Whilst writing my post on films set in Scotland, I knew I had to dedicate an entire post just to films set in one of my favourite cities, Edinburgh. There are just so many great movies set in the Scottish capital. But through my research, I also realised there are also a fair few bloody good films set in Glasgow. Some great, independent British films that deserved their own post too.
I haven’t visited Glasgow since February in 2015 when I attended the Glasgow Film Festival, but I hope to rectify that soon. Glasgow has an unfortunate reputation of being a rough, crime-laded city and being the poor, working-class cousin to Edinburgh’s more reserved, uppity middle-class residents. I think it’s a really outdated way to view Glasgow as the city has undergone massive regeneration in the last ten or so years. I’m sure there is still a lot of work to do, but it’s not the city so many think it is.
However… These films set in Glasgow mostly represent that more ‘colourful’ side of Glasgow. But it’s actually quite refreshing to see so many films about (relatively) normal, non-wealthy people. Watching films set in London, for example, you’d think everyone lives in alone in Notting Hill on their lowly Ad agency salary. But at least that’s not the case in Glasgow-set films. So, let’s check out some of the best independent films set in Glasgow, focusing on more relatable, working-class narratives.
Top Independent Films set in Glasgow
1. The Maggie/High and Dry (1954) dir. Alexander Mackendrick
Language: English Run time: 92m N/A Rotten Tomatoes
The first entry on my list of films set in Glasgow is a classic Ealing Studios comedy that only received an official UK release, but should be available more widely on Blu-ray/DVD nowadays.
The Maggie is the name of an old Clyde puffer boat that has seen better days. When her broke captain overhears an Englishman trying to arrange transport of his American boss’ furniture to a Scottish island in a Glasgow shipping office, the captain tells a few fibs in order to guarantee the job. When the American businessman finds out the truth, he chases after ‘the Maggie’ to take back his cargo.
Granted, most of the scenes in the film were shot on the Isle of Islay which is one of the southern-most islands in the Inner Hebrides. But the shipping office is set in Glasgow and I think it still has a Glasgow ‘feel’ because the docks and shipping is such a huge part of Glasgow’s history.
2. Gregory’s Girl (1981) dir. Bill Forsyth
Language: English Run time: 91m 94% Rotten Tomatoes
Okay, so Gregory’s Girl is set in the Abronhill district of Cumbernauld which is definitely not Glasgow. But it’s only about a 30-minute drive away and it’s a wonderful lighthearted, independent British film and it had to make the list. I LOVE Gregory’s Girl and it’s been way too long since my last watch.
Gregory’s Girl is about a young, awkward but likeable lad who plays for his school’s football team. When an attractive girl joins the team, he plucks up the courage to ask her on a date. But instead, he ends up meeting each of her friends in some kind of dating relay and ends up fancying the last girl on the date, Susan.
It’s a high school film shot in the 1980s, so this film is basically Scotland’s answer to Sixteen Candles (1984) or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). It’s a really cute movie and I love the nondescript, everyday setting of the film. And British films about an underdog or an awkward, unconfident character are always the best.
3. Comfort and Joy (1984) dir. Bill Forsyth
Language: English Run time: 106m 100% Rotten Tomatoes
Now, Comfort and Joy is definitely a film set in Glasgow and a bloody good film. Hence the 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also directed by Bill Forsyth who you’ll notice also directed Gregory’s Girl.
The film is about a radio DJ who has just been dumped and unwittingly finds himself embroiled in a feud between rival ice cream van vendors: ‘Mr Bunny’, who is the new kid on the block, and the established ‘Mr McCool’.
It’s a hilarious and satirical film that seems to spiral out of control several times but that’s what makes the premise so good. I feel like this could only be a Scottish film because it’s so bonkers and brilliant. Apparently, the idea for the film came from actor Peter Capaldi who came from an ice cream family in Glasgow and told the director about a real ice cream war. Of course, the real ice cream war would have been about drug dealing. But it’s definitely funnier to think that the Scottish ice cream vendors would be more bothered about ice cream quality, right? In a place as notoriously miserable and cold as Glasgow, no less.
The name of the film doesn’t do it any favours, I don’t think. Comfort and Joy is a bit vague. But watching this film will absolutely make you want to visit Glasgow, or at least meet a Glasweigien to see if they’re all as bonkers.
4. Small Faces (1996) dir. Gillies MacKinnon
Language: English Run time: 108m 67% Rotten Tomatoes
1996 was a good year for Scottish cinema because not only was Trainspotting (1996) released which is set in Edinburgh, Small Faces came out too.
Set in 1960s Glasgow, Small Faces follows three brothers living in a rough part of the city. Things go from bad to worse for them when one of the brothers accidentally shoots the Tongs gang leader with an air gun. It won ‘Best British Film’ at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and, again, this was the year that Trainspotting came out too!
It’s quite a violent film and shot all over Glasgow including Mount Florida, Partick, Merrylee, Bishopbriggs, Sighthill housing estate and Darnley. Small Faces also filmed a little bit in Edinburgh, too.
