A number of the theoretical difficulties with short clips of archival film footage are the same as those with photographs. Like photographs, as Sontag explains, a short clip of film footage works by ‘slicing out [a] moment and freezing it’, in a way that can preclude true understanding of the past by removing it from any context or explanation. Like photographs, archived footage raises issues of consent and appropriation. As Sontag also writes: ‘To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.’ It is hard, watching From Scotland With Love, not to see clips of young Scots dancing; shipbuilders in the Clyde; families in tears boarding ships to emigrate abroad, without feeling some unease about the one-sidedness of our twenty-first century gaze and all of its bittersweet hindsight. Finally, like photographs, film – especially old film – tends to aestheticise and ‘transform’ subjects and events into something more ‘beautiful’ or ‘unbearable’ than the ‘real life’ it purports to represent. Documentary as it may call itself, as a purely visual phenomenon without titles, interviews, or voiceovers, From Scotland With Love’s ability to convey the realities of lived experience in twentieth-century Scotland is perhaps limited – though it is unmistakably beautiful, powerful, and heartwarming. This is, perhaps, why Kenny Anderson’s, a.k.a. King Creosote’s, soundtrack plays such an interesting and crucial role in the project.
‘Narratives make us understand’, Sontag writes, while photographs (and here, film clips) merely ‘haunt’ us. Certainly the archive footage in From Scotland With Love doesn’t suffer as strongly from these difficulties of conveying understanding as single photographs – the sheer number of clips placed in such close proximity to one another prompts constant consideration of curatorship, aestheticism, and what lies beyond the shown frame and time period. But there is no doubt that the narrative accompaniment provided by Anderson’s lyrics and melodies adds great weight to Virginia Heath’s visuals; providing far greater insight into the lives and circumstances depicted and into the achievements and limitations of the documentary form than would be available otherwise. It’s a great example of what music, at its best, can offer to other art forms, and achieve in collaboration with them.
From Scotland With Love opens initially without titles; without introductions; with only the black-and-white sight of buses and a solitary car riding down an eerily empty Glaswegian street, the frame shuddering and jittering with age. The frames cut about, seemingly without logical connection: a man surrounded by pigeons; a flock of birds suddenly shooting overhead like an augury; the sort of impossible birds-eye view over the past cityscape that you’d only get in your unconscious. The introduction is as beautiful and mysterious as the past, and as foreign as a fiction. Over all of this runs the gorgeous ‘Something To Believe In’, a sympathetic accordion melting into Anderson’s vocals as he sings: ‘Dreaming without sleeping / It’s morning, are you leaving?’ It’s a brilliant introduction to the medium of the documentary, outlining the unreal feel of this glimpse into history, but also – and importantly – serving to counteract the harmful notion Sontag warns of, that in filming and viewing the past, we ‘violate’ people by turning them into ‘objects’ that can be ‘possessed’. Instead, Anderson’s questioning vocals, ‘are you leaving?’ followed by the devastating, ‘But our story / It is only begun / And are you willing it to end?’ is a powerful offering to Heath’s archival ghosts, gifting them with a speaking voice that puts questions directly to the viewer/listener, demanding them to consider their relationship and obligation to those shown in the footage and refusing to allow them to be reduced to mere ‘objects’. The questions and accusations – ‘you promised’ – directly convey the unequal power relations involved in this viewing of history, while the final sung demand, ‘now promise to be real’, forces us to face up to the fact that it is we who are charged with the responsibility of ensuring we do not cheat these lives of the fair engagement they are owed. Anderson’s introductory song sets the scene brilliantly for a documentary that will force us to consider what it means to observe the past, even as we enjoy doing so. And just as the word ‘our’ in the lines ‘our story / It is only begun’ hint, there is something powerful and communal to come out of this collaboration of viewer and viewed, and filmmaker and songwriter, if we only try. It’s powerful magic indeed.
