The name of the restaurant was Restaurant. Anywhere else the meals on such a scenic waterfront would have been what the Scots describe as “dear.” But this was the remote Isle of Iona. I was the only diner and the only tourist in the room, perhaps the only tourist left on the island as winter bore down on the western shore. A group of local youths sat nursing pints of ale nearby.
The tune delivered softly by the scratchy speakers was familiar. I concentrated and then connected: the soundtrack from “Local Hero,” a low budget 1983 film produced by Scotsman Bill Forsyth. I had watched the film on video before moving to Scotland. How fitting, I thought, as I recalled that thoroughly Scottish film in this most Scottish of places.
Then a young woman who had grown louder as her tankard had grown lighter summoned the manager. “Can’t you find anything better than that to play?” she said. Her friends concurred in a mumbled sneering sort of a way.My reverie cut short, I wondered whose truth Forsyth had really captured in his film about a wheeling, dealing Houston oil man who is sent to a Scottish village called Furness. Perhaps after living in Scotland for a year, all I really knew was Scotland filtered through American eyes. Smug at first — as is Forsyth’s Mac MacIntyre who was sent to buy a piece of Scotland to fuel American gluttony — perhaps I had succumbed too easily to infatuation.
To trace Mac’s fictional steps, as I decided to do, is to follow thousands of earlier pilgrims seeking to unearth and pay homage to Scotland’s truth.
“We’ve had visitors from as far away as Australia and the Falkland Islands,” said Norrie Grierson, owner of the Pennan Inn. Much of “Local Hero” was shot in Pennan, a tiny village that teeters on the edge of the northern coast where the Moray Firth enters the North Sea. Visitors from the United States and Australia are most common, Grierson said, but tourists from Switzerland, Russia, Hong Kong — the list is long — still pop in.
What they seek first is one of the best-known phone booths in all of Britain. The red phone box, at first Mac’s lifeline to the outside, becomes ultimately his link to the simplicity and beauty he comes to cherish in the fictional Furness.
Mac’s phone box was a papier-mâché illusion built on the quay. The real McCoy is a few houses away in front of the Pennan Inn. That is a detail that troubles few pilgrims who love to pose for pictures there. Fans who cannot make the trip to Pennan have telephoned the famous red booth from as far away as New Zealand.
Forsyth is party to another deception. Buttressed on three sides by towering cliffs, Pennan can boast only a rocky gash of beach, and then only at low tide.
The pristine beach that a treacherous camera portrays as part of the fishing village of Furness is 147 miles away on the west coast. “There was a lot of artistic license,” said Grierson. But the treachery is gentle, as if Forsyth’s love for his homeland is just too expansive for the geographic facts.
Camusdarach beach sees fewer pilgrims than Pennan. So remote that it can be reached only via dirt road and a challenging hike over gale-swept dunes, the beach does draw some visitors.
“I still get strangers knocking on my door to ask about the beach,” said Angie Lewis, who lives nearby.
The windy, wet day in September when we visited Pennan was inhospitable, but there were still a few tourists about, most of them forced inside by the weather. They sat packed tightly, but amicably, around the four tables in the lounge of the Pennan Inn. A framed newspaper clipping and several enlarged stills from the movie confirmed that we were indeed in the right place.
The village bore the brunt of a storm coming in off the sea, a wild side to the community that Mac never got to see. The weather in fictional Furness is too kind, boring by Scottish standards. The Scottish landscape can only be appreciated, the Scottish character only fathomed in light of the wind and the rain, the endless summer days and interminable winter nights.
As we settled into the room we had booked at the Inn, we heard a hammer hard at work nearby, an amusing reminder of the hammering that punctuates life in the fictional Furness. A search revealed that windows at the front of the inn were being replaced by a father-son team, Bert and Stephen Young.
“I also deliver the mail in town,” said Bert with a huge grin. I took this as an amusing reference to the versatile villagers created by Forsyth. In this case, I chose not to try to separate truth from fiction.
Inside, Grierson took time to talk about his adopted village. In 1900 Pennan was a prosperous fishing community, home to 1,000 residents and 80 fishing boats, he said. “They used to haul the fish in here and then transport it to the markets. But now there are two sophisticated international fish markets on the coast.” Only one working fishing boat remains in Pennan, Grierson said, a lobster boat.