5. My Name is Joe (1998) dir. Ken Loach
Languages: English, Scots Run time: 105m 88% Rotten Tomatoes
Is there are more quintessentially Scottish actor than Peter Mullan? This is only the first out of three appearances he makes on this list of films set in Glasgow and I swear he just kind of shows up in every Scottish film regardless of how big the part is. This is the first but not the last appearance of director Ken Loach on this list, too.
Ken Loach is famously a realist director and he likes his actors to speak in their original dialect. This is why My Name is Joe was screened with subtitles in the USA upon its release. Lol. My Name is Joe follows Joe Kavanagh, a recovering alcoholic living in Glasgow who falls for his health visitor. Critics praised Mullan’s portrayal of Joe and he won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for the role. At least the Cannes Jury could understand Mullan’s thick accent well enough.
The film shot authentically in Glasgow which is no surprise as Ken Loach likes everything in his films to be as authentic as possible. Some scenes shot in Tarbert on Argyll and Bute, too.
6. Ratcatcher (1999) dir. Lynne Ramsey
Languages: English, Scots Run time: 94m 84% Rotten Tomatoes
Ahhh, our first film set in Glasgow directed by a woman. And Lynne Ramsey is a bloody good director. Ratcatcher was her feature film debut and even though it didn’t really get a wide release in 1999, it’s easy to find on home video and streaming now.
Ratcatcher is set in the 1970s during a time of regeneration for the city of Glasgow. The city had some of the worst housing in Western Europe and the poorest people in the city lived without running water and indoor toilets. The film follows James Gillespie and how he escapes from and survives through his living conditions and a tragic loss. The film shot around the city of Glasgow, particularly Govan.
7. Sweet Sixteen (2002) dir. Ken Loach
Languages: English, Scots Run time: 106m 97% Rotten Tomatoes
I first watched Sweet Sixteen during a ‘Contemporary British Cinema’ module during my second year at University, which was around eight years ago now. I don’t remember much, but I do remember it being awfully bleak and not being able to understand most of what the characters are saying. Good ol’ Ken Loach. I’ll have to give it a re-watch because I think my ears are more finely tuned to thick Scottish accents these days, thanks to many rewatches of Outlander.
Sweet Sixteen is about a young lad called Liam who lives in Inverclyde which is about 30-minutes drive west of Glasgow on the coast. He’s weeks away from his 16th birthday, his mum is nearing the end of her prison sentence and he is attempting to raise money in any way he can (selling untaxed cigarettes, etc.) to set them up. Scenes in the film also take place in Port Glasgow and specifically Greenock and Gourock in Inverclyde.
8. Young Adam (2003) dir. David Mackenzie
Language: English Run time: 106m 63% Rotten Tomatoes
Young Adam is possibly one of the most well-known films set in Glasgow and definitely features the most recognisable actors. Peter Mullan returns and the film also featured Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton and Emily Mortimer.
Young Adam is set in the 1950s and follows a man called Joe who works on a barge that travels along the River Clyde. The film flits back and forth between Joe’s past relationship with a woman called Cathie and the present day where he is having an affair with Ella, the married woman who owns the barge. Young Adam filmed scenes on the Union Canal, Forth and Clyde Canal, Clydebank, Dunbarton and Renton is West Dunbartonshire, Falkirk and Perth. As well as Glasgow, of course.
Like a lot of these independent Scottish films, the film’s ending is quite bleak. Can we get some more light-hearted Glasgow-set films soon, please? Maybe a rom-com?
9. Dear Frankie (2004) dir. Shona Auerbach
Languages: English, British Sign Language Run time: 105m 81% Rotten Tomatoes
Finally! We have been treated to a much more light-hearted, optimistic film that may actually make you want to visit Glasgow. For this film, we’ve returned to Greenock in Inverclyde where a lot of Sweet Sixteen was filmed. Dear Frankie is directed by a woman and prominently features the use of British Sign Language which is really lovely to see. Considering like 200,000 people in the UK can communicate using British Sign Language, it seems like there should be more films featuring it.
Dear Frankie is about a mum, Lizzie, and her deaf son, Frankie, who move around Scotland frequently to outrun her abusive husband. Lizzie writes letters to her son posing as his father to avoid explaining the truth. Since Frankie’s ‘dad’ works on a ship that is supposed to be docking soon, Lizzie panics and hires a man to pose as Frankie’s dad for a day.
It’s a beautiful, special Scottish film that definitely deserves a lot more attention than its ever gotten. And yes, Gerard Butler plays the fake Dad character.
10. Ae Fond Kiss (2004) dir. Ken Loach
Languages: English, Punjabi Run time: 104m 88% Rotten Tomatoes
Director Ken Loach is back in Glasgow, and this time it’s for romantic drama Ae Fond Kiss. Casim is from a Pakistani immigrant family living in Glasgow’s South Side and Roisin is an Irish Catholic immigrant working as a music teacher. The pair must overcome their clashing cultures in order to be together.
The poem ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ by the renowned Scottish poet Robert Burns was the inspiration for the title. I really love that this is a Scottish film and the two protagonists are immigrants. I also love that Ken Loach has directed a film that’s slightly more cheery than the doom-and-gloom he normally makes. Ae Fond Kiss is almost entirely set in Glasgow and Carim’s house was filmed at 51 Mansewood Road, though the couple does take a trip to Málaga during the film.
