Two Days of Non-Stop History with #ScotsMagOutlander!

The world’s eye has always flickered curiously in Scotland’s direction.

The Romans famously coveted yet failed to tame it; Victorians scoured its hills and ruinous castles in search of Romantic lore and wild places with which to defy the march of industrialisation; and now, driven by ideals and stories of our own time, Scotland is drawing more people than ever before. 

There are lots of good reasons this is happening, and no doubt one of those is the ‘Outlander effect’. Stories – and not just those told round the hearth but in books, films, television shows and online – have always enticed people to seek out real-life comparisons. Outlander is a great way to do just that, and the numbers speak for themselves; many sites with Outlander or Jacobite connections have seen visitor numbers soar in recent years. So, what’s the truth behind the phenomenon? 

 

Midhope Castle

 

Along with Katrina Patrick of the Scots Magazine I set out to explore the real history behind the hit series with #ScotsMagOutlander. This post is a little different – each location, from mighty Fort George to idyllic Culross, is explored with a Periscope video. It’s a format that allows you to be right there with me when I set out castle and history hunting, and you can see all my Periscope videos on my channel here. These videos compliment my article in the Scots Magazine’s Outlander special issue as well as loads more Outlander and Jacobite content from the trip, all of which are linked to at the end. 

Let’s go live!

 

Fort George lets go

 

 

Bakehouse Close

Edinburgh can be thought of as a great rocky spine, with the column being the Royal Mile and the ribs being the over 80 known wynds and closes that slope away from it. One of the best-preserved of these is Bakehouse Close, looking much as it has since the 17th century. The Bakehouse Close is now home to Acheson House and the Museum of Edinburgh, the former of which was once a brothel frequented notably and often by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Outlander fans will instantly recognise it from the moment of Claire and Jamie’s reunion, after 20 years had passed with two centuries between them, at the Alexander Malcolm’s print shop in Season 3 Episode 5. As an interesting parallel, Bakehouse Close was in fact a publishing centre in the 18th century with the Scots Magazine itself being printed there around the time the episode is set in. The Scots Magazine and Jamie could have been neighbours!

 

 

Fort George

Having linked up with Katrina in Inverness for the two-day adventure, the first stop was Fort George. The largest fort of its kind in northern Europe, its walls extend for over a kilometre and cut a giant spur into the Moray Firth. Built to prevent the Jacobites from ever rising again after 1746, the fort’s staggering scale makes it clear that Government forces truly dreaded the prospect of another. It cost a colossal (for the time) £200,000 and had room for 1,600 infantry, an artillery division, and over 2,600 barrels of gunpowder. 

 

 

After so much bluster, however, Fort George never fired a shot in anger. With the Jacobite cause proven to be spent, the fort became a regimental raising and training ground with notable regiments including the Seaforth Highlanders and the Black Watch. The fort is a fascinating insight into 18th and 19th century military history, representing the culmination of social and technological changes that, amongst many other things, marked the decisive and iron-fisted end of a way of life in the Highlands.     

 

 

Culloden Battlefield

What can possibly be said of Culloden to do it justice? There is a tremendous gravity at the battlefield, the tragic scene of the Jacobites’ desperate last charge which saw thousands fall in less than an hour. What followed were the horrors of the Butcher Cumberland’s wrath and the systematically brutal Highland Clearances. There is no romance to Culloden; it is a place of reflection, respect, and memory, where many died in forlorn hope not far from home. 

 

Culloden stone

 

We visited the battlefield a week before its 272nd anniversary, which was ultimately attended by more than 1,000 people coming to the battlefield to pay their respects. More than almost any other moment from the nation’s long history, Culloden is a part of the collective memory of Scotland. I hope the live video I did conveys not only historical information about the battle, but also the spirit of remembrance one should have when walking the grounds. At times I felt lost for words – I’m sure it shows, but if you’ve been to Culloden then you know why.

 

 

 

Clava Cairns

Enigmas in stone, the Clava Cairns are have marked the landscape for over 4,000 years and stand just across the valley from Culloden. Traditionally used as burial grounds and ritual centres, cairns are most common in the north of Scotland and are often incorporated into wider historic landscapes.

We found out that although it’s commonly thought that Diana Gabaldon was inspired by the Clava Cairns when creating Craigh na Dun, it turns out – thanks to insights from the Inverness Outlanders – that the existence of the famous split stone at Clava is just a (admittedly very unlikely) coincidence! 

 

 

We also couldn’t resist a little experiment to see if we could make Katrina disappear through time, Claire style (see the video below). What do you think about the results?  

 

 

Craig Dunain

Now this is the real deal. Craigh na Dun, Outlander’s fictional stone circle, was long thought to have no equivalent. Common wisdom was that although there are many standing stones throughout Scotland, none matched the description of being upon a hill with the lights of Inverness visible in the distance. Well, myth busted.

 

 

 

With the fantastic Inverness Outlanders showing us the way, we found the Leachkin Chambered Cairn atop Craig Dunain, which sounds close enough for me. The remains of an Orkney-type cairn from between 4,000 to 2,000 BCE, it’s shocking how well it fits Gabaldon’s description. Take a look and tell me this isn’t Craigh na Dun! 

 

 

The Inverness Outlanders wrote a great post about it with loads of pictures in all elements, which you can check out here. Craig Dunain was the last stop for day one of the #ScotsMagOutlander odyssey, and after a hearty bite we made our way our lodging in Newtonmore with heads full of inspiration for day two.

