Our latest blog comes from stipend holder Dr Jamie Steele, Senior Lecturer in Film and Screen Studies at Bath Spa University. Jamie, who has previously studied films set in the Belgian coalfields, looks at the depiction of the Scottish coal mining community of Newcraighall in Bill Douglas's trilogy.


The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum Research Stipend offered the opportunity for me to kick start a project that had laid dormant for me for many years on coal-mining communities and landscapes in Scotland, as revealed by the films of Bill Douglas. It allowed me to spend 10 days researching Bill Douglas’ vast personal archive, and to build an understanding of how his films depict a side of Scottish history that often goes unseen in contemporary filmmaking. Bill Douglas’ films have also been central to my own academic journey, teaching his trilogy to English and Film University of Exeter students between 2014-2016 and engaging with the wealth of material available at the museum. It was a great opportunity to engage with the materiality of physical research and artefacts to elucidate interpretations of Douglas’ trilogy, focusing mainly on My Childhood (1972) and My Ain Folk (1974). I was able to spend a couple of weeks at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum through the research stipend – returning to Exeter after a number of years away – to focus on a new topic at the locus of my academic writing. I had written about the coal-mining landscapes of Belgian cinema, and how these images – and human landscapes – shaped the way in which communities where represented on film. There was a Scottish story and exploration of working-class Scottish identity laced within the celluloid, with points of comparison that extend to other Western European countries – reminiscent of the films of Belgian neo-realist filmmaker Paul Meyer.

From the museums of East Lothian – such as Newtongrange in the South of Edinburgh – to the small museums dotted across the Fife coastline at East Weymss and Leven, the legacy of coal-mining as a central part of the Scottish economy in the South-East is laid bare across the region. The National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive captures the industrial legacy of Scotland and the Central Belt, with videos highlighting the range of industries in Edinburgh and the Lothians. Bill Douglas’ films, particularly My Childhood and My Ain Folk, bring to life, and capture on celluloid, the challenging living and working environment of coal-mining communities in Europe. The scars cut into the landscape, whether it may be historic in terms of coal mining under the Forth in places like Culross (which is much better known as the backdrop for the TV series Outlander), to the pink shale bings on the outskirts of Edinburgh and the slag bings near Kingseat, the remnants of the Scottish economic past are there. This makes Douglas’ films so fascinating as films and documents of a time passed. Where some of the memories and communities that are often suffused with the landscape have been lost over time, contextual research available at the archives in the National coal-mining museum at Newtongrange highlight how Newcraighall expanded in the 1930s, only to close with the mine at the end of the 1960s (Laurence Lambert, ‘Coalface’, May 1994). Pauline Jaffrey’s article ‘The Village that refused to Die’, published in East Lothian Life, attests to the history of the village and its development with the mining of ‘black gold’ and one of the richest coal seams in the area. Whilst these aforementioned reference points still speak silently, the slag heaps of Edinburgh are long gone (closed in the 1970s) and the coal-mining community of Newcraighall largely moved to the Southern outskirts of Edinburgh and the Craigmillar estate. Through his films and through the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum archive, these stories can emerge from the documents and the celluloid to speak to new audiences about working-class communities in the UK, poverty in Edinburgh, and the art of Scottish cinema.

The aims of this research project were to critically analyse the Bill Douglas Trilogy’s ephemera (publicity materials, posters, and photographs) to better understand the discursive practices that surround the film and its articulation of working-class identity. The concept of working-class representation – for the purposes of this research – comes from Attfield’s recent publication on the ‘global working class’ in film. As Attfield notes, ‘[i]n the Western world, the old image of blue-collar, manual male workers (the coal miner or the autoworker) is being replaced by one that is feminised and white collar (the call centre, the shop assistant)’ (Attfield, 2020: 6 – ‘Class). This research focuses on the former, due to the time and setting of Douglas’ Trilogy, but considers its legacy. The three main research objectives for this project were (1) to adopt a contextual reading of the film’s mode of production, critically analysing the histories and legacies of the film’s location in Newcraighall through photographs, (2) to assess the ephemera and artefacts of Bill Douglas’ films, My Childhood and My Ain Folk, in order to better understand how the film was promoted and communicated to working-class audiences and to use publicity material to consider its legacy, and, finally, (3) to offer a sociological approach to the articulation of Scottish working-class identities in film, as articulated by film marketing material and press reviews. These were the initial questions used to structure the approach to the material surrounding Bill Douglas’ Trilogy, and, primarily My Childhood and My Ain Folk.

The films of Bill Douglas have been celebrated by a number of scholars, and his work was recently at the centre of a wonderful new edited collection, published by Exeter University Press (Watts and Wickham, 2022). The edited collection brings to life the fascinating archival material available in the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, as well as key scholars drawing on research on Douglas’ work, which is dotted around the United Kingdom. Images of Edinburgh are typically viewed from Urry’s concept of the ‘tourist gaze’ – the sequel to Trainspotting (2017) is a clear example of this, frequenting the major sites of the city. There are only glimpses of this in Douglas’ cinema – right at the end of My Ain Folk, Castle Wynd and Calton Hill creep into the narrative (as comments on Edinburgh’s past). In Douglas’ films, there is an emphasis on the landscape, which is also evoked in Peter Jewell’s notes as part of the Bill Douglas Journals.   


