Sure, there are some high-quality films based in London and New York has some top-tier talent, but I’m quite impressed with the selection of films set in Edinburgh. The Scottish capital’s historic cityscape always looks camera-ready and I’m also pleased to see diverse genres and themes in the films shot there. There are a few too many films about the Holocaust set in Poland which is a bit disappointing (though they’re often really, really good). And the western films set in Thailand are usually crime dramas with a side serving of prostitutes and drugs.
But the films set in Edinburgh? Take your pick, I’m sure you’ll find something you’ll enjoy watching to get you excited about an upcoming trip!
We’ve got romance in One Day (2011), youth culture in Trainspotting (1996) and 19th century Edinburgh in Burke and Hare (2010). And lots more good ones! I think I’ve done a pretty good job of selecting the best travel-inspiring films featuring Edinburgh. So, let’s check them out…
Top Films set in Edinburgh
1. The Body Snatcher (1945) dir. Robert Wise
Language: English Run time: 77m 83% Rotten Tomatoes
The Body Snatcher has very Scottish beginnings as the film was adapted from a short story by one of Scotland’s most revered writers, Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a classic horror film starring Boris Karloff about a doctor who employs a cab driver to provide him with bodies for his medical students. But with too many people hanging around and becoming suspicious, it’s a bit more difficult to keep an operation like that under wraps…
The film is set in Edinburgh around the time of the Burke and Hare murders who acquired bodies for another doctor. But most of the film was shot at RKO Studios in California.
2. Happy Go Lovely (1951) dir. H. Bruce Humberstone
Language: English Run time: 97m N/A Rotten Tomatoes
Another studio-era film, Happy Go Lovely was also shot in a studio, though a bit closer to home in Elstree. Though some of the establishing shots of Princes Street were shot in Edinburgh! So that’s something!
Happy Go Lovely stars Vera Ellen and David Niven as unlikely lovers brought together by a series of misunderstandings. Running late to a rehearsal in Edinburgh, Vera Ellen’s Janet Jones accepts a ride from a chauffeur who works for the wealthy Bruno played by David Niven. This sparks a rumour she is engaged to the wealthiest man in Scotland and, well, slapstick humour and mischief carry the story from there.
3. Greyfriar’s Bobby (1961) dir. Don Chaffey
Language: English Run time: 91m N/A Rotten Tomatoes
When has a film about a dog ever failed to win over audiences? If you’ve ever visited Edinburgh, you probably already know the gist of the story about Greyfriar’s Bobby. Bobby is a Skye Terrier who lived in Edinburgh with his owner. And when his owner tragically died, the ever-loyal Bobby stayed by his owner’s grave for 14 years until he himself passed away. The dog is now buried in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard in Edinburgh.
The 1961 Walt Disney film tells what I’m sure is a sensationalist version of what is already just a legend, but who really cares when it’s a cute story about an adorable little dog?
4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) dir. Ronald Neame
Language: English Run time: 116m 83% Rotten Tomatoes
Proof that Maggie Smith has always been a legend and a phenomenal actress. A couple of scenes were filmed in south England and in Pinewood Studios, but a lot of this film was shot on location in Edinburgh or featured true-to-life Edinburgh sets.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is set in the 1930s. Miss Brodie is a teacher with tenure at a girls’ school and uses her job security to essentially groom four particular students and push her own warped agenda with unorthodox teaching methods. As her students and her scorned lovers grow up and move on, Brodie’s reputation has nowhere to go but down.
How amazing is this shot of Miss Jean Brodie on a school trip at the National Museum of Scotland? 50 years later and the museum still basically looks the same!
5. Chariots of Fire (1981) dir. Hugh Hudson
Language: English Run time: 124m 84% Rotten Tomatoes
Not my favourite film set in Edinburgh but possibly the one that’s won the most awards. Based on a true story from the early 1920s, Chariots of Fire follows two young men who decide to train and run competitively as a way of showing devotion to their individual beliefs. Eric Liddell is the Scottish runner and a lot of his scenes were set and shot in Edinburgh.
I wrote another blog post about Hollywood and well-known films shot in Edinburgh including Chariots of Fire, Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Cloud Atlas (2012) and a few more if you wanted to check that out.
6. Shallow Grave (1994) dir. Danny Boyle
Language: English Run time: 92m 69% Rotten Tomatoes
We’ve hit the first of three films set in Edinburgh directed by Danny Boyle! The first on this list is the well-known British director’s directorial debut Shallow Grave. And it was also Ewan McGregor’s first feature film role, too.
Shallow Grave is about three flatmates who live in Edinburgh and are in need of a fourth. After interviewing several candidates, they give the room to the elusive Hugo. When they find Hugo dead of an apparent overdose not long after he moves in, they also happen upon a suitcase full of money in his room. Giving in to their greed, the threesome attempt to cover up the death which obviously does not work out very smoothly.
