Sing me a song of a lass that is gone …. Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” has captured the imagination of millions of readers and now viewers. The TV series theme song perfectly evokes the atmosphere of Claire and Jamie’s time traveling adventures. But there’s more to the song than meets the eye – or rather, ear!
The melody is the “Skye Boat Song”, originally a sailor’s song but rewritten in the 1800s to describe Bonnie Prince Charlie’s legendary escape after Culloden. Disguised as a maid, and aided by Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald, “the lad’s that’s born to be King” flees by boat “over the sea to Skye”. There’s a well-known version by The Corries posted on YouTube and Outlander cleverly adapted the lyrics for the Claire and Jamie story. Fortunately for us fans, we’ll hear it again soon: the new Outlander season is in production, yay!
While on a long Scotland trip this past October, being fans, we went to see some key film locations. Most are near Edinburgh and others are conveniently sprinkled along the loop Edinburgh-Inverness-Fort William-Stirling. I’ll describe three visits in detail and add notes on more sites at the end.
But first: why is it called Outlander? Well, one night out in a pub in 1945 Inverness, Englishwoman Claire hears the term “Sassenach” for the first time. Later in the story she finds out this is the Scots word for an English person or more generic, an “Outlander” – and they don’t necessarily mean it as a compliment. Throughout the stories, Jamie calls Claire “Sassenach” or “Outlander” – but lovingly of course 😉 Now you know.
1) Falkland Village and Palace: “Inverness”
You’ll remember that first Outlander episode where Claire and Frank try to rekindle their love and marriage after the wreckage of World War 2. They go up to “Inverness”, lodging at Mrs. Baird’s Guesthouse. Claire wanders around town and contemplates a vase in the window of Farrell’s Hardware and Furniture Store. In the evening, Frank takes a stroll, looks up to the hotel window and sees Claire brushing her hair. Suddenly, he spots a man in a kilt standing at a fountain in the square, also looking up. When Frank approaches him, the figure’s suddenly gone. Back inside, he tells Claire about it. A bit rattled, she says he looks like he saw a ghost – and Frank responds that maybe he did…
Falkland Village in what locals call the Kingdom of Fife was staged as “Inverness” and has several film locales you’ll recognize. Today’s Fayre Earth Gift Shop was used as Farrells Store. It’s right at the square. The Covenanter Hotel to its left was the set for Mrs. Baird’s Guesthouse. The fountain where Frank spotted a ghostly Jamie is the Bruce Fountain (named for Robert the Bruce, the real “Braveheart”), in front of the hotel. Campbell’s’ Coffee Shop, a pleasant spot for some java, tea or lunch, was revamped as the Lomond Pharmacy.
Also worth visiting, albeit not an Outlander film spot, is the rather splendid Falkland Palace, just off the square. It’s a former royal residence of the Stuarts, quite magnificent inside and out, with extensive gardens. Fun fact: Falkland Palace boasts the oldest real tennis court in Britain.
Falkland has a convenient and free public car park at the town centre. Follow the clear signs, park and then walk the short path to the square. Several pub and lunch options too, and neat little shops. My wife checked those out while I walked up the street between the Covenanter Hotel and Fayre Earth. One unique thing you’ll notice in Falkland is the marriage lettering some of the ancient houses have on their lintels. Walking on, have a peek into the pretty Smiddy courtyard on the left – I got lucky with the best photo light of the day – and then continue on to a small park on the right. Here you’ll see a large flower cart and plaque, commemorating Falkland winning the Britain in Bloom Champion of Champions Award in 2010 – for the second year in a row!
Falkland Village is about an hour’s drive north of Edinburgh. Cross the Firth of Forth, stay on the M90 towards Perth and take the A91 towards St. Andrews.
2) Culloden Battlefield
Culloden is just a few miles east of Inverness and our visit was, I must say, a very sobering experience. The 1746 Battle of Culloden harked the devastating end of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, spearheaded by Charles Edward Stuart, better known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”.
