Outlander sets the heather alight with time for adventure and romance
Love may be grand but throw in a bit of intrigue, smouldering sexuality and time-travel amid spectacular Scottish scenery and it’s a multi-million pound phenomenon.
Outlander, the historical romantic fantasy which has been called Scotland’s Game of Thrones, is a global television success story which has provided a major boost for the Scottish economy.
Based on the book ‘Cross stitch’ by Diane Gabaldon it’s the story of an English woman, Claire Beauchamp Randall played by Catriona Balfae, who comes to Scotland in 1945 on a second honeymoon with her husband.
During a visit to an ancient stone circle above Inverness the heroine is mysteriously transported back in time to 1743. The story then revolves around Claire’s attempts to get home, which lead her on an adventure across the Highlands and into the arms of rugged rebel Jamie Fraser played by Scots actor Sam Heughan.
At first glance the improbable story of a married World War 2 nurse disappearing through a crack in time to 18th century Scotland and falling in love with a kilted warrior is the basic foundation for any Mills and Boon style romance.
However, throw in a splash of history, spice it up with some science-fiction, add some saucy sexual tension and a little dramatic aggression amid spectacular scenery, and the story is transformed from a paperback potboiler into a feast of fantasy.
So far the £50 million Sony Pictures Television series has been bought by 80 countries and is a sensational hit among viewers in America, Canada, Japan and Australia especially.
The show has won myriad of awards, including ‘Favourite Cable Sci-Fi/Fantasy TV Show’ as voted by American tv viewers at the 2015 People’s Choice Awards in Los Angeles, after seeing off stiff competition from rivals ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘American Horror Story’. The award was just one in a long line of honours heaped on those involved with the Outlander story.
Diana Gabaldon, whose eight book series has sold over 25 million copies worldwide to date, was named among Hollywood’s 25 Most Powerful Authors by The Hollywood Reporter.
Incredibly Diana, a university professor with several degrees and a PHD, wrote her first book of the series almost 20 years ago from her home in Phoenix Arizona without ever having been to Scotland.
Inspired by an episode of Dr Who featuring a kilted Jacobite she began researching the history in libraries and it wasn’t until she secured a book deal with publishers Arrow that she made the trip.
“They fortunately gave me a three-book contract when they bought Outlander and I said to my husband, ‘Well I really must go and see the place!’ So we went to London, rented a car and drove up to the Highlands and spent several weeks roaming around and looking at things,” said Diana.
“I remember standing on the Border at Carter Bar next to the big monolith that says Scotland on one side and England on the other. I looked out over Scotland and said, ‘yes, I recognise this place. It’s just as I had been imagining it.”
However, although the books were a success it wasn’t until American production company Starz TV adapted the first book for television that it really took off.
Ronald D Moore, whose previous successes include Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, was appointed director and filming took place at a custom-made studio in Cumbernauld and at various locations across the country, including Glasgow, Perthshire, Fife, Edinburgh and West Lothian.“I’ve seen over the years various attempts to make my work into a two-hour movie and I can tell you on the basis of what I’ve seen that it’s flatly impossible to do that. It was a great relief to me to get the opportunity to do a 16-episode television series. I was thinking, ‘at least there will be room.’ I knew Ron Moore had a great reputation as a storyteller and a film-maker and I told him, ‘this is the first script based on my work that I’ve seen that did not make me want to turn white or burst into flames” said Diana.
More than 5 million viewers in the US watched each of the first eight episodes – and it’s not all women. Men too have become obsessed with the show which has spawned a myriad of fan-sites around the world each one eager and anxious for news about the show and its characters.
After the lucrative success Game of Thrones brought to the Irish tourism industry VisitScotland has not been slow to catch on. A series of themed events were held in the US, which is Scotland’s biggest international tourism market, last year.It is estimated that 10 per cent of foreign visitors make a decision to come to the UK because of something they have seen in films or on television.
With some 50 million people around the world claiming Scottish ancestry the opportunity to promote Scotland through the show and encourage the diaspora to come home and find their roots is too good a chance to miss.
Being part of such a hit show, however small, is a dream for everyone involved even if it does mean long days working in some pretty horrible weather. Scots actor and film-maker Ronnie B Goodwin, who is more used to being behind the camera as a producer and director, appears in the series as one of the Scottish rebels, although when he was first cast for Outlander he had no idea of the role he was about to be offered.“I arrived for the casting and was asked to put on full highland regalia and taken to the stables so they could see how we looked all kitted up, and to see how I handled a horse,” said Ronnie who was taught to ride by his sister who has bred and trained horses for the Queen.
His expertise with a horse was enough for him to get the part of one of the McKenzie Clan horsemen.
“My horse in the show is called George but he’s already a very experienced actor in his own right having appeared in Van Helsing and War Horse. When the director shouts ‘action’ he’s on alert and ready for his part. He knows what he’s doing and I just have to go along for the ride.”
One of the biggest challenges for Ronnie is just getting on and off the 17 hands high horse with dignity.
“With full kit on it can be kind of awkward and pretty tricky. Sometimes we use steps, or guide our horses towards a hill but sometimes you need to get on quickly and have to try and scramble, hoping you manage to preserve some dignity….I’m a true Scot and there’s some things you don’t want to see on TV!”
In keeping with historical accuracy Ronnie wears the Breacan or belted plaid along with armour which isn’t always the warmest.
“Given the Scottish weather many days if you took freezing and multiplied it by 10 that gives you some idea of what the filming is like. But I find that if you wear seal skin socks you can last just that little bit longer throughout a freezing day”.
A typical day on set can begin at 4.30am and continue till late at night with up to 300 people working around you at any one time.
“Everyone works really hard but camaraderie on set is brilliant. Everybody has a laugh and gets on. I’m looking forward to shooting season 2,” said Ronnie.
“The response from those countries where Outlander has been shown has been phenomenal. I think the attraction is that there is a really heavy element of romance, time travel, a bit of sci fi and intrigue. It’s dark, really dark, and it’s beautiful to look at.
“The filming has stayed very pure in relation to the books and that was part of the agreement, that the screen version must stay loyal. That means people who enjoyed the books will really love the series”.
In many ways the biggest star of the whole television production is Scotland.
“The photography is amazing, not that Scotland by itself isn’t amazing, but the way they’ve photographed it. Ron (Moore, the producer) said from the beginning when he realised that we could film in Scotland – which is what he and I both wanted – that it must be as much a character in the show as any of the actual cast members, and it certainly is. It’s just spectacular,” said Diana.
Outlander has undoubtedly boosted the Scottish tourism industry, spawned a legion of devoted fans and rocketed the sex appeal of men in kilts almost everywhere.
*This story was updated 23 November 2016