In the industrial interlude that follows, the problem of film’s habit of positive aesthetic transformation is made apparent. Images of molten metal firework across the screen amidst shots of the shipbuilders and welders of Scotland’s past, the black-and-white footage giving way to bright reds that light up the screen like the sparks of some sort of enlightenment. Speaking of art that aims to depict the industrial workers of this era, tapestry weaver Jimmy Watt writes: ‘people need to know how wonderful was the work of their fathers and grandfathers, but also how dirty and dangerous it was’. In this instance, the film and the film’s soundtrack of pretty warbling clarinets and eerie strings (placed, admittedly, in juxtaposition with the occasional hiss of steam or crash of hot coals) does not do justice to the representation of a lifestyle that, for thousands, was poorly paid, highly dangerous (shipbuilders were at high risk of asbestos poisoning), and remarkably un-aesthetic.
It is lucky, then, that the next song is so profoundly concerned with temporality and the contrast between beauty and the ugliness of life. Within the lyrics of ‘Bluebell, Cockleshell, 123’, which runs over footage that juxtaposes images of childhood with that of working-class working life, we are reminded of the difficulty of remaining consciously aware that, while these archived existences we see were as intensely beautiful as they appear to us now, they were also dark and painful. This is not immediately discernable from the visuals, but is extremely necessary for a generous and illuminating understanding of Scotland’s past. While the song is jaunty – a children’s rhyme playing over a skipping montage – the later lyrics, dressed up in the same tune and rhythm, are very dark: ‘Bury me in the old churchyard’, Anderson sings, ‘Beside my only brother’, followed by the declaration, ‘My coffin shall be black / Six white angels at my back / Two to sing, two to pray / Two to carry my soul away.’ The mortality sung of here is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ pronouncement that photography is always ‘a vertigo of time defeated’; the reminder that ‘that is dead and that is going to die’. When watching these archive children and adults, we remember that are not truly frozen in a continuous present, for our possessive and unproblematic enjoyment, but were living beings who also suffered death and disease and overwork. The contrast between the songs of childhood play and the theme of childhood death also makes impossible again a simple acceptance of film’s aestheticising powers. The child’s awareness of their own death, like that of their brother, to the extent of designing their own funeral, is reminiscent of the high child mortality rates that haunted Scotland, especially through the 1920s and 1930s (on average 17-18% higher in Scotland than in England and Wales at that time). And the contrast in the tone of the song with its subject matter illustrates the impossibility of assuming that a cheerful appearance belies a sometimes-devastating reality. Anderson’s soundtrack once more calls us to approach the film’s footage with a more attuned mind: aware of the possibilities of film to manipulate with its beautiful nostalgia, and able to resist its siren call.
This warning against film’s power of aesthetic ‘transformation’ is further sounded by Anderson’s ‘678’, a song which details limitations. ‘No I never was going to be first out of the stalls /No I never was going to be six, seven, eight feet tall’ begin the vocals, culminating in the quietly devastating and often-repeated ‘But at the back of my mind /I was always hoping I might just get by’. The song, playing over footage of working-class life, refuses again to allow the watcher/listener to read only happiness into the smiling faces shown (though, of course, we are not supposed to read only hardship into them either). What is also interesting about ‘678’ however is its provenance: those who have followed the releases of King Creosote will recognise it from a number of earlier albums. While this does not change its impact in the narrative of From Scotland With Love, it might add another level of thought about how we relate to its images. Much of our understanding of photographs (and, I continue to argue, film clips), as Barthes and Sontag state, is borne out of the written word that surrounds them: they ‘wait to be explained or falsified by their captions’ (Sontag). It also, however, arises out of our subjectivity: Barthes calls this the ‘punctum’, the ‘wounding’ detail that acts as a conduit of our personal feelings towards the image. Anderson’s song, written out of the context of this footage and this film, was chosen by him to accompany the images presumably because he felt in what he watched a sense of relation between the experience of the other and his own. And this has resonance for the audience as a whole, who must recognise that their feelings towards the people, places, and eras shown are directed in part by their own personal backgrounds, and imbued with the feelings of their present self. To watch and relate to an image is not a stand-alone objective act; a fact which the re-emergence of this song illustrates, as does that of later tracks ‘My Favourite Girl’ and ‘Carry On Dancing’.
