Outlander: Is Scotland’s Game of Thrones any good?

The opening credits come dressed to kilt: a montage of familiar Scottish myths of stags, lochs and glens accompanied by a bagpiped-up arrangement of Over the Sea to Skye.

Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, with Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser, in a scene from Outlander. Picture: AP

There has not been such a proud display of tartanalia since the opening of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, yet when Bafta Scotland members get a preview of the opening episodes of Outlander tonight, they may be pleasantly surprised by some of its flourishes.

Followers of Diana Gabaldon’s series of best-selling books should also be pleased by the series’ fidelity to the storyline of her heroine Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), a former Second World War field nurse who travels between two tumultuous times. In 1945, she is trying to revive her marriage to her dry stick historian husband Frank (Honourable Woman’s Tobias Menzies) by taking a second honeymoon in the Highlands.

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Scots may be intrigued that Inverness in the 1940s appears to have been a capital city for feys, with ghosts hovering under Claire’s window, a palm reader puzzling over the bigamous loveline in her hand, and female druids holding mysterious Halloween rituals in a circle of standing stones, which the show’s designers seem to have patterned after the Clava Cairns.

Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, with Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser, in a scene from Outlander. Picture: AP

Touching one of these pagan rocks zaps Claire back to 1743, a time shift that even changes Outlander’s colour palette from shades of post-war grey to rich purple, blue and moss colours, as this historical Dorothy finds herself in an Oz where kilted local rebels square off against English redcoats, and Culloden is just around the turnpike.

The first man she meets is her husband’s notoriously unpleasant ancestor Captain Jack Randall (Menzies again), requiring her to be saved by members of the Clan MacKenzie, who entertain some ungentlemanly thoughts until she efficiently pops a dislocated shoulder back into its socket. The shoulder belongs to Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a young Scot built like Hercules but with the manners of a shy pony. He also seems to be the only one in the group on nodding terms with bathing. Their instant mutual attraction is unmistakable.

Game of Thrones is the benchmark against which all sword-and-skirmish TV series are being measured and, like the Irish-based saga, Outlander has plenty of grime, nudity, fighting and work for familiar British character actors. However, unlike Game of Thrones, Outlander is focused on a single storyline; that of Claire Randall and a time-crossed love triangle that boldly asks: can a wife cheat on her husband if he won’t be born for almost three centuries? In Randall it has also a smart, resourceful heroine capable of holding her own against 18th century men. “For a woman, you ask a fair amount of questions,” laments her guard.

Women seem the chief audience here, with fist fights and floggings thrown in to underline that Outlander’s American network Starz, which made Spartacus and Da Vinci’s Demons, hasn’t lost its grip on Saturday night macho spectacle. Yet the UK seems to be hanging back from buying up the show, perhaps waiting to see whether Outlander can land a returning audience.

It certainly doesn’t have a strong start. The introductory episode is a slow-burner, painstakingly laying down the plotting to sustain a 16-episode arc and establishing its heroine as an outlander twice over: an Englishwoman in a suspicious Scottish society, and an independent-minded woman in a patriarchal age. The series only finds rhythm and pace in its more satisfying second chapter, where Randall crosses wits with the MacKenzie’s shrewd clan chieftain (Neds and Billy Elliot star Gary Lewis in a magnificent wig that appears to have been made from an entire horse’s tail), while his brother (Graham McTavish) glowers and schemes. It doesn’t hurt either that the second episode finally locates some period jokes.

In terms of history, Outlander is as detail-orientated as Downton Abbey, with stop-offs to discuss Hanoverian rule, register the consumption of bannocks, and gaze at authentically-muted shades of tartan.

Still, a Scottish home crowd may guffaw at November days in Inverness that are sunny and bright enough for visitors to walk its hills in a shift and a shawl, or puzzle over the eclectic nature of Clan MacKenzie, whose accents roam from the Highlands down to Fife and Lanark.

Essentially, this is a romance not just between a woman and her two men, but a TV show and VisitScotland.

You might feel the urge to take a long bath after watching yet another mud-drenched fight but at least we come across as a land of breathtaking landscapes and buff 17th century warriors – a cross between Last of the Mohicans, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and a Highland toffee tin.


Episode 1: Sassenach * * *

Episode 2: Castle Leoch * * * *

Overall: * * *

A UK broadcast date for Outlander has yet to be confirmed.