Dubbed Scotland’s Game of Thrones, Outlander is set to become a fantasy tourist phenomenon, but it’s also arousing global interest in our real heritage, writes Dani Garavelli
TOUR guide Hugh Allison had been managing the Culloden Visitor Centre for a year when he began to notice a subtle change in the kinds of questions he was being asked. “Lots of people wanted to know where the Clan Fraser stone was and, to put it bluntly, unless the Frasers were ten times more fertile than any other clan, it was clear something was going on,” he says.
There were other clues too. So many tourists were asking how to walk from Culloden to the Clava Cairns – three prehistoric burial sites, each enclosed by a stone circle – staff were forced to keep a hand-drawn map at reception. Intrigued, Allison decided to investigate and stumbled across the Outlander phenomenon – a series of books by US author Diana J Gabaldon, which hadn’t yet reached the mainstream, but were attracting a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic.
That was in 2001. Today, Allison, who now owns Inverness Tours, is fully conversant with the story of Claire Randall, a 20th-century nurse who travels back through time to find love with handsome Jacobite Jamie Fraser. Having read all eight books several times and having personally taken Gabaldon to explore Scotland’s northern reaches, he runs bus trips to key Outlander sites such as the Clava Cairns, said to be the inspiration for Craigh na Dun, the stone circle through which Claire is transported to the 18th century, and Castle Leod, said to be the inspiration for Castle Leoch, seat of the Clan Mackenzie.
Since news of the adaptation by US TV network Starz – starring Scots actor Sam Heughan and shot in a purpose-made studio and locations across Scotland – broke in June 2013, demand for the tours has soared. The kind of attention the series is likely to attract in the coming months can be seen in the frenzy that surrounded its tartan carpet premiere at Comic-Con in San Diego last week, when 1,500 fans saw the first episode and heard a live rendition of Jamie and Claire’s “theme”, a poignant air composed and played by Emmy-winner Bear McCreary.
Anticipating a fresh upsurge of interest when it officially debuts in the US next Sunday (and again whenever it secures a UK showing) Allison spent the winter training two more guides and organising expanded two, three and four-day Outlander tours which incorporate not only the original sites from the books, but the locations, such as Doune Castle, where the TV series was shot. With many of them shrouded in secrecy, this wasn’t easy. But, egged on by fans, he sifted through trailers and stills attempting to match the images with real-life buildings.
Allison is not the only one who hopes to reap the rewards of the Outlander effect. The decision to shoot the 16-part adaptation in Scotland over 38 weeks in 2013-14 has already had a major impact, bringing an estimated £20 million to the country’s economy. Yet many believe the best is still to come. When it hits US TV next weekend, it is hoped it will do for Scotland what the HBO series Game Of Thrones has done for Northern Ireland: showcase all the country has to offer in terms of scenery, culture, skills and craftsmanship.
Outlander has already helped revitalise the indigenous film industry. Not only did the production company build its own studio in Cumbernauld, it commissioned a crew of 200 and more than 2,000 actors from Scotland and the rest of the UK. “I don’t think I have seen anything quite like it since Pinewood or Television Centre in London at its peak in the early 80s,” says John Archer, of Hopscotch Films, who toured the studio with other producers. “Just to see the dyeing room, about eight costume-makers at work, a huge joinery shop and a team of plasterers – it was great.”
In the aptly-named Holywood, a small seaside town near Belfast, post-production facility Yellowmoon has doubled its workforce as a result of its involvement with Game Of Thrones which its managing director Greg Darby describes as a “game-changer”. Five years ago, 80 per cent of Yellowmoon’s work was for local broadcasters and just 20 per cent for productions based in the UK or further afield. Now, 70 per cent of its work is commissioned outside Northern Ireland. The success of the HBO series has proved the country’s mettle as a production hub. It has attracted more productions which have created more jobs, which have created a more highly skilled workforce which has in turn attracted more productions. Those productions include Dracula Untold and Ridley Scott’s new Halo feature, both of which will be released later in the year. It is hoped Outlander will create a similar virtuous circle in Scotland.
“The initial impact has been that everyone we want to work with is busy,” jokes Archer. “Our cameraman of choice, Neville Kidd, is cinematographer on Outlander, which is great for him and means we have to seek out another cameraman of choice, which, in turn, opens up opportunities at the bottom.”
The series has also given fresh momentum to the decades-old campaign for a Scottish film studio. Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Government are considering five proposals and have promised the £15m complex will be up and running by 2017.
Like Balamory and The Da Vinci Code, Outlander is expected to give Scottish tourism a shot in the arm, with Outlander-themed events attracting visitors from all over the world. Since the TV series was announced, the online fan base has grown to more than half a million. Three busloads of Outlander fans – including some from Spain – turned up to Eden Court in Inverness for the screening of the independent movie Emulsion starring Heughan in January just because the actor had agreed to come and do a Q&A (they ended up drinking whisky with him and staying on for the Burns weekend). And in May, the UK Outlander Gathering saw 120 fans from ten countries attend a series of events in Edinburgh.
