Chasing Outlander in bonnie Scotland
While leading a recent expedition to the remote corners of the Scottish Isles, GRIND’s Howard Whelan uncovered a world of romance, myth and standing stones where one could easily become lost in time.
Wind and rain lashes the eight-stone perimeter of Callanish 3, one of the main historical attractions on the Isle of Lewis. Our archaeologist, Dr. Carol Knott, mesmerises us with her interpretation of the stones, how they marked key astronomical moments in the calendar year, and honoured a woman’s role in the cycle of life.
“It’s not just the shape of each stone,” Carol explains, “but the colour of the rock chosen.” As one, we peer at the pink granite that signifies the childbearing years, the wizened stone representing the wisdom of age.
And what of the phallic stone splashed with a thick layer of white quartzite? As Carol responds, giggles are suppressed and I hear a man behind me murmur, “must have seen Claire Randall”.
Clearly Claire Randall, played by Irish model and actress Caitriona Balfe, in the British-American television phenomenon, Outlander, has what it takes to fire the passion of red-blooded males.
In the opening episode of the series set in 1945, World War II nurse Claire Randall is visiting standing stones in the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank.
Suddenly she’s transported back to 1743, where she uses her medical training to save the life of kilt-swishing, broadsword-swinging Jamie Fraser, played by Sam Heughan. Jamie and his Highlands crew are in the midst of a (Jacobite) rebellion to return James VII of Scotland to the throne. Perfectly cast, Jamie has what it takes to make Claire Randall, and many a viewer, swoon.
Over the first two seasons, Claire tries to get back to the standing stones to return to her husband, marries Jamie for protection, and constantly struggles against the attacks of “Black Jack” Randall, the Redcoat captain who happens to be the double of her 20th Century husband.
Clearly not for the kiddies, the series deals with violence, kidnapping, male rape and the amazing ability of Jamie to recover from the most horrific tortures and woundings.
Outlander is based on novels written by American author Diana Gabaldon. An historical researcher, Diana had never been to Scotland when she began writing the series, yet she became fascinated by the stone circles.
In an interview with National Geographic she says, “every time I’d read about the stone circles, it would describe how they worked as an astronomical observance. For example, some of the circles are oriented so that at the winter solstice, the sun will strike a standing stone. But all the texts speculate that nobody knows what the actual function of these stone circles was. And so I began thinking, well, I bet I can think of one!”
Inspired by Dr Who’s ‘Tardis’, she did just that. Her Outlander books have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.
Over the next two weeks, as we made our way from the Inner to Outer Hebrides then out to the remote archipelago of St Kilda, I kept my ear to the ground for Scottish folklore. Could there be another Outlander waiting to be revealed?
I often heard myths of the selkie (the local dialect for seal), the shape-shifting creatures who resemble seals in the water, but take on human form on land. Eternally lustful, both male and female selkies have intense seductive powers.
In the Treshnish Isles I hear of a landowner who put a flock of sheep on a small island to graze, with his son to look after them. As a favour, the landowner sent farmhands over with whiskey for his son. When they didn’t return he went to look for himself and discovered his son had fallen in love with one of the grey seals hauled out on the shore, drank all the whisky, went mad and murdered the farmhands. When the seals saw the lad’s father, they took to the water and the son followed them in. Grief-stricken the father never returned to the island, but those who did reckoned they saw a seal barking and singing with the voice of the lost son.
There were legends of old lairds (landowners) who fell in love with beautiful young women, who usually fell in love with their own version of Jamie Fraser. To keep them apart, the laird imprisoned the young women in cold, damp towers above a thundering sea. Sometimes they’d be rescued, but in one instance, the young woman emerged from her gaol pregnant, to give birth to a child remarkably similar to a young (think Jamie Fraser-like) local fisherman.
On spectacular Hirta, the main island of World Heritage listed St Kilda, a rock outcrop is associated with a daring courtship ritual. Named the Lover’s Stone or Mistress Stone, it’s a rocky ledge above a sheer drop of 135 metres to the sea.
Before a young man could marry, he had to climb the outcrop, plant his left heel on the outer edge of the stone with the sole of foot unsupported, then extend his right foot in front and grasp it with both hands, holding it long enough to satisfy his fiancée and her friends who watched from below.
While on St Kilda, I heard another tale, this one with an Outlander ring to it (and an Australian connection). In Melbourne there’s a suburb named after The Lady of St Kilda, a ship that brought trading goods to Port Phillip Bay.
It was named after Rachel Chiesley, wife of Lord Grange, a Scottish lawyer with Jacobite sympathies. When Lady Grange threatened to denounce her husband and his associates, he had her kidnapped by Highland chieftains who smuggled her to St Kilda, where she was held captive from 1734 to 1740.
Today Lady Grange’s House can still be seen on Hirta. It’s little more than a stone mound similar to the other ‘cleits’ or storage sheds that dot the hillside. Lady Grange described Hirta as “a viled neasty, stinking poor Isle”. It’s said that the only things that kept her alive was her ferocious temper and as much whisky as she could lay her hands on.
My guess is that she would have traded it all for a circle of standing stones and the chance for some time out.
If you’d like to chase your own ghosts of Outlander contact: