Film-inspired tourism is big business, with blockbusters drawing extra visitors to our shores. Thankfully, some effort has been made to preserve the sites against the marauding hordes of holidaymakers, writes Clodgah Finn
SO here’s the deal. The packet of Taytos (only slightly crumpled) in the back of the car goes to the person who can name the film this castle appeared in, says our guide/driver/family member.
I love car games, particularly ones with prizes, so I rack my brains as soon as the magnificent 13th-century Eilean Donan castle comes into view at the intersection of three sparkling lochs in the Scottish highlands.
Something with Catherine Zeta-Jones flickers at the edge of my memory, but no film name to go with it.
It makes you wonder how many of the people visiting on this glorious day in early autumn — and there are quite a few — are here because they saw this former stronghold of the MacKenzie clan on the big screen.
Screen tourism, or film-inspired tourism, is a curious business. You can see why directors are drawn to these exceptional places, with their breath-taking scenery and camera-friendly castles, but it’s a little more difficult to understand why hordes of film-obsessed tourists follow in their wake.
On the drive here, we passed a sign saying ‘Braveheart car park’ just outside Fort William, though there’s nothing to see. The sign simply marks the spot where the crew parked during filming in 1995. Not exactly a selfie moment, though people still stop and gaze.
Later, the rationale for the crowds on the Isle of Skye is much clearer. The path up to the Old Man of Storr is much busier than usual. The large rocky pinnacle that stands out on the horizon for miles around has a starring role in Game of Thrones.
It has been voted one of the UK’s favourite views, along with the mountains of Mourne in Co Down, which also star in the hit fantasy series.
It is, of course, wonderful that these stunning locations with their spectacular views are being brought to a wider audience, though you just hope that visitors can see beyond the dark plots and imagined storylines that brought them here.
I’d go so far as to say that the real stories of these special places have more box-office potential than the films that are actually made in them.
The Old Man of Storr, for example, comes barnacled with a long list of legends and stories better than any Games of Thrones plot.
It has some exceptional flora too. If you keep your eyes peeled, you might spot one of Scotland’s rarest plants near the summit, Iceland Purslane, a remnant of the Ice Age. I hope the Game of Throners don’t miss that.
Closer to home, fans of Star Wars are missing out on so much if they visit Skellig Michael and see it simply as the location for The Force Awakens.
True, Luke Skywalker described the monastery and its surrounds as “just indescribably beautiful”, while The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams said “it’s sort of a miracle, this place”, but I hope someone takes the time to tell tourists how seventh-century monks chiselled 2,300 steps out of this hostile piece of rock to build a path to a lofty monastery 600ft above the sea.
It’s a matter of taste, of course, but in my book the real story of Skellig Michael is far more exciting than the Star Wars film that grossed more than $2bn at the box office last year.
I’d love to see a big-screen version of the story of the monks who braved the sea swells and whipping winds to build a monument for the greater glory of their god in this far-flung place.
They built a terraced garden that deflects the wind so successfully, it is like a greenhouse. They built a system of channels and cisterns to gather rainwater, giving the island a vital water supply. And they had to deal with waves of marauding Vikings who carried their abbot away in a raid in 812AD.
There’s the story of the pilgrims who flocked here over the centuries and, for a bit of action, what about the 19th-century lighthouse builders who stored explosives in the beehive huts and nearly blew the place to smithereens? That’s all big-screen gold, if you ask me.
Who knows whether the island’s colourful history will ever inspire a blockbuster but, thankfully, the recent rise in screen tourism hasn’t come about without some attempt, at least, to protect the often-fragile historic sites from increased footfall.
The Office of Public Works continues to cap the number of visitors to Skellig and it has not extended the short visiting season.
Meanwhile, an influx of tourists to see the Dark Hedges, the enchanting tunnel of beech trees in Co Antrim (aka The King’s Road in Game of Thrones), has focused attention on developing a conservation plan for the area.
There is some discussion that traffic will be banned from the tourist attraction to protect the trees, which were first planted on Bregagh Road by the Stuart family in the 18th century.
But that doesn’t go far enough. Isn’t it time to use some of the profits of screen tourism to fund the conversation of the very places that fans come to visit?
If tourism bodies are using these special places to attract extra visitors to our shores, perhaps they should think about contributing to a fund to preserve them. The goose that lays the golden egg will not be sustained on the superlatives scattered liberally in brochures.
But back to the Scottish adventure and that worthy prize. Eilean Donan castle is most famous for its appearance in Highlander.
It also starred in The Wicker Man, the Bond movie The World is not Enough, and Made of Honor, among many others. And, in case you’re interested, Catherine Zeta-Jones did have a Highlands castle moment. In Entrapment, she was filmed on location at Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull.
If you guessed any of the above correctly (be honest now), get in touch and I’ll forward one packet of (only slightly crumpled) Taytos.
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