VisitScotland is gearing up to capitalise on Outlander’s potential to attract “set-jetters” (the term for tourists who seek out film locations). Not only does the tourism body have a specific Outlander page on its website listing all Outlander-related locations and companies providing Outlander-related tours (there are quite a few rivals to Allison’s) and a YouTube video promoting the country off the back of the Comic-Con premiere, it has invited two influential North American bloggers to Scotland to coincide with the show’s US debut. Gretchen Kelly, who specialises in set-jetting, and Pamela McNaughton of Savoir Faire Abroad will visit Doune Castle (aka Castle Leoch – fictional seat of the Mackenzie clan), Culross in Fife, and take a cruise on Loch Ness, as well as going to the National Museum of Scotland to learn more about the 1745 Uprising.
Along with the tourists come commercial opportunities for craftsmen. Hamilton and Young is a jewellers owned by husband and wife June Hamilton and Gordon Young whose showroom is situated on the Royal Mile close to the Cannongate Kirk, Tolbooth Wynd and the World’s End pub, all of which are mentioned in the Outlander books. June had read some of them, and came up with the idea of creating a ring inspired by the one Jamie gives Claire – a silver band with thistles and Celtic knots – as well as a pendant and earrings featuring a dragonfly with an amber stone (Dragonfly In Amber is the title of the second book). They have struggled to meet demand, selling thousands of the rings in their shops, in other outlets at home and abroad and online. Likewise, Hawick-based Anthony Haines Textiles, which has made around 500 metres of specially-designed tartan for the show’s costumes, is poised to cash in when negotiations over merchandising are completed.
To those not acquainted with the Outlander books (published as Cross Stitch in the UK), the devotion they inspire may seem a little excessive. An interior designer with a London-based architectural practice by day, US-born Angela Sasso spends her nights planning Outlander-themed events or reading the books aloud to her husband. Their appeal lies, she says, in the way they span several genres (sci-fi, history, romance), the strength of the characters, the adventure and the setting. Having visited Culloden, she can testify to the emotional impact of retracing the steps of the main characters. “I’ve just finished reading my husband the second book which ends on the battlefield,” she says. “Now I have been there, I think of how desolate it is and how cold it must have been. I can picture it all and it does bring it home to me.”
One of the less-talked about bonuses of Outlander is the way it popularises Scottish history. Perhaps surprisingly, given Gabaldon had not visited Scotland when she wrote the first book, they are said to provide a highly authentic depiction of life in the mid-18th century. At the same time, they breathe new life into old Scottish legends. “One of the main reasons I do Outlander tours is because of the cultural aspect,” he says. “Diana takes little-known folk tales that might otherwise disappear altogether and she dusts them off and kneads them seamlessly into her narrative.”
A born storyteller himself, Allison explains how he stumbled on an Outlander plot-line involving Fergus, a character who helps Jamie when he’s hiding out in a cave, in a dusty old book from the 1880s while carrying out research in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. Both in Outlander and the book, Fergus is taking food and ale to Jamie when he is stopped by redcoats. When he refuses to divulge his whereabouts, one of the redcoats cuts off his hand with a sabre and the keg of ale goes bouncing down the road.
“There I was in this darkened archive whispering at the book: ‘Fergus, how did you get in there?’” Allison says.
As if all that wasn’t enough, the series also looks set to do its bit to promote Gaelic. Gabaldon’s books are replete with Gaelic phrases and scriptwriter and producer Ronald D Moore has decided not only to include Gaelic dialogue in the series, but to do so without subtitles. A Gaelic coach, singer-songwriter Àdhamh Ó Broin, was hired to work on the actors’ pronunciation and has produced a series of Speak Outlander videos where fans can learn to say a few basic phrases such as Mo Nighean Donn (brown-haired lass). “Gaelic is getting better known now and books like Gabaldon’s, and particularly the TV series, will open people’s eyes and raise their awareness of its existence even further,” says Hamish Taylor, from Harris, who together with his twin brother Iain helped the author with trickier phrases in her early books.
Back in the land of the Sassenachs, Sasso is reminiscing about her time in Scotland. She talks wistfully of the lunch at which Ó Broin spoke and sang and at which one of the show’s Irish wolfhounds made an appearance.
But for her – as for hundreds of thousands of other fans – the fun is only just beginning. Weeks after the series begins in the US, Gabaldon is coming to the Edinburgh Book Festival after which she will join aficionados for a private dinner. Like most of those who “get” the story’s appeal, Sasso has no doubt Outlander will draw more and more overseas visitors as it gains momentum and becomes one of the most talked about dramas of the decade.
As soon as the book festival is over, she will start planning next year’s UK Outlander Gathering with the six other organisers she now considers friends. Indeed this year’s convention proved to be such a bonding experience that after they returned home, five of the seven, including Sasso, got matching Outlander tattoos as a souvenir. Five dragonflies inked on five fans. What greater testimony could there be to the power of the Outlander story as it looks to captivate a whole new audience?