11. Red Road (2006) dir. Andrea Arnold
Language: English Run time: 113m 88% Rotten Tomatoes
Another amazing feature film debut by a British female director is the gritty Red Road. The Red Road Flats were a group of high-rise buildings built around the 1960s in the Balornock and Barmulloch districts in Glasgow north of the River Clyde. They were some of the tallest buildings in Glasgow before being condemned and demolished in 2015, but not before Andrea Arnold shot Red Road in 2006.
Jackie works as a CCTV operator monitoring the Red Road Flats in Glasgow. One day, she spots a man she recognises on camera and begins stalking him and keeping an eye on his every move. Red Road a really fantastic suspenseful film, produced using Dogme 95 production guidelines. And it’s definitely one of the best independent films set in Glasgow over the last 20 years.
12. Neds (2010) dir. Peter Mullan
Languages: English, Scots Run time: 125m 94% Rotten Tomatoes
Peter Mullan is back in Glasgow (and Clydebank) and this time he’s in the director’s chair! And he did an alright job, looking at that Rotten Tomatoes score. The word ‘neds’ literally means ‘Non-Educated Delinquents’ but colloquially is just Scottish slang for young, petty criminals who have usually grown up in poverty and/or haven’t received enough support or a stable upbringing.
Neds is about youth culture (or specifically, youth and gang culture intertwined) in 1970s Glasgow. John McGill is a young lad who is academically gifted but is bullied and neglected at home and school and finds friendship and purpose in his brother’s gang called Young Car-D. Neds spans a few years in John’s life from the age of 11 to mid-teens. Neds is an easier watch than some of the other gang films set in Glasgow as the youth culture (costumes, etc.) is more vibrant, and that probably makes Neds a much more entertaining and enjoyable film.
13. The Angels’ Share (2012) dir. Ken Loach
Languages: English, Scots Run time: 106m 89% Rotten Tomatoes
The third and final film directed by Ken Loach on this list. Ken Loach isn’t even Scottish, what’s up with that? And The Angels’ Share possibly has one of the most Scottish premises ever.
Robbie is participating in mandatory community service when his girlfriend, Leonie goes into labour and gives birth to his son. Celebrating the birth and good behaviour, the community service leader takes the group to a whisky distillery. Robbie stumbles upon a chance to steal a cask of priceless whisky and is torn between turning back to crime to set up his new family or attempting to go straight. ‘The Angels Share’ is a term given to the part of the whisky that evaporates in the cask.
The film shot all over Glasgow as well as few other filming locations around Scotland. Glengoyne Distillery and Balblair Distillery make up the exterior and interior of the distillery in the film respectively. Other locations include Mitchell Lane, Glasgow Sheriff Court and Glasgow Necropolis all in Glasgow, Birkhill Railway Station, Edinburgh and Arrochar in Argyll.
14. Under the Skin (2013) dir. Jonathan Glazer
Language: English Run time: 108m 85% Rotten Tomatoes
I’m not totally sure if Under the Skin is as universally well-liked as it’s Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest. It’s a bit of a weird film and the more you think about the different elements of it, the weirder it seems. Like, what is Scarlett Johansson doing starring in a British independent film about an alien in Glasgow?! I personally thought it was interesting and different, but I absolutely will not be re-watching this film of my own free will. Too weird.
As I’ve suggested, Johansson plays an extraterrestrial in a human disguise who tours around Glasgow seducing lonely, single men. Though Glasgow is the main setting in Under the Skin, the alien does travel to different parts of Scotland, too. Glasgow locations include the Buchanan Galleries Shopping Centre, Argyle Street, Sauchiehall Street, Trongate, St Vincent Street and Celtic Park.
15. God Help the Girl (2014) dir. Stuart Murdoch
Language: English Run time: 111m 68% Rotten Tomatoes
I’m pleased we’re ending this list of films set in Glasgow with God Help the Girl, a romantic film which is also a musical. I’ve listened to the soundtrack of this film over and over but I’ve not *actually* seen the film. I’ll have to rectify that ASAP because the music, which is all original, is so great!
God Help the Girl is directed by Stuart Murdoch who is a member of the Glaswegian band Belle and Sebastian. Eve is a girl dealing with anorexia who moves to Glasgow to become a musician, James is a lifeguard and Cassie is his guitar student and together they form a band called God Help the Girl.
As fans of Belle and Sebastian might assume, God Help the Girl is supposed to be quite twee and cute which might not give the film a lot of depth, but it’s certainly a refreshing story for a Glasgow-set film. Fingers crossed we get more positive, life-affirming films set in Glasgow in the years to come as opposed to the hopeless narratives of films from the ’90s and early ’00s.
Other films set in Scotland: That Sinking Feeling (1979), Heavenly Pursuits/Gospel According to Vic (1986), Orphans (1998), American Cousins (2003)
Those are some of the best independent films set in Glasgow, Scotland! Have you visited Glasgow or watch any of the films listed? Let me know in the comments below!