WHAT did William Faulkner say? “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”  I watched two Scottish film classics this week – Local Hero on its 40th anniversary, The Wicker Man on its 50th – and was struck by their echoes with present and future concerns. Weird and whimsical echoes, for sure.

The great joy of watching both films is that they’re not grim social realism. On-screen, this is a Scotland in play and at play – wildly in The Wicker Man, contemplatively in Local Hero, like diminishing aftershocks from the 60s counterculture.

It’s a standard concern of Scottish intellectuals that we should be vigilant for examples of “Scotch Myst” – the country and its people rendered as tartan-wrapped eccentrics, in touch with the land and the spirit world – “Schmigadoon!”, as the Apple TV+ show has it.

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But watching these films, I felt briefly liberated from the everyday horror show of bust politics, heedless oligarchs and runaway technology. And maybe after 15 years of frustrating constitutional not-much-advance, Scots could do with tarrying in weird zones of possibility for a while.

The Wicker Man – ashamedly, my first-ever viewing of it – is certainly far out on the weird branch. In 1973, free love in the commune movement was headline news, spreading across Europe and America. The pagan writhings of the occupants of the fictional Summerisle, which seem a little relentless to this contemporary eye, make sense in that context.

But I was struck by the ecological turmoil of The Wicker Man. Whether it’s school lessons on the penis as “a generative force in nature”, or villagers copulating on the green at night, the Summerisle community regard their libidinous selves as a pathway to deep harmony with nature.

The splendidly lurid Christopher Lee (as the lord of the island) watches two snails copulating during the frenzy, quipping “They do not make me sick discussing their ‘duty to God’.”

All very fruitful (and fruity). Yet there’s something hollow here. The island has sustained itself since the Victorian and imperial era by cultivating unusual flora and veg.  But when the policeman Howie comes to their island to investigate the report of a missing girl, their cultivations are beginning to  fail them.

Howie notes that, for all the fecundity around him, his hotel meals are made from ghastly tinned food. Asking why there are no fresh vegetables to hand, a local tells the copper that “it’s all gone for export”.

So the pagan sacrifice to appease the sun for a good harvest – which turns out to ultimately be Howie himself, immolated in the wooden “wicker man” – is an act of desperation, not celebration.  The islanders are going back to propitiating the gods of nature because natural forces have defeated human technique. (The recent  movie Midsommar dabbles in the same mood space.) The filmmakers themselves have, on regular occasions, compared the charismatic Lord Summerisle and his villagers to the fuhrer/crowd relationship in the Nazi era, or to cult murders like the Jonestown massacre.

The Wicker Man is thus a useful alert to how eco-fascism might arise, as we react to crises in our broader systems. What “traditions” will we reach for, as a protection  from dangers? If you hear anyone saying “Here the old gods aren’t dead”, as Lord Summerisle does at the beginning of this movie, start following the money (and power).

With Local Hero, made a decade later, you might say that matters have calmed down somewhat on mist-wreathed and mysterious Scottish islands. Though libidinally, not that much.

There is still much copulation (and speculation about copulation) going on in the isle of Ferness. Before this viewing, I’d forgotten the very funny joke when Mac, the visiting oil executive, points to a pram on the harbour, and asks a group of male locals, “Who does the baby belong to?” There follows a collective pause and widened eyes… IF the islanders of Summerisle are depicted as a symbol of anti-modernity, the islanders  of Ferness are shockingly pro-modernity, of every kind. This is the major joke of the movie. The community tries to immerse the visiting oil men in their beautiful and balanced lives. But that’s only so they can bid up the price they’ll charge, for their entire locality being obliterated by a proposed oil refinery.

It’s still a great giggle to observe these bobble-hatted cliches from Scottish rural central casting and their utter materialism.

They’re found chatting about the practical use for sheep carrying of their forthcoming Rolls-Royces and Maseratis. They plan speculative financial schemes with visiting, sharply commercial Russian seamen. There’s not much Gaelic plainsong, but there is an extended sequence where one local tries out Jimmy Stewart and James Cagney impersonations on the other.

The director Bill Forsyth is also at pains to scar this Highland idyll – composed of breathtaking scenes from Pennan, Morar and Arisaig – with mechanisation.

The air force’s fighters use a nearby beach as target practice. A local tears around randomly on his motorcycle. The villagers assemble on the shores in The Wicker Man, to revere their pagan gods. In Local Hero, they come en masse to the beach, hailing Burt Lancaster’s oilman as he descends in his  branded helicopter.

Yet Local Hero is clever enough to suggest an alternative modernity is possible – which again makes it supremely relevant to the present.  What Ferness ends up with is not an oil refinery, but a marine (and astrophysical) observatory, which Lancaster’s cosmos-obsessed executive agrees should be built in this spot. (There’s an odd recommendation that the refinery should still be constructed, but “nearer the markets”. Gotta pay for the philanthropy…) Indeed, what stops the refinery is an alliance between a bored CEO with post-capitalist yearnings and the raggedy owner of the Ferness beach (the brilliant Fulton Mackay).  He’s had it in his family since the “Lord of the Isles” gave it away, 400 years ago (how that survived 19th-century land clearance is a good guess…). Ben Knox, as a beachcomber, asserts the importance of managing the sands. Amazing things are brought to them from the Gulf Stream every week. But if Ben didn’t work the beach, “think of the state the place would get into.”

As we go through the regulatory teeth-gnashing around protected coastlines in Scotland, and  party-political partisans rip  sensible policies apart, these scenes are prophetic.  But this is magical thinking  from the dream factory, in terms of solutions.

Local Hero’s fond fancy is that business elites and asset-holders can come to a better arrangement, by and among themselves.

The pragmatic, economically  hard-headed islanders of Ferness could be seen to have their correlate in those who currently feel  under-consulted about Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).

But it would be wrong to exactly equate them. The creaks and strains of moving from one economic model to another, under the duress of inevitable environmental worsening, are badly borne by communities.

It’s mentioned a few times in Local Hero how long, and hard they’ve worked in Ferness, and how much they deserve their bounty.

Our policymakers should factor in the blood, sweat and tears that people have sunk into what we now know are toxic, planet-destroying business models.

They should also appreciate that a commitment to “doing what we know works” may be emotionally rooted. Uprooting needs time, patience and even gentleness.

So The Wicker Man, on its 50th, tells us to watch out for those whose resistance to a demanding present can get too culty, paranoid and fundamentalist. And Local Hero, on its 40th, reminds us how Scottish communities are complex, modern places, wanting their voice and say on progress.

For those of you in coronation avoidance mode, these will be excellent diversions.

The Wicker Man and Local Hero are both available on Amazon Prime