Outlander: What was life really like for Highland clansmen?

GLOBAL interest in Highland culture in the mid-18th century has never been higher thanks to the success of the American TV drama Outlander. But what was life really like for clansmen like Jamie Fraser?

Outlander has prompted huge interest in Highland life during the mid-18th century
Outlander has prompted huge interest in Highland life during the mid-18th century

Scotland in 1743, the year in which the first Outlander series is set, was a country divided. Two years before the outbreak of the Jacobite rebellion led by Charles Edward Stuart, the Lowlands and Highlands were separated by much more than geography, explains Dr Alastair Mann, senior lecturer in history at the University of Stirling.


Clansmen and their families were not city dwellers, but that doesn’t mean they were isolated. “There was not this vast expanse of empty Highland countryside which we are so used to seeing on TV,” said Dr Mann. “At that time, most people lived in the country and not towns. The valleys would have been full of people living in small farm steadings. They were self-contained areas. There wasn’t the central belt domination we now know. Edinburgh had a population of just 50,000, and Glasgow was even smaller. There was not yet the push for Highlanders to move south.”

A re-enactment of clansmen in Prestonpans, site of a famous Jacobite victory in 1745


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The Highlands were not locked in a state of perpetual warfare. The average clansman was a farmer who spent most of his time tending to fields or livestock. “He would be trying to feed his family. If he lived on the coast, this would be through fishing, or looking after sheep or cattle and a small amount of crops. Highlanders might be involved in a little bit of black market activity – much like someone today might pay a tradesman in cash – but the idea of the Highlands being lawless is an artificial idea that dates back to medieval times. Commerce was often carried out by bartering, rather than paying in cash. It was a hand-to-mouth existence – unless you were a chief.”

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A re-enactment of clansmen in Prestonpans, site of a famous Jacobite victory in 1745

As Highland social structures were so localised, clan chiefs were important. Central government was based far away in Edinburgh and London and played virtually no role in daily life. “Highland farmers would folllow instructions from their chiefs. That could be to turn out and fight, or it might not. But what he said mostly went. Many chiefs did enter Lowland society, and their homes would contain fine books and furniture. Highlanders might not have been able to afford them, but they would be aware of them.”


Clansmen would mainly speak Gaelic, and their culture - through storytelling, poetry and music - was oral. “Stories would be passed through successive generations by mothers to babies at the knee. They were beginning to be more educated. Following the ‘45 rebellion, there was a real drive by the government to establish schools, Presbyterian churches, libraries and all the rest of it. But it was the rebellion that triggered this process of cultural engineering away from their traditional way of life to become good citizens. Of course, many Highland chiefs did become landlords less inclined to help their clansmen.”


Most of those who fought under Prince Charles Edward Stuart in the ‘45 were Episcopalian, and not Catholic, as is often presumed. But this form of worship was different to the Presbyterian-domianted Lowlands, and was viewed with suspicion by the authorities. “They were viewed as second-rate Protestants, and Highlanders resented that. The two Jacobite rebellions were very different in that regard. The first, in 1715, attracted more widespread support from across the country. The ‘45 was a more Highland affair.”


Clan ties remained strong, and chiefs had the power to summon small armies. “Cameron of Lochiel, for example, was able to call out 700 or 800 clansmen. So you only needed half a dozen of these chiefs on your side to have the backbone of an army. But a lot of the chiefs would produce only a dozen or so. Then there were the desperate individuals - the Rob Roy MacGregor types - with no money, so thought they may as well throw in their lot with Bonnie Prince Charlie.”