Most of the year-round residents commute 45-50 minutes to Aberdeen, the “Houston of the north” where they work in the oil business, a development portended by Forsyth’s story. As Pennan residents age and die, many of the homes are sold to outsiders for holiday homes.
According to Baden Gibson, the only fisherman left in Pennan, the fishing industry is now centered in Fraserburgh and Peterhead east of Pennan. “Fishing is no longer a viable occupation here,” said Gibson. “The price to the fisherman has stayed static for five years and costs have risen 50 percent.”
Gibson catches lobster and crab in addition to doing some line fishing. His fishing expertise earned him a berth on the Russian trawler used in the filming of “Local Hero.” He can testify to a melancholy truth stated in the film: Lobster fishermen cannot afford to eat the lobster they catch. “If we ate them, we wouldna’ make any money,” he said. “We ship them off to Spain.”
Don’t look for the Furness shop where Mac bought dandruff shampoo in Pennan. There’s no variety store in Pennan, no news agent, no confectionery. “You canna’ justify it,” Grierson said. “In the winter, there’s just no livin’.”
Norman Grierson prepares breakfast at the Pennan Inn. Bill Forsyth, producer of “Local Hero” is still a hero to Grierson, although other residents believe that the film has ultimately done more harm than good.
What keeps the Griersons’ in business is their restaurant. Formerly owners of a pub in the Borders region of Scotland, the couple were scouting around for a rural location for a restaurant. They saw the sign for Pennan and dropped in for a cup of tea. “We had never heard of Local Hero,” he said. While waiting for their tea, they heard that the inn was coming on the market. It never got that far because the Griersons snatched it up.
Now the chief benefactor of Forsyth’s tale, Grierson is well-versed in its lore. Only a few village residents earned roles as extras. They appear in the ceilidh (kay-lee) and in the scene of the villagers descending on the beach. Only one of them actually still has a home in the village, a teacher working overseas. As to the direct profit for the city itself from the film, “the city received the princely sum of £1,500,” Grierson said.
But Mac’s greatest legacy to the village is not cash. It is very much the opposite — fame without fortune, according to Gibson. “At the time, it seemed like a good thing,” he said. “But it’s almost 10 years and still the people come. It has made things beyond reach for ordinary people. I dinna’ think it’s been a good thing.”
Unlike Pennan, Morar and Arisaig on the west coast were tourist destinations long before Forsyth created Furness using the beach close by. “It’s been absolutely good for business,” said Colin MacDonald who works at the Morar Motor Garage. “Especially with Americans, they all come here and ask where the beach is.”
Despite the disdain of those youths gathered at the Restaurant on Iona, “Local Hero” is appreciated by many Scots. Some of its biggest boosters are with the Scottish Film Council. “It’s a sleeper,” said Kevin Cowle, head of training for the Council. Slow to catch on, the film has achieved “cult status,” said Eddie Holmes, public relations manager. Fans watch it again and again and are rewarded each time with fresh discoveries, subtleties of British humor we Americans are slow to fathom.
Even Gibson who is saddened by the film’s impact on Pennan liked it. “It was good fun,” he said, “although they left out some of the funnier parts.”
Eleanor MacVarish, postmistress in Morar, was less restrained. When she saw the film in London, she was thrilled to hear that cosmopolitan crowd applaud the rescue of the fictional Scottish village from an ugly industrial doom. “I was so proud,” she said. “I felt like laying on a thick Scottish accent on the way out.”
Forsyth does not deal in reality, but he does deal in truth. Furness is true to the Scotland I know, and, camera wizardry aside, it’s true to the reality I found in Pennan and on Camusdarach beach. Sadly, the fictional Furness fared better than the town that the film immortalized. I mourn the changes to life in Pennan just as I mourned the change that threatened Furness.
Back home now, I find that the reality begins to fade, but the truth doesn’t. And when I’m feeling sentimental, I have this telephone number I jotted down — 44 3466 210. I dialed it just now and no one answered. I imagine it’s windy there, certainly raining as well. The surf will be throwing rocks at the waterfront windows. Visitors will be crowded around those tiny tables quaffing 80 shilling ale. When the wind sweeps the rain away, the air will smell of seaweed thrown ashore by the storm. Surely then they will venture out.
I will try again later.
1991-2017 Linda Murray Green. All rights reserved.
This article originally appeared on the University of Edinburgh website.