Image from My Childhood of Jamie on the slag heap.


However, Douglas’ work shines a light on the darkness of the coal-mining communities and the abject poverty experienced by its population in the 1940s (and still in parts of Edinburgh in the 21st Century). These are the voices that are often unheard, and, as documents attest to in the archive, may never have been seen or made, since it contrasted with the views of Scottish Film Committee and the image of Scotland that they wanted to present. The exploration of grief, trauma, loss, and abject poverty in the Scottish Capital did not represent the positive image-making future that was sought at the time. At the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, there is even a letter from the National Coal Board at Lauriston House in Edinburgh that outlines how Douglas could maintain a level of authenticity by filming certain locations.  It didn’t take long for the wave of Scottish New Cinema to return to Douglas themes – such as the work of Lynne Ramsey, Peter Mullan, and Danny Boyle. Publications in Scottish Newspapers on working-class identity – primarily male – on film place an emphasis on the ‘urban wastelands’ and miserablism of this bleak cityscape, as Yule writes in The Sunday National. Yule, here, focuses on the “Clydidism” – a response to films set in the Scottish countryside and Highlands, to show a bleak urban setting. Douglas’ films capture this for Edinburgh and the Lothians. The term “Clydidism’ is borrowed from film theorist Duncan Petrie’s work on New Scottish Cinema, and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum holds a transcript record of an early interview between Petrie and Douglas.  

New holdings in the archive came to light as part of this research, and the audience responses to Bill Douglas’ films caught attention as these letters sent to the Radio Times magazine (one of the institutions of TV publishing and TV listings in the United Kingdom) proved revelatory. The letters to the Radio Times highlighted how the local articulated shared national concerns, drawing attention to the fact that this is not locally and regionally specific. The letters offered personal reflections on Bill Douglas’ films, and how they resonated with their childhood experiences growing up in different places across the UK – from Belfast to London. It engendered memories of sadness, particularly when it came to universal themes, such as loss of a parent or relative, growing up in poverty with the cold and the hunger, and the challenges of a traumatic childhood. The letters highlighted how much spectators would share with the filmmaker about their own experiences to highlight their mutual and shared feelings. To cite the title of Lorn Macintyre’s piece published in the Glasgow Herald (on Monday April 2 1990), Douglas’s autobiographical Trilogy are ‘an exorcism of a haunted childhood’. The archive even contains responses from Bill Douglas to those letters, highlighting the connection of coal to family and the filmmaker’s thoughts about the demolition of the village of Newcraighall. As outlined in the journals held at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, the films were able to be produced just before Newcraighall was closed in the 1970s and later demolished, with a leisure complex and new-build housing estate being built in its stead. The filmmaker now has a road named after him in this estate, called ‘Bill Douglas Grove’.



Bill Douglas’ journals outline the practical issues that underpinned the decisions to replace Newcraighall, the village and working-class community of his memories and the eponymous first film of the trilogy. He discusses the rehousing of the community and how quickly the community moved to nearby Craigmillar. There are Youtube clips – available from the Craigmillar Youtube Channel – that houses newsreel footage of the evictions from Newcraighall in the 1970s.    

The Bill Douglas archive holds production stills from the trilogy, capturing life on set and the labour behind the scenes. Within the production stills, the place of Newcraighall is captured like a film set. The series of stills in the neighbourhood capture the flats with their coal bunkers highlights the working-class community life and the hardship experienced by those who grew up there. The stills of the rail bridge also reinforce the imagery of the industrial revolution and legacy, with the rail bridge becoming an icon of the film (until it was demolished in 2014). The rail bridge even appears as the dominant motif and icon of the film on one of the commemorative posters, which labelled Douglas the ‘creative son of Newcraighall’. The image attests to the ‘architectural heritage’ of the town, creating a lasting perception of the former industrial working-class town. As the poster highlights, the rail bridge is no longer in existence, and the new town of Newcraighall is a new-build suburb of Edinburgh, with rail links to the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. It is now part of the Edinburgh commuter belt.  


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At Bath Spa University, I have recently overseen a donation of Channel 4 Press Packs from Learning on Screen to the department for use in teaching and research. The material includes a number of references to Bill Douglas’ films and work – from Comrades (1984) through to the autobiographical Trilogy. One press pack from Wednesday 19th April outlines how on Films on Four, the Trilogy were screened preceding the feature film, Comrades (Weekly Pack 15 April 1989-21 April 1989). As the press packs note, the Trilogy captures the struggle of growing up in post-war Scotland, in a small, Scottish mining town.


I’d like to leave this blog post on a line from the Bill Douglas papers at the museum, from Helen Crummy who worked with the aim of maintaining the legacy and memories of Newcraighall. In her piece about ‘Craigmillar Art, Culture and Heritage Trail: In the footsteps of Time’, published in 2010, Crummy writes,


–      ‘This pride gives it people a sense of place, not just physically, but in terms of time and it helps build and bind communities’.


This is the potential of filmmaking and cinema, and, for me, captures the importance of Bill Douglas’ films, My Childhood and My Ain Folk.

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