The Jacobites wanted to oust the ruling English House of Hanover and restore a Stuart to the throne. After many battles, the English under William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, trounced the Bonnie Prince’s forces at Culloden, killing or maiming some 2,000 Scots and their supporters, ending the Jacobite cause. The English side suffered considerably less, an estimated 200-300. The date of this final defeat, April 16th, 1746, looms large in Scots history still. You may hear the expression “the ’45 is still alive”…
Outlander fans will remember Jamie meeting with the Bonnie Prince in France, a country that supported the Scots struggles against England. Based on Claire’s tale of doom about the disaster that Culloden was going to be, Jamie tried everything to discourage and derail the Prince, to no avail. Once back in the Highlands, Jamie feels he must join Clan MacKenzie and the other clans to fight the fight, despite misgivings and failing efforts to change history.
In an impressively filmed Battle scene, fierce fighter Uncle Dougal bites the dust, and Jamie barely escapes with his life. Speaking of barely, on the lighter side, you’ll also remember how the kilt-clad clans showed their disdain for the English, taking a bow so to speak! Cheeky lot they were….
The Culloden Visitor Centre is awesome. Managed by the National Trust for Scotland, it is quite new, built in 2007 after they realized the old one was sitting on the 3rd Government line. You can spend many hours inside: walk along the Info Walls, listen to live storytelling and see demonstrations by costumed actors. We watched one where they showed the swords, shields (called “targe”) and the hidden Scots dirk – and how to use them, against appointed audience “volunteers”….
The Centre has a great 360 degrees surround film room showing a Battle re-enactment. You stand in the middle of the space and see the action on full wall-size displays all around you. It was very Outlander indeed; I kept trying to spot Jamie and Dougal…
Outside, you can walk the fields and see the many, oh so many, remembrance stones placed around the nearby Monument Cairn. The stones display the names of the clans, of special meaning to those with Scots ancestry. If you have lots of time, walk the 6 miles path all through and around the grounds.
Back inside, check out the large gift shop and if peckish, there is a good size restaurant too.
Final tip: while you’re in the ‘hood, go check out the nearby 4,000 year old Clava Cairns. This prehistoric site is about half an hour driving further on east. They’re not Outlander filming related – but there are some fascinating Standing Stones as well as cairns. I used a shot of the Stones as the theme picture for this post, to give you that Craigh na Dun feeling. Highly impressive in their own right and more than worth a visit, I’ll tell ya more in a future blog…
3) Doune Castle: “Castle Leoch”
In Outlander’s 1945, Claire and Frank are looking around Castle Leoch. Frank is exploring family history and former WW2 Nurse Claire has a keen interest in medicinal plants. Frank recalls an ancestor of his, Captain “Black Jack” Randall. His interest amuses Claire but little does she know how Randall will devastate her life after Craigh na Dun… Outlander fans know Castle Leoch as Clan MacKenzie’s stronghold, and will remember Jamie’s uncle Laird Colum MacKenzie on his wobbly legs, and Colum’s brother, strong man Dougal Mackenzie, being his rough self.
Doune Castle is the film site for Outlander’s “Castle Leoch” and can be found on the outskirts of Doune village. It is about 10 miles northwest of Stirling, the latter being equidistant from Glasgow and Edinburgh airports at a mere 40 minutes away. A decent but narrow road brings you to a good size parking lot: just watch out for vans and even larger buses going in and out. Doune Castle is managed by Historic Environment Scotland. You can get in using their travel card as we did or if not, the regular entrance fee is a modest GBP 5.50 and you can buy tickets online.
Doune Castle originated in 1407 AD, under the Duke of Albany. The Duke ruled here under three successive kings and was pretty much the man who ran the kingdom. Have a look from the top of the Castle and see for yourself why the Castle was quite the strategic spot.