In addition to stressing the fact that to observe is not necessarily an objective act, Anderson’s soundtrack also serves to counsel the watcher/listener to remain at a distance in order to facilitate a better level of understanding. ‘Cargill’, a later song running over footage of Scotland’s fishing folk, seems almost to have been intended to respond to Sontag’s concern that ‘‘To photograph people is to violate them’; to ‘possess’ them. The refrain, ‘Cargill do not presume to understand / The dread of counting home the fleet’, which builds to a crescendo at the end of the second line in a manner that emphasises its message, is an homage to the individual experience of pain and a demand that others – clearly heard by we the audience – do not appropriate it or undermine its singularity. The relationship between place and inhabitants, ‘Cargill you’ll have me round the bend / Cargill you’re pulling all the strands’ again stresses the singularity of experience, and a relationship from which we, the observers/listeners, are excluded. We are warned not to appropriate, or to intrude: only to listen and watch, and be mindful of our otherness. From this position, we might learn from the past; not merely detract from it.
Crucially for the project, however, Anderson’s soundtrack does not only emphasise our distance from past lives, but encourages us to think about how we might work collaboratively with them to the most powerful and satisfying of ends. ‘Pauper’s Dough’, another song from the King Creosote back catalogue, is worked into a slightly new form that does its best to highlight the more difficult aspects of Scotland’s history. Powerfully detailing the ‘Injustice’ of mining, the ‘detriment’ of ‘clarty surrounds’ and the relative poverty of mining jobs in a tender soft vocal, it also describes a refusal to disappear, in the line, ‘we’re striving to be counted’. This point is all the more powerful for its visual backdrop, where the miners and protestors literally refuse to be hidden from view. The addition of this new introduction to the established line, ‘You’ve got to rise above the gutter you are inside’, is crucially interesting, however, because it proves to the watcher/listener that our attempt to engage with the past from the present can build something new and beautiful. Each reference to ‘our’, passing between a song we know to be Anderson’s and the point-of-view of the miners, suggests a collaborative bridging between them and us; past and present; strange and known, to great creative result: the song is undeniably beautiful. Our relationship with the mysterious past is not futile, Anderson’s songs enact, but one that can create something anew; something which reinvigorates our experience. The same could be said of Heath’s masterful documentary.
To attempt to discuss every song on From Scotland With Love’s soundtrack would risk overlabouring what is in fact a simple point: that King Creosote’s soundtrack performs a vital role in this documentary, not only in enhancing its appeal (I’ve barely touched on how beautiful Anderson’s vocals, melodies, and lyrics are), but in teaching us to think critically about our relationship to the past and the documentary medium. Lives are never as beautiful to us as when they are viewed from afar, rescued from time, removed from context, and imbued with the pathos of nostalgia. Yet to view the characters in this documentary in such a way would be to remove the dimensions from past lives: to reduce them from what they were in all their messiness and beauty, and render them mere fantasies; nothing more than objects our minds might play with. By giving us some context and some measure of awareness of our distance from these lives, Creosote’s songs force us to think about our debts to these archival phantoms, and to a past that we might too simply wish to beautify or make simpler, or structure to our own agenda. The shipbuilders, children, workers, and emigrants shown in this film are rescued from history not purely in the displaying of the archive film footage, but in imbuing them with agency to fight against an audience that might otherwise speak over them. And, indeed, in her own words Heath agrees, explaining in an interview with The Skinny: ‘I just thought that he [Anderson] would add an incredible amount – because we didn’t want to use interviews or voiceover, so it really was a question of me shaping the visual material and working with a composer who could help to bring out the stories.’
The expression ‘bring out’ is crucial. In this masterful work, Anderson has not allowed these ghostly specters of the past to be objectified, but has channeled to us their voices and their dignity. Both past and present owe him a great debt.