Where is Scotland’s Peterloo?

This week sees the cinematic release of Peterloo, a £14m dramatisation of the infamous 1819 massacre of Mancunian protestors for political reform. Its director Mike Leigh, speaking at its Edinburgh preview, said he was unavoidably conscious of modern parallels during its production. Establishment avarice and callousness. The brutality of war and poverty. The necessity of struggle and of progress through sacrifice.

Yet, as a historical re-enactment, it is also an important film of People’s History.

The talk in Edinburgh’s Filmhouse quickly turned to how such events are remembered and taught, if at all. Peterloo was part of my school education. Yet I always laugh at the response to citing John Maclean’s imprisonment in a history essay: “How did you know about that?!”

Many blockbuster tales of Scottish modern history feel displaced by the focus on feudal romanticism. Braveheart begets Outlander begets Outlaw King (released next week) begets Mary Queen of Scots (premiere next month). Where is Scotland’s Peterloo on the big screen?

Will the Scottish Insurrection of 1820 ever see a similar dramatisation? And with what institutional backing, and headquartered in what film studio?

The rolling release of Nae Pasaran! is also this week – telling the heroic 1970s story of how Scottish workers defied a military order for the dictatorship of General Pinochet. Early on, the project had to crowdfund £50,000 to help make it happen.

This month also saw a new biography of Maclean authored by Henry Bell. The upcoming Edinburgh Radical Book Festival will also showcase a wealth of independent writing both historical and contemporary.

So away from Hollywood’s fascination with misty glens, the fuel for a reinvigorated and diverse People’s History and culture exists in Scotland. The question – from classrooms and curriculums to producers and publishers – is how can our institutions make it happen?


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    Glasgow West End U3a and Paisley & District U3a Local History Groups are currently in the process of doing some joint research into the Rising.

    To find out more
    Hi Glassford


  2. Ian McQueen says:

    Another candidate for a Scottish Peterlooo must be the occasion in 1747 in Edinburgh when a crowd gathered, on the anniversary of Culloden if memory serves, to commemorate either the battle or BPC, who’d gained some popularity in the city, or his cause. I can’t remember the precise details. But I do recall that when this crowd gathered, the red-coated Tories went berserk, jumped on their cavalry horses, and rode into the crowd, slashing at people on all sides. I don’t know how many casualties there were, but I’d say this incident needs to be remembered too.

  3. Gareth Wardell says:

    Peterloo is a massive snore of a film – indulgent and worthy. And a talk that fills the Glad Cafe suggests there are 30 people who give two hoots about John Maclean. Gray’s ambitions for films seem aimed at very niche audiences, and it’s peculiar that he doesn’t bother to interrogate the popularity of Mary Queen of Scots beyond miscalling it a feudalist story.
    Incidentally, Nae Pasaran is a documentary, not a fictionalised film so not in the same bracket as Mary Queen of Scots and Outlaw King. There are shitloads of such historical docs, modern and ancient, some running to series. What a strange and incoherent article

  4. Redgauntlet says:

    What about COMRADES by Bill Douglas, or does that not count?


    Check it out, Michael…

  5. SleepingDog says:

    Perhaps if we gave art imitating life a bit of a hand, by making history ourselves? The Storming of Balmoral by flashmob, perhaps?

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