Scottish accents in A Castle for Christmas

Earlier this week I was invited to BBC Scotland’s The Nine to discuss the Scottish accents in Netflix latest Christmas hallmark movie A Castle for Christmas which had gotten quite some backlash from Scottish viewers critical of the Scottish accents in it. I had only seen the trailer at the time of the interview but this weekend I made myself a hot chocolate, got cozy and watched the full movie. Here are my thoughts on the Scottish accents in it:

Let me start by saying one very important thing people sometimes forget: Speaking in a different accent is HARD. It requires a lot of knowledge and practice and unless you’re constantly around your new target accent, it’s nearly impossible to deliver it authentically without any help. In my interview with BBC Scotland I said that the best Scottish accents are delivered by Scottish people. As an actor though, of course, speaking in a different accent for a specific character can be a nice challenge and being able to do different accents can open doors to a wider range of characters. That being said, if a production decides to hire non-Scottish speakers for Scottish characters, they should offer their cast the support (i.e. hire a dialect coach) necessary to deliver this performance authentically.

In addition to having the target accent expertise at hand, time and practice are crucial to deliver accents authentically. I can teach the basics of an accent to any actor in a few sessions but unless the actor is willing to practice and – very importantly – is given enough time to do so, the impact of the accent work will be limited. An authentic accent delivery needs to sound and feel second nature. Speaking in a new accent means that you’ll have to learn how to pronounce completely new sounds, in completely new patterns, and deliver them as if you’re completely used to them. And that means your facial muscles need to be 100% comfortable with the actions that make these sounds happen. That takes time and practice.

Think of it like yoga: the first time you try a new position it’s really hard and you’re not sure you’re doing it right and it feels uncomfortable because your muscles are not used to being in that position … YET. The second time it’s already a little bit easier and with each practice, it becomes more comfortable. Eventually you can get into that position very quickly and with ease. But if you don’t practice regularly, you will never be able to do it very comfortably and quickly. Speaking in a different accent is just like that but for your facial muscles.

One important feature of Scottish accents is the R sound. If your native accent is, let’s say, English or American (like Cary Elwes’ own accent) and you hear a Scottish accent for the first time, one of the first sounds that sticks out to you is probably the R sound. That’s because English or American accented speakers use a different sound for their Rs than most Scottish speakers. There are many differences between those R sounds but the biggest is that for an English or American R, we pull our tongue backwards and bunch it up towards our upper back molars, while in many Scottish accents, the R is pronounced similarly to a D sound and the tongue needs to stretch forward and touch the gums right behind your upper teeth. People attempting to do a Scottish accent often know the Rs need to be different and they might even know how to achieve such a sound with their articulators. But unless they have gotten enough time and practice to get their muscles completely used to that new forward-stretching quick tapping movement for Rs, they won’t be able to make their tongue flick up as quickly as a native Scottish speaker and it will sound off.

I suspect that Cary Elwes wasn’t given the necessary help or time to really get comfortable with all the Scottish sounds for this movie. Some of his vowels were great for a Standard Scottish accent, such as the vowel in “you” at around 1:40 mins in the trailer above, or the vowel in the second syllable in “mistake” at around 1:10 mins. But not being completely used to all the Scottish sounds can have a big impact on the overall delivery of an accent and this was especially apparent in Elwes’ R sounds in this movie. His tongue was often in the right place but it didn’t move quickly enough and therefore most of his Rs were over-enunciated, as can be heard when he says “here” at 0:45 mins in the trailer. Elwes’ Scottish accent in A Castle for Christmas is a solid start, and with a bit more time and guidance I’m sure he could have delivered a Scottish accent that a Scottish audience would gladly accept as one of their own.

‘Outlaw King’ and Chris Pine’s Scottish Accent

Living in Scotland and being surrounded by the beautiful sounds of Scottish accents has tuned my ears to the many varieties spoken here. It also made me rather critical of foreign actors’ accents who are playing Scottish characters.

        The most recent attempt is Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce in Netflix’s upcoming movie Outlaw King. First off: As a resident of Scotland, I am very excited for this movie and can’t wait to watch it when it comes out. As a dialect coach, I watched the trailer with a more critical ear. You can see that Pine worked on his accent (with Dialect Coach Eleanor Boyce) and his speech certainly has a Scottish flair. Bear in mind that due to trailer’s shortness there wasn’t much data for me to analyze Pine’s accent completely- so how good his Scottish accent really is remains to be judged after watching the full film. This being said, I did notice a few features that could’ve been improved to make Pine sound more….Robert the Bruce.

  1. Scottish vowels tend to be quite short and crisp – unless they are at the end of a word, or followed by an R or a voiced fricative, such as the [v] in flavour or the [ð] in bother*. Most of Pine’s vowels in the trailer are a tad too lax and too long. American accents are known for their long, lax vowels; and Pine doesn’t quite drop them in certain words. He nails the short vowel in the word family but the vowels in land, or must are just a wee bit too long still.
  2. Intonation is another important aspect of Scottish accents and differs heavily from Pine’s native American accent. American intonation tends to drop towards the end of a sentence while Scottish accents are more bouncy in general and usually don’t end on a falling note. Pine’s intonation in Outlaw King sounds more American than Scottish but it’s hard to judge intonation based only on a handful of sentences.
  3. These two aspects are very subtle differences and might not be susceptible to the average person’s ears. This last feature, however, immediately outs Pine as a non-native Scottish English speaker. It concerns the vowels that belong to the GOOSE and FOOT lexical sets, i.e. all the words that have the same vowel as the words goose and foot. In Scottish accents those two vowels are identical and – more importantly – they’re usually fronted. This means that those two vowels are pronounced further in the front of the mouth and therefore sound more like the vowel in the French word tu.

As a comparison here are these two vowels in standard RP, pronounced in the back:

and this is what the same vowels sound like when they are fronted:

These vowels crop up EVERYWHERE and they’re usually tiny words that don’t seem super important, like you, or do, which makes consistency a challenge. These are exactly the words that Pine trips over: his GOOSE/FOOT vowels in the trailer are almost all pronounced in the back instead of being fronted, as for example when he says “Do whatever you must” or “I do not care”. The Devil is in the details.

These are the problem areas I noticed while watching the trailer. But Pine also adopted some Scottish features perfectly and I would like to mention one in particular. The way Pine pronounces his Rs in the trailer is spot on. Rs can vary immensely from one accent to another and Scottish accents are known for tapped and sometimes even trilled Rs (resembling Spanish or Italian Rs). American Rs, on the other hand, are much more relaxed and as a result sound rounder, or softer. Pine successfully drops his American Rs and pronounces them as a true Scottish outlaw king would.

In summary, I could see a few issues with Pine’s accent in the trailer but other features were spot on. I’m looking forward to updating my analysis of Pine’s Scottish accent once I’ve seen the film!

I’ll keep you posted 😀


*This phenomenon is called the Scottish Vowel Length Rule for those who’d like to know more 😉