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The Outlander Phenomenon and Edinburgh

Every so often an iconic novel, film or indeed television series draws the rest of the World’s attention towards Scotland. In 1995 Braveheart and the story of William Wallace’s fight for FREEDOM gripped millions of viewers who were totally unfamiliar with the Medieval Wars of Scottish Independence. While in 2012 Pixar’s Brave showcased Scotland’s beauties to a whole new generation, through Princess Merida’s individuality and incredible animation. More recently Outlander has captured the imaginations of audiences across the Globe. Since the publication of her first novel in 1998, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series has been delighting fans across the world. Outlander’s tremendously loyal following has only hugely increased following the première of the wildly successful television series in 2014, starring Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan.

If, amazingly, you don’t happen to know your Outlander from your Zoolander here’s a short précis. In 1945 Claire and Frank Randall, who had served as a nurse and intelligence officer during the war, travel to Inverness for a second honeymoon. When Claire visits a standing stone circle, to her astonishment, she finds herself transported back in time to the Highlands of the 1740s. There she meets Jamie Fraser a soldier and outlaw with whom, unexpectedly, she falls in love and marries. The books (as well as the TV series) relate the adventures of Claire and Jamie as they grapple with the tumultuous events of this period, including the dramatic Jacobite uprising of 1745-6.

Each of the plots of the 8 Outlander novels, published so far, are certainly enthralling and the descriptions of the beauty of the Scottish Highlands are richly evocative. However what distinguishes Outlander from other works of fantasy or science-fiction is a strong degree of historical realism, based on a commendable amount of research. For the most part the books feel very faithful to the period, even more impressive is the depiction of real individuals from Scotland’s past. For instance the very human frailties of the leader of the last Jacobite revolt “Bonnie Prince Charlie” are laid bare. Within the Outlander stories Charles Stuart is at times accurately portrayed as an idiotic fop but one who is also trapped by an unrealistic expectation to right the mistakes of his grandfather and retake the British throne for his family. This stands in favourable contrast to other works of literature that depict Charles, most glaringly Walter Scott’s Waverley, which overwhelmingly show him as a two dimensional romantic hero.

At the same time Highland Scots are represented in a sympathetic light but not as mere victims of aggression from the might of the British Empire. Characters on both sides of the Jacobite/Hanoverian divide can behave honourably or dishonourably, as heroes or villains. Of course the central antagonist of the first two Outlander books is Captain “Black Jack” Randall, a British army officer, and violent sociopath, who is also an ancestor of Claire’s first husband Frank (played with chilling intensity by Tobias Menzies in the TV series). However Captain Randall’s barbarous actions are clearly demonstrated to be abnormal and not representative of his fellow officers. Another villain (as well as real-life Highland chieftain) is Jamie’s grandfather Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat. Lovat is rightfully portrayed as a dishonest, cruel monster, whose dynastic and personal loyalties are dependent on which side offers him more.

Although the majesty and unique culture of the Scottish Highlands form perhaps the soul of Outlander the books take place in a number of different places. Events bring Claire and Jamie to the court of Versailles during the reign of Louis XV, the American colonies in the lead up to the Revolutionary War but also to Scotland’s ancient capital – Edinburgh. Edinburgh features prominently within the second and third Outlander books, Dragonfly in Amber and Voyager, firstly in the year 1745 at the time of the Jacobite army’s occupation of the city and again in 1765 when Claire returns following a twenty year absence to find Jamie. The wild and open spaces of the Highlands stand in stark contrast to the crowded, cramped and incredibly unsanitary conditions of the Old Town. Yet Voyager especially also conveys a city on the cusp of great change with construction on the New Town about to begin.

It’s been amazing to see the extent to which Outlander has not only struck a chord with so many people but encouraged some to find out more about this fascinating period and visit Scotland. At City of Edinburgh Tours we’re immensely proud to offer our new Outlander & Jacobite Tour. Our tour (led by a guide in full Highland dress playing a Fraser clansman) takes you to filming locations for series three of Outlander including where scenes for Carfax Close were shot, historical sites referenced in the novels as well as some of the jails, closes and dining houses visited by Claire and Jamie. Beyond Outlander itself, this excursion will delve into the history of the Jacobite cause, what eighteenth-century Edinburgh was really like and find out what it was like to live and fight as a Highlander. Discover your inner Highlander with us!

Our Outlander and Jacobite Tours take place every Friday and Saturday at 11 AM. Book here.

Gains Murdoch (Alexander Fraser on Friday and Saturday mornings)