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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 14/12/2022

2022 was Scotland’s Year of Stories. It spotlighted, celebrated and promoted the wealth of stories inspired by, written, or created in Scotland. Each month we heard from people with a passion for stories and got an insight into their work.   

We spoke to actor James Cosmo. He starred in of iconic Scottish films such as Highlander, Braveheart and Trainspotting, and TV fantasy series, Game of Thrones. He also helped launch Year of Stories 2022 by providing the voiceover to the campaign video. In this interview he gives us an insight into his career and his love of stories.

Did you always want to be an actor and how did your career get started?

My father was an actor, so I had that advantage of knowing what the business entailed. It wasn’t a fairytale like “oh wouldn’t it be great to be an actor” - I knew what it was like to be an actor, I knew it was difficult, trying to get jobs and all that sort of thing. So I came into it with my eyes wide open.  

I left school very early when I was 15 and went to work at Arnott Young’s, the shipbreakers in Clydebank, which was interesting, and I quickly decided that I didn’t want to pursue shipbreaking as a career. So I left and I hitchhiked down to London where my father was working. In those days you could do that, so I went down there and met up with my Dad and met a director, a lady called Prudence Fitzgerald, and she gave me my first job. She said “are you an actor?” and I said “yes”.

It was working with Bill Simpson and Andrew Cruickshank on Dr Finlay’s Casebook. Bill and Andrew were absolutely lovely with me because I couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Every job you do you think “this is the one where I’m going to get found out”. I sort of fell into it really and I was absolutely useless at doing anything else, still am, so I thought I’ll just carry on with this, and it sort of worked out.

Why do you think Scotland is such a popular setting for stories in print and on screen?

I think we have that legacy of Celtic myth and storytelling that goes back into the mists of time. There’s the Seanchaidh, the clan storyteller, and that that was people’s media at that time. It was used to pass down not only the history of people, but also a way of living and of behaving. It was all passed on orally through those storytellers, about honour and nobility and dignity and good overcoming bad, it was all there. So it was vitally important, and we had that going for years and years. Gaelic and the Scots both had their legends that highlight Scotland’s myriad of stories of all varieties.

Do you have any favourites from the roles you’ve played?

I suppose maybe Braveheart, but films are a bit like the curate’s egg - good in parts. You can have a great time on a film and it turns out it’s not really a good film, or you can have a miserable time and the film turns out to be fantastic, and you get well thought of. So every film brings a different challenge, but I think the great thing is the variety of parts, because it’s like a new thing every time. You don’t get bored, you just can’t, which is terrific.  

Acting legend James Cosmo launches the new look Set in Scotland guidebook
Acting legend James Cosmo launches the new look Set in Scotland guidebook
Image credit VisitScotland / Julie Howden

You’ve taken part in several Year of Stories projects, including narrating the RSNO’s Yoyo & the Little Auk film. Were you pleased to be involved?

I’ve always loved stories – being told stories and telling stories. And as you get older you get so much pleasure in creating something for children. Maybe I’m going back to my childhood, but I really enjoyed working on that.

What projects have you been working on recently?

I spent about nine months in Budapest, which was lovely, shooting Jack Ryan – right in the middle of Covid, which made it really difficult, but we managed it, we got through it, and I think it’s going to be a good show. I’ve just finished a political thriller series called Six Four for ITV, which is set in Scotland, with Kevin McKidd. We’ve been mates for a long time so that was lovely to work with Kevin again and it is a really good script. I’ve also just finished work on a film called What Remains of Us, with Kit Harington, who was Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, so that’s funny we joined up on that again.

Why do you think stories are so important in our culture?

I think stories and legends inform our society. It’s a touchstone for everyone. You go walking in the hills or fishing or whatever you’re doing and you look around you and imagine the stories you’ve been told about the clans and all that sort of stuff, it grounds you, from where you are.

Scotland's Year of Stories 2022

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