 

Ruthven Barracks

While you won’t see it in Outlander, Ruthven Barracks is an example of the kind of fortifications built by Hanoverian forces in an attempt to control the Highlands. Following the Jacobite Rising of 1715, which in many ways was the Rising that had the best shot at victory, the Government decided to build roads and forts in the Highlands guarded by garrisons and dragoons. This allowed troops to be levied and transported into the heart of an inhospitable countryside far faster and more securely than ever before. Many of the modern roads that traverse Scotland have their origins in these 18th century military roads.

 

Ruthven

 

Four such forts were built, including Ruthven, Fort Augustus, Fort William and Fort George (not the same one as the Fort George above). These were forts in the true sense, not residences for nobility, and their sole purpose was pacification. Ruthven Barracks is gives you a sense of the kind of place that Jacobite prisoners, like Jamie at Wentworth Prison, may have found themselves. Ruthven Barracks is also a neat 2-in-1, as the great earthen mound it’s built upon is the motte of a castle built by the Comyns of Badenoch in the 13th century.  

 

 

Falkland

After a quick stop at Blair Castle, pictured below on the left, where unfortunately there wasn’t enough signal to do a live video (there’ll be a blog post about it, don’t despair!) we drove south to Falkland. An incredibly picturesque village and Royal Burgh, Falkland is nestled near the Lomond Hills in Fife. It was favoured as a royal retreat by James IV and James V, who built the Renaissance-style palace in the heart of town.

 

 

Falkland has become something of an iconic Outlander location – after all, it’s where it all began. Falkland subbed in for Inverness, and the square with the Bruce Fountain is where a then-unidentified Jamie stood looking longingly at Claire through the window of Mrs Baird’s Guest House. On the list of best Outlander moments to re-create, this has got to be a contender for the top spot!

 

 

Blackness Castle

Stark, gritty, and the definition of a ‘sod off’ castle – Blackness Castle was definitely casted well as Fort William, where Jamie is flogged and tortured at the sadistic hands of Black Jack Randall. The castle has something of a wicked streak itself, featuring a pit prison which would flood with the coming of each tide, soaking prisoners in the frigid waters of the Firth of Forth. The castle’s courtyard is martial and elemental, the natural rock jutting up irregularly to form the floor. This is not a castle for the faint of heart. 

 

Blackness Castle

 

Blackness Castle was developed in the early 15th century, taking on the unmistakable shape of a late-19th century battleship to such an extent that I’m convinced it was the work of some mischievous time traveller. 

 

 

After wrapping up the first live video from Blackness Castle, guess who we saw sharing it on Twitter? Diana Gabaldon herself! Katrina and I nearly fell into the sea at that. Turns out she’d tuned in to my Culloden scope as well, and Diana was awesome enough to share several parts of our #ScotsMagOutlander trip along the way. Woo-hoo! 

 

 

Linlithgow Palace

Royalty knows how to roll, and by the 15th century castles were already seen by many as draughty, uncomfortable throwbacks. Linlithgow Palace is all about grandeur, a successful attempt to prove that the kings and queens of Scotland were not broadsword-wielding barbarians but sophisticates every bit a match for their suave French or Italian counterparts.

Strange, then, that Linlithgow Palace was used as Wentworth Prison, where Jamie’s ordeal reached its shocking apex. There’s also the famous (infamous?) ‘Claire vomit spot’ at the main entrance. It really is a lot lovelier to visit that you’d think based on all that!

 

 

Midhope Castle

A brief stop at Midhope Castle followed, and we were soon joined here by a tour group on exactly the same mission as us – to visit Lallybroch.

Virtually unknown until its use in Outlander, Midhope Castle is a fortified house just around the corner from Blackness Castle. It’s derelict inside so it’s only a matter of walking around it, but it still has to be on every Outlander fan’s must-see list. There wasn’t enough signal for a live video, but Katrina and I still got up to some silliness – in full view of the tour group there with us, who broke into applause afterwards. Smooth.

 

 

Royal Burgh of Culross

Scotland has no shortage of places that make you feel like you’ve stepped back in history, yet even amongst distinguished company Culross stands out. In an extraordinary state of preservation from the 17th century, this now-sleepy village was once a thriving and bustling port, with dozens of ships waiting to dock at any given time. Culross built its fortune off of coal, with a mine actually extending underneath the waters of the Firth of Forth. The National Trust for Scotland own many buildings in the village, including Culross Palace with its beautiful garden, and it’s them we have to thank for the remarkable shape of this historic community.

Outlander fans know Culross as Cranesmuir, the castle town for Castle Leoch. Indeed, wander its narrow cobbled streets and you’ll see Geillis Duncan’s house, the Mercat Cross where the wee boy got his ear nailed to the post in Season 1, the supposedly haunted Black Kirk, and much more. Go exploring with the video below! 

 

 

While Culross was the final stop on our journey, there is still lots of action to be had. Check out #ScotsMagOutlander across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Periscope for everything we saw and did over those two epic days.

There are also still copies of the Scots Magazine’s Outlander special edition available online and, in North America, in-store at your nearest Barnes & Noble. I wrote the article on the real history behind Outlander in the special edition, and the magazine also includes an interview with Sam Heughan as well as loads more Outlander awesomeness. You can order it online here, and for loads more pictures and blog posts from the #ScotsMagOutlander campaign head over the the Scots Magazine website at scotsmagazine.com/scotsmagoutlander.

I’ve been writing features about Scottish history for the Scots Magazine since 2013, and am immensely proud to be contributing to the oldest magazine in the world – old enough, in fact, that the magazine was reporting on the 1745-46 Rising at it happened! I also write a fortnightly blog for them on various subjects relating to Scottish castles and significant historical events which you’ll also find on the website.

Sláinte!

 

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