Mary on screen
On screen Mary has often been portrayed as a one-dimensional foreigner who schemes to murder her cousin Elizabeth. But in one vital respect – her language – that foreignness has almost always been glossed over because film makers have reflected the political and social prejudices of the times which go against the idea of a monarch as a Scots speaker. The invented language that monarchy adopted during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, after it had dropped German, became for a long time the only model of royal speech. Anything Scottish-sounding became stigmatised as the language of the uneducated and unsophisticated and people forgot that our monarchs had once spoken Scots. The truth is, of course, that in 16th century Scotland, Scots was a universal language spoken by monarch, nobility and peasant alike. In the following list of screen portrayals, the real languages of Queen Mary have been silenced and replaced by an English language that never existed.
1895 The Execution of Mary Stuart
The first to bring Mary to the big screen was this farcical short film which was, of course, silent, as cinema was still in its infancy.
1908-1923 A series of silent Marys
A series of silent films about Mary were produced during these years as follows: Marie Stuart (1908 and 1910), Mary Stuart (1913), Mary Queen of Scots (1922), The Loves of Mary Queen of Scots (1923) and Maria Stuart (1927).
1936 Mary of Scotland
Queen Mary is played by American Katharine Hepburn. The Sunday Times newspaper of the day declared that “Her accent was not of the Highlands, the Lowlands, nor a pure French equivalent. It was pure Hepburn, and nothing else.” There was no attempt at a Scottish or French accent – and so no Scots either - and her speech has recently been described by one source as a ‘rat-a-tat New England accent’.
1969 Mary, Queen of Scots
This was the BBC play of the month in which Mary was played by English actress Virginia McKenna. Mary speaks English in an English accent.
1971 Mary, Queen of Scots
A film in which Glenda Jackson played Elizabeth of England and English actress Vanessa Redgrave played Mary speaking in an English accent and English language. The film was noteworthy for having few Scottish actors and for taking liberties with the history, as well as playing to contemporary prejudices about Scottish culture.
1971 Elizabeth R
In this TV series Glenda Jackson again played the role of Elizabeth of England. In episode four English actress Vivian Pickles played Queen Mary. Her portrayal of Mary must surely rank as one of the strangest, delivered in a noticeable southern English accent and language quite removed from any historical reality.
1986 Blackadder II
One of the few productions to touch on the real language of Mary is the comedy series Blackadder. In the episode called ‘Chains’, the character of spymaster Mad Prince Ludwig, played by Hugh Laurie, boasts of his Mary, Queen of Scots impersonation and (dubbed over by the voice of an actress) gets in character and declares “Hoots, mon! Whar’s ma heid!” It is, perhaps, revealing of our psychology that the only other production to touch on the reality of Mary’s language would be another comedy (see Pyschobitches below).
Although this film did not show Mary, her mother, Mary of Guise-Lorraine, was portrayed by the French actress Fanny Ardant. Mary of Guise ruled Scotland in Mary’s name as her regent from 1554 to 1560. The film Elizabeth presents a fanciful and unhistorical picture of Mary of Guise and she is portrayed as speaking in French (with subtitles) and English in a French accent. In fact, Mary spoke both French and Scots in a French accent, but not English.
2004 Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
In this two-part TV series French actress Clémence Poésy played Mary, speaking English in a French accent. As with the 1971 film Mary, Queen of Scots, once again the Scottish nobles are portrayed as uncouth and lacking in manners or sophistication when compared with their English equivalents. Barely a word of Scots is spoken by any of the Scottish characters, including Mary’s son James VI (played by Robert Carlyle), in reality a noted Scots speaker.
In this TV mini-series, Helen Mirren plays Elizabeth of England against a rotund Mary, played by English actress Barbara Flynn, who speaks English in a French accent. Mary’s son James VI also makes a brief appearance, here played by Ewen Bremner, and he speaks English in a Scottish accent, devoid of the characteristic Scots language and wit that was his hallmark. By this time the trend among film makers had been to shift away from Mary speaking English in an English accent towards a Mary speaking English in a French accent – but still avoiding her as a Scots speaker.
2007 Elizabeth: The Golden Age
This sequel to Elizabeth (1997) saw Australian actress Kate Blanchett once again play Elizabeth of England. English actress Samantha Morton played Mary, but this time with a Scottish accent – almost the first to do so. Her language, though, remained English.
2013 Mary Queen of Scots
In this feature film French actress Camille Rutherford played Queen Mary. She speaks both French and English, in a French accent, which is perhaps the first to come near to the real Mary, though, once again, Scots is the language deafeningly silent.
2013 (onwards) Reign
An American-made TV drama series with Australian Adelaide Kane playing Mary speaking English in an English accent, as do the other ‘Scottish’ characters. Far removed from anything resembling historical accuracy, this series was recently described as a “teenage soap opera with designer dress.”
This Sky Arts TV comedy series presented a series of famous historical characters who attend the office of a modern day psychologist who attempts to analyze them. In one episode Queen Mary, played by Scottish actress Michelle Gomez, appears in full costume but with the sub character of a modern day Glaswegian drug addict. Mary speaks almost wholly in English, but in a Glaswegian accent, and with some Scots words thrown in. The English psychologist begins to interview Mary, whose speech appears with English subtitles, emphasising the differences in language. The psychologist stops and asks “Could you speak a little more slowly?” Mary carries on and the therapist just looks more bemused. She then says “No, I’m sorry, I still didn’t catch it. I wonder if maybe you could talk a little but more...Englishy?” The whole sketch, which draws together prejudice about Scottish language generally, the stereotypes of the Scottish (particularly Glaswegian) underclass/working class and the voices of authority (English) and powerlessness (Scottish) could be described as masterful.
2016 Bloody Queens: Elizabeth and Mary
Described as a dramatised documentary, the Guardian newspaper proclaimed “The BBC shows it can do history properly...” this was broadcast on BBC2 early in 2016. Mary was played by English actress Beth Cooke and, once again, Mary is an English-accented speaker of English. Is this really doing ‘history properly’?
2018 Mary Queen of Scots
In this latest screen adaption, Mary is played by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan who speaks English in a Scottish accent and also in French. Margot Robbie plays Elizabeth of England. A significant number of Scottish supporting actors appear – notably Martin Compston, James McArdle and David Tennant – but once again they are all speaking in English. In one scene Queen Mary is riding alongside her army and addresses one of the soldiers, a Highlander. Another of them, a Thurso man, replies “He doesn’t know Scots madam” in perfect English. Had this been in actual Scots he might have said “He daesna ken ony Scots yer grace.” There are also the usual historical inaccuracies such as Elizabeth of England at one point being titled “overlord of Scotland.” In fact, Scotland was a sovereign kingdom and Elizabeth never held or ever pretended to such a status. Also, John Knox was never a royal councillor since his low social status disqualified him. Nonetheless, in this latest offering there are glimmers of linguistic awareness with a line or two of Gaelic, and at least a mention of Scots.
Film fashions change and maybe in time we will see a Scots-speaking Mary. The opportunities for character development seem obvious.