the Screen Machine the queue is building up for the children's matinee, The Secret of Moonacre. Among those waiting is Joe Gillies, 40, a firefighter at Barra airport, with his children, Isla, nine, and Goiridh, six, pupils at Eoligarry primary school. "Coming here is a big thing for the kids, a real treat. Normally I like to make sure the cinema has managed to arrive before I tell them they're going out to a film. They watch cartoons at home but this is like a real cinema, it's great. You can't beat the big screen."

Three hours later the crowd starts arriving for Slumdog. Teenagers Jonathon Mackay, Amy MacNeil and Anne-Marie MacNeil are near the front of the queue.

Jonathon says: "The cinema brings the island together. It gives you something to talk about the next day.

The girls admit they dress up for the cinema "to an extent" and say it's a great place to come with groups of friends.

MacColl, who has changed out of his sweatshirt into a shirt and tie and highly polished shoes, opens the door. Everyone takes their seats for the sell-out performance. The teenagers are in the back row, the usher sits with her knitting and the lights are dimmed.

Slumdog Millionaire begins with Jamal Malik being one question away from winning 20 million rupees in an Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. The movie asks: "How did he do it?" A. He cheated. B. He is lucky. C. He is a genius. D. It is written.

Thousands of miles away from Mumbai perhaps the questions should be: "How did the people of Barra get to see Slumdog Millionaire?" A. They waited ages until it came out on DVD. B. They got a pirate copy. C. Through the hard graft and determination of Iain MacColl who drove through the night and storms to share his love of film with them. D. It is written.

• For information on the Craigard Hotel, tel: 01871 810200,,

• For details of the Whisky Galore! Festival, tel: 07971 518571,