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Home / Spotlight / Movies and Memories: 25 Years of the Screen Machine

Movies and Memories: 25 Years of the Screen Machine

Do you remember the first film you ever saw in a cinema? The thrill of settling into a comfy chair, the smell of popcorn wafting through the air, the crackle of anticipation as the movie starts to play on the big screen. Going to the cinema is still a much-loved pastime around the world, and for many, it’s the perfect way to escape the stresses of everyday life.

Here in the Highlands and Islands, many people’s first experience of the magic of movies was with a visit to the Screen Machine - Scotland’s Mobile Cinema (Scottish Gaelic: Taigh-dhealbh Siùbhlach na h-Alba). For over two decades, The Screen Machine has welcomed rural communities from all over the Highlands and Islands to share in the joy of film. To celebrate its 25th anniversary this month, today we want to shine a spotlight on the Screen Machine, its history and its continuing importance to the communities of the Highlands and Islands.


So, just what is the Screen Machine and where does its incredible journey to a cultural icon begin? 

The Screen Machine is an 80-seat, air conditioned mobile cinema which brings the latest films to remote and rural areas of Scotland. Operated by Regional Screen Scotland, it is the only full time, self-contained digital mobile cinema in the UK. Screen Machine tours 40+ communities in the North and West of Scotland and each tour lasts approximately 10 weeks. it is now in its 25th year of operation. Screen Machine is a Regular Funded client of Creative Scotland, and receives support from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. In April 2023 Screen Scotland provided funding to secure the lease of a mobile cinema, Cinemobile, following a series of mechanical issues.

The story of its inception is truly fascinating. In 1995, the Scottish Highlands were invited to form part of a national study that would eventually transform the cinema-going experience for the Scottish audience. The study centred around the feasibility of the successful French Cinémobile concept for the Highlands.

Cinémobiles, developed by Toutenkamion in 1983 for the Centre-Val-de-Loire region of northern France, were manufactured according to the rules of a fixed cinema but transformed this concept into something much more exciting, dynamic and accessible. Still successful to this day, Cinémobiles see over 55,000 admissions a year and continues to bring the magic of cinema to 46 municipalities of 1,000-5,000 residents.

Needless to say, the study proved a great success and a newly formed consortium was tasked to start the proverbial, and literal, wheels of the Screen Machine turning.

A large blue articulated lorry parked on the side of a narrow road. White font on the side of the lorry reads 'Screen Machine', 'Scotland's Mobile Cinema' and in brown writing 'Taigh-dhealbh Siùbhlach na h-Alba'. The Screen Machine at Raasay
Image provided by The Screen Machine


After overcoming some early challenges, the dream of the Screen Machine would become a reality in the late 1990s.

In September 1998 'SM1' made its debut, rolling into the town of Invergordon, on the northern shores of the Cromarty Firth. The evening showing of the animated Disney classic The Little Mermaid (1989) marked the start of something special. Stepping into the Screen Machine for the first time, the community was transported into a new world in an almost Narnia-like fashion. For many, this would be their first experience of the world of cinema – and what a unique introduction it was!

Complete with red armchairs, a gently sloping floor, a screen and projector and air-conditioning, the Screen Machine perfectly emulated the cinematic experience but for the first time it was an accessible experience for the community - it was available in their backyard. Truly, this premiere showing ushered in a new era for cinema-going for the rural communities of the Highlands.

From then on, the Screen Machine hit the road, creating a buzz wherever it went. As the years went on, not only was the Screen Machine becoming a household name in the Highlands but also gaining international attention, prompting bodies such as the British Forces Broadcasting Service and the National Millennium Committee of Ireland to commission their own Cinémobile models.

A large blue articulated lorry, with white font which reads 'Screen Machine' on its side, is parked on tarmac outside of a white and light brown building with a grey roof. Rolling green fields and white houses can be seen in the distance. The Screen Machine at Durness, Sutherland
Image provided by The Screen Machine
Rows of red armchairs facing a large white screen. The engraved gold plaque on the front of the chair in the foreground reads 'Sponsored by Fort Augustus & Glenmoriston Community Company'. The interior of the Screen Machine
Image provided by The Screen Machine


As the years went by and the service continued to grow, now reaching new audiences in the Outer Hebrides, parts of Moray, Argyll and Bute and North Ayrshire, it became clear that full-time touring was taking its toll on SM1. Plagued by ongoing technical issues, constant life on the road and being battered by the notorious Scottish weather, the team at HI-Arts made the decision to commission a new machine - ‘SM2’. Built this time by Toutenkamion, 'SM2' was officially launched in 2005.

From 2005, it was onwards and upwards for the service. the Screen Machine celebrated its most successful year to date in 2018, recording a phenomenal 30,000 admissions. This success was matched in 2019 and early 2020 although, as with all cinema facilities, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Screen Machine to close its doors.

The road to return to ‘business as usual’ following the pandemic has not been easy for the Screen Machine. Unavoidably affected by corrosion, the ageing SM2, now in its 18th year of service, has suffered yearly breakdowns since 2021. With the future security of the service in question, the team turned to Screen Scotland, who were fortunately able to provide temporary relief in April 2023 by securing a year-long lease of a Cinémobile from Toutenkamion.


After 25 years and an incredible 250,000 miles - that’s the equivalent of 10 trips around the world - the Screen Machine continues to bring the marvels of modern movies to over 40 communities across the Highlands and Islands. In a poignant, and very well timed, nod to its early days, the Screen Machine celebrated this milestone with a showing of the live action The Little Mermaid (2023). 

The service has truly cemented itself as a much-loved amenity in the eyes of communities from Arran to the Orkney Isles. Unfortunately, today the future security of this beloved service is under threat. While a replacement has been secured until early 2024, there is no funding for the service to continue past this point.

It goes without saying that the Screen Machine is a vital arts service that many people rely on for entertainment. In some areas before the dawn of the Screen Machine, take Sutherland for example, it could mean as much as a hundred-mile trip to the nearest cinema - frankly an impossibility for most families. Now, with the technology in operation and with well-managed, consistent scheduling the event of cinema-going and the feelings of joy and excitement it brings is well within reach for our rural communities. 

The nostalgia and shared experiences that the Screen Machine creates is hard to replicate. When you’re in a room full of strangers, all immersed in the same movie, it creates a unique atmosphere that cannot be reproduced. Put simply, the loss of the service would be a sorry day for the industry and for the communities who depend on it. We truly hope that it can continue to provide access to cinema and the arts for generations to come.


Do you have any stories or fond memories of the Screen Machine? 📽️

If so, we'd love to hear from you! Share your story through our story portal to keep the conversation going and for the chance to feature in the upcoming Inverness Castle Experience 🏰