Walking in through the Gatehouse Tower, you will see the Ticket Office on your right. Continue on into the Courtyard and then turn right up the stairs and into the Keep. On our day, they were restoring a Castle wall using a large automated crane with guys in hard hats hanging off, carefully repairing stuff. Makes you appreciate how accomplished those medieval builders were: no cranes, no power tools, no lights! Fun fact: the gargoyles on the wall high above the work crew are waterspouts and were originally painted in bright colors. We’ll have to come back one day and see if they were restored today too.
Once inside the Keep, check out the Great Hall, the more intimate Duke’s Hall and the maze of rooms. You can climb the stairs all the way up, peeking out through the Arrow Loops. Find rooms in every nook and cranny and look out over the battlements and ramparts for amazing views over the river Teith, all the way to Ben Lomond.
Doune Castle is not just Castle Leoch however. Did you know that Doune was also featured in “Game of Thrones” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”? Fun fact: the Python portion of the Audio tour is narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, and the Outlander bits by Sam Heughan aka Jamie.
On the way out, take a peek in the small Gift Shop, part of the Ticket Office, for a selection of the usual and also more unusual souvenirs including – of course – some “Outlander” items.
Coming soon to a blog near you: the Highland Folk Museum
Also visited but not detailed here is the Highland Folk Museum in Kingussie, the Cairngorms. Can’t make this blog even longer and, the Museum really deserves its own separate write-up. I totally enjoyed this open-air venue with its original historic buildings, displays of arts & crafts, and costumed period actors in character, tending to chickens outside and peat fires inside. The museum is quite spread out, which made for some nice forest walking. It was used for several Outlander film sessions and even without that, it’s a highly recommended stop. Tea and lunch shop on site!
Five More Film Sites
I picked the above three Outlander film sites because they are worthwhile in their own right too: you know, to keep the peace in case your Significant Other isn’t as interested! There are five more film sites though, very close to Edinburgh. I’ll leave you with a short listing.
About half an hour west of Edinburgh, past South Queensferry around Linlithgow, on the southside of the Firth of Forth, you’ll find three film sites grouped closely together, just a few miles apart:
1. Midhope Castle: “Lallybroch”, ancestral home of Jamie’s Clan Fraser. Managed by the owners, Hopetoun House.
2. Blackness Castle: “Fort William”, headquarters of Black Jack Randall. Managed by Historic Environment Scotland.
3. Linlithgow Palace: “Wentworth Prison”, where Jamie was locked up. Also managed by Historic Environment Scotland.
A little further away:
4. Royal Burgh of Culross: “Cranesmuir”, the village of Geillis Duncan. North of the Firth of Forth, a 45-minute drive from Edinburgh. Managed by the National Trust for Scotland
5. Preston Mill: “Lallybroch Mill”, where Jamie hid underwater from an English patrol. This is in the other direction, 40 minutes east of Edinburgh, near the coast. It is managed by the National Trust for Scotland.
Bonus note: Craigh na Dun!
Finally, a warning! The key to the whole Outlander phenomenon is of course Craigh na Dun, the Standing Stones where Claire falls through time from 1945 back to 1743 and meets Jamie. Alas, we can’t get you there! While inspired by Scottish Standing Stones, Craigh na Dun is fictional. Hate to break it to you but what you see on TV is styrofoam, paint and high-class craftsmanship. I did visit a number of Standing Stones and Stone Circles on my trip, including a famous one they say inspired Ms. Gabaldon to create Craigh na Dun. They sure inspire me to write about them in the future, so keep an eye on upcoming blog posts….
In the meantime, we’ll bide our time waiting for more Jamie and Claire. And more of the very despicable yet amazingly resilient Captain Black Jack Randall, yikes! Until then, relax, pour yourself a wee dram – and when you toast, do it with a Jacobite “Slanghe Mor” while passing your glass over the water jug, the old secret way of drinking to the “King over the water”. Sing me a song….
DISCLAIMER: My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that my opinions and views are not necessarily shared by the company. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine except where credited as noted, as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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