Like the next film on this list, the film was set in Edinburgh but primarily shot in Glasgow. Probably for a few reasons but the Glasgow Film Fund did give Danny Boyle a bit of money to shoot the already very low budget Shallow Grave.
7. Trainspotting (1996) dir. Danny Boyle
Language: English Run time: 93m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
Trainspotting barely needs any introduction, am I right? Trainspotting was, of course, Danny Boyle’s follow up to Shallow Grave which was also set in Edinburgh and starred Ewan McGregor. The film was adapted from a popular Irvine Welsh novel of the same name. Trainspotting follows the lives and loves of young heroin addicts living in Edinburgh.
There are a couple of Trainspotting filming locations in Edinburgh, particularly from the iconic opening ‘choose life’ scene. But I don’t think Danny Boyle could get permission to shoot in Edinburgh. Or Glasgow was a much more convenient/cheaper location maybe. So, the majority of the scenes were either shot on location in Glasgow or in a makeshift studio/warehouse. It’s a really great film and modern British classic.
If you wanted to learn more about the Trainspotting filming locations in both Glasgow and Edinburgh, I wrote a whole blog post detailing the exact locations.
8. The Adventures of Greyfriar’s Bobby (2005) dir. John Henderson
Language: English Run time: 103m N/A Rotten Tomatoes
Yep, the story of Greyfriar’s Bobby is so popular there isn’t just one film about this adorable dog – there’s (at least) two! In The Adventures of Greyfriar’s Bobby, Bobby has an entirely different owner and a brand new backstory. Bobby is also a westie in this film?! When the local Policeman, Bobby’s owner, dies, a young boy named Ewan attempts to befriend Bobby. Though we all know that Bobby is only loyal to his original owner.
The two films do have some overlap: The city of Edinburgh doesn’t allow dogs to exist without owners. So despite Greyfriar’s gravedigger called James Brown (same in both films) trying to help Ewan protect Bobby from Edinburgh City Council, Bobby’s life is threatened by Edinburgh City Council.
9. Festival (2005) dir. Annie Griffin
Language: English Run time: 107m 80% Rotten Tomatoes
This is a British indie film that might be a little hard to get hold of. However, there are just so many great actors in Festival and it’s about such an important event in Edinburgh’s annual calendar I had to include it on this list of films set in Edinburgh.
Festival stars Clive Russell, Chris O’Dowd, Stephen Mangan and Lucy Punch as performers and comedians trying to succeed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s the world’s biggest arts festival that takes place every August for almost a month. Director Annie Griffin actually shot the film during the 2004 event. I really think it’s a great film to watch if you’re heading to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival! Because what better way to get you excited about going?!
I worked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a venues group and been three times in total. So if you want to read some of my blog posts about the Fringe then go right ahead…
10. Death Defying Acts (2007) dir. Gillian Armstrong
Language: English Run time: 97m 42% Rotten Tomatoes
Okay, so this isn’t one of the top films set in Edinburgh. But I wanted to mix in some period films with all the modern ones. Death Defying Acts stars Guy Pierce as Harry Houdini. On tour in Edinburgh, a con artist played by Catherine Zeta-Jones wants to convince Houdini she is a true psychic and claim his reward.
11. Mister/Hallam Foe (2007) dir. David Mackenzie
Language: English Run time: 95m 73% Rotten Tomatoes
Hallam Foe is also known as Mister Foe but tbh Hallam makes more sense considering that’s the character’s name. It’s another indie film set and shot in Edinburgh so you’ve probably not heard about Hallam Foe before.
Jamie Bell plays the 17-year-old titular character in Hallam Foe and runs away to Edinburgh, feeling rejected by his father and step-mother and still reeling from the death of his mother. He meets an Administrator at the Balmoral Hotel who bears a resemblance to his mother and convinces her to give him a job. Known for peeping, Hallam spies on hotel employees and this along with his strained relationship with his father and loss of his mother are all still hanging over Hallam despite his fresh start in Edinburgh.
It’s a really beautiful film and the Balmoral Hotel is an icon of Edinburgh. Which makes Hallam Foe a fantastic travel-inspiring film set in Edinburgh!
12. Burke and Hare (2010) dir. John Landis
Language: English Run time: 91m 32% Rotten Tomatoes
Okay, so Burke and Hare really isn’t a very good film. But its a big-budget film set (and shot) in Edinburgh starring some pretty well-known actors based on a very Edinburgh-specific true story. So it had to make the list!
Burke and Hare are accidental murderers, working as cadaver-suppliers for Dr Knox who needs bodies for medical research and dissection. They try graverobbing but when that doesn’t work out, they decide murdering is the only way to get the bodies and make some money. Naturally, it all goes horribly wrong.
Yeah, it’s not a very clever comedy but Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis are great together. And though many scenes are shot in England and Pinewood Studios, many of the old cobbled closes and courtyards of Edinburgh do make cameo appearances.
13. The Illusionist (2010) dir. Sylvain Chomet
Languages: French, English, Gaelic Run time: 79m 91% Rotten Tomatoes
I once wrote an article named something like ‘films that will make you want to travel to Brazil’ and the website took it down because one of the films was an animation and I didn’t want to replace it with something else. Erm, animated films can definitely still make you want to visit a place if they do a good enough job!
One of those films is The Illusionist which is so beautifully and delicately animated and I’m sure it captures the romantic essence of Edinburgh in the 1950s just as well as any film shot on location in Edinburgh. In fact, the film was even animated in Edinburgh at a production house called Django Films.
The Illusionist is about a young girl who believes a struggling French magician has real magical powers and follows him to a theatre in Edinburgh. Attempting to uphold the young girl’s beliefs, the struggling magician continues to buy her gifts even though his savings quickly deplete. It really is a beautiful film and features many top locations in Edinburgh such as Princes Street and Arthur’s Seat.
14. One Day (2011) dir. Lone Scherfig
Language: English Run time: 108m 36% Rotten Tomatoes
Ahhh, One Day. It’s not a fantastic film but I don’t think it deserves only 36% on rotten tomatoes! One Day spans 18 years in the lives of Emma and Dexter but only on July 15th, St Swithun’s Day. Their relationship takes many turns as they navigate their will-they-won’t-they relationship and their individual career successes in London and Paris.
While Edinburgh only features at the beginning and end (as a flashback) of the film, the locations are pretty dope. I wrote an entire blog post detailing all the One Day filming locations in Edinburgh if you’re a big fan of the film and fancy checking that out.
15. Filth (2013) dir. Jon S. Baird
Language: English Run time: 97m 65% Rotten Tomatoes
Filth definitely isn’t for everyone ’cause it is a very dark, black comedy and a little sick sometimes. But James McAvoy is amazing in it and the film is almost exclusively shot in Edinburgh aside from three or four locations in Glasgow.
McAvoy stars as Bruce Robertson, a corrupt cop who lives in Edinburgh. He’s obsessed with getting promoted to Detective Inspector and is happy to manipulate and bully his friends and colleagues in order to succeed. But with personal trauma and a drug/alcohol problem, he stands to lose a lot more than a promotion. It’s another Irvine Welsh adaptation but perhaps a less successful one than Trainspotting.
I am definitely getting a bit spammy now because I’ve written individual, detailed filming location guides for the rest of the films on this list! But if you are a fan of Filth, you can check out my filming locations blog post here.
16. Sunshine on Leith (2013) dir. Dexter Fletcher
Language: English Run time: 100m 90% Rotten Tomatoes
I bloody love Sunshine on Leith. And I love the soundtrack even more. Honestly, if you like Edinburgh and you’re in need of a feelgood musical film then you could do worse than a film that features the upbeat, poppy songs of Scottish Duo The Proclaimers.
Sunshine on Leith focuses on four young adults: Ally and Davy have just returned from a tour in the army. Ally is dating Davy’s sister Liz and Liz is a nurse who sets her brother up with an English colleague called Yvonne. The film essentially just follows their relationships (as well as Davy and Liz’s parents), their jobs and how far they’d go to be happy. It’s probably 500 miles, and maybe even 500 more.
It is quite a cheesy film but as the 90% rating on rotten tomatoes should tell you, Sunshine on Leith is also a really good film! And I’ve also written a cheeky guide to the Sunshine on Leith filming locations in Edinburgh if you’re interested. There are quite a lot of them and the oft-forgotten neighbourhood of Leith in Edinburgh plays a prominent role.
17. T2 Trainspotting (2017) dir. Danny Boyle
Language: English Run time: 117m 80% Rotten Tomatoes
The final entry on my list of films set in Edinburgh is, of course, T2 Trainspotting. The long-awaited follow up to the 1996 film comes after a healed rift between director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor. The gang is 20 years older and not much wiser. Renton is back in Edinburgh with his tail between his legs, Sick Boy is attempting to start a brothel with his girlfriend, Spud is still trying to get off the smack and Begbie has just escaped from prison.
Leith also features really heavily in T2 Trainspotting, and while there are still a couple of filming locations in Glasgow, the vast majority are authentic Edinburgh filming locations (this time around!).
I mentioned my Trainspotting filming locations guide earlier and it includes T2 Trainspotting, too. I know a lot of people find the sequel a bit lacklustre compared to the first film. But following a cult favourite like Trainspotting was never going to be easy and I actually really like T2 Trainspotting. I see the film as a worthy love letter to Edinburgh and how much the city has changed in the last 20 years. And for the better, I think.
Other films set in Edinburgh: The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), Regeneration (1997), The Debt Collector (1999), Burke & Hare (1971), Restless Natives (1985), The Acid House (1998), New Town Killers (2008)
And those are all the top films set in Edinburgh that you should watch before your trip! Are you planning a trip to Edinburgh? Or have you watched any of these films set in Edinburgh? Let me know in the comments below!