We all stitch imagination into facts to give them meaning. “Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that,” wrote Virginia Woolf.
The real Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat enjoys the spotlight that fictional Outlander shines on clan Fraser. His ancestor, Lord Lovat of the ’45 is the grandfather of Outlander hero, Jamie Fraser. It’s like being distantly related to Hollywood royalty. “Outlander – I love it,” says Lovat. “What’s not to like?”
I agree. An outlander myself, I came to the Highlands from Essex over 30 years ago. I married Frasers, bred them and wrote about Lord Lovat of the ’45, the Old Fox, and the most outrageous of them all. The clan and Highlands haven’t felt this kind of buzz for a very long time.
Yet, the Outlander TV series – based on the novels by American author Diana Gabaldon – twists the facts, when a historical person is closely related to the fictional male lead; and when Lovat Frasers and Mackenzies feuded through a lot of this period, rather than being allies.
“For sure. But does it matter?” Lord Lovat asks. “We gain more than we lose.” He touches on a heated debate about historical fiction. From Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels, to Game Of Thrones and Outlander, historians enjoy, or howl with irritation at the mashing up of historical facts, distortions or downright lies.
From the Fraser point of view, the Outlander effect on the entire region has given us some borrowed glamour. Until then the whole clan shtick had grown a bit mothballed and folksy.
Now, it feels like someone is throwing a years’ long, global party for us – fancy dress optional. As a result, the Highlands and clans look quite sexy again. Perhaps the last time this happened is after Walter Scott published Waverley, or Stevenson’s Kidnapped came out.
Even my book on Lovat of the ’45 has profited by this latest revival. When Outlander series two aired last year, The Last Highlander – Scotland’s Most Notorious Clan Chief, Rebel And Double Agent jumped into the New York Times ebook bestseller list.
A notable grandfather for Jamie Fraser, Lovat of the ’45 led a riotous life. Outlawed twice, the Old Fox was a lace-wristed courtier of kings. At home, he ruled the Frasers with all the patriarchal love and aggression of an old-style clan chief. Wonderful to write about, I’m sure he was hell to live with. Outlander captures some of his outrageous character.
Whether you like the Outlander effect or not, the surge of interest in the clans and the Highlands produces marked economic benefits. VisitScotland calls the phenomenon “a goldmine”.
The sites used as locations for filming have seen their visitor numbers rocket by between 20 and 45 per cent. The ripple effect benefits local businesses.
The National Museum of Scotland published pictures of author Gabaldon visiting their blockbuster Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites exhibition. She, more than any curator, was pictured handling its exhibits. The museum seems comfortable with the fact/fiction interface. It trusts us to work out the differences.
In the Highlands, the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival hosts an annual Jacobite history lecture. It’s sponsored by no less a body than The National Trust for Scotland.
This year NTS Scotland is focusing on The Shadow of the Prince – the aftermath of Culloden. Its theme connects to series three of Outlander, which begins with Culloden, before unfolding to show the consequences for the Highlands and the characters.
The audience at Belladrum also combines fantasy and historical awareness. I’ve been there, and I’m giving the lecture this year. As you look out from the podium, dragon tails feature, along with a lot of face paint, and men in pink tutus and black wellies. Not your usual history festival audience. But, they know their facts.
I know Belladrum will be lively, though my subject is heartbreaking, action-packed and serious. From the moment you saw the scars on Jamie Fraser’s back in series one, you knew Outlander could channel a dark side of Highland history. It is the bloody outrun from rebellion which series three mines.
“I tremble for fear that this vile spot may still be the ruin of this island and our family,” Cumberland said when he surveyed the Highlands after Culloden. His fear turned to aggression almost immediately. The Highlands and rebel clans experienced his allaying of that fear.
That war crimes occurred after Culloden is now accepted. As early as 1750 there were calls for an enquiry into the “Neronian atrocities”. It is widely known they began with the casual killing of wounded men on the battlefield. Survivors were locked up in churches and cellars in Inverness, often forbidden medical care.
Prison hulks sailed into the Beauly Firth to take the overflow. As time went by, complaints about the stench led to demands they be towed further from the shore. The reason for the stink became clear when soldiers opened the hatches to bring the men up. A vision of hell greeted them.
“What a scene opened to my eyes and nose all at once,” a soldier said. “The wounded festering in their gore and blood; some dead bodies quite covered over with piss and dirt, the living standing to the middle in it.”
The prisoners, brought ashore to be tried and testify against Jacobite leaders like Lord Lovat, were so traumatised with “terror and confusion by those measures [their experiences], that they seemed quite unfit for being talked with on any business, especially on what concerned Lord Lovat… They boggled and were affrighted at the mention of his name.”
Those who escaped execution faced transportation to work on the sugar plantations in the West Indies, or on tobacco plantations in Virginia or the Carolinas. They were sold into indentured labour. Effectively, they were slaves for years, or for life. Wearing your plaid could earn you seven years’ hard labour in Jamaica.
I know the third Outlander novel. This history is in it – unpalatable as it may be. Series three will use the troubles of that period to ramp up the emotion and drive the business of its storyline. That is, to dramatise the ups and downs of the star-crossed Jamie-Claire romance.
The historian in me bridles at one liberty Outlander takes. It’s their version of Charles Edward Stuart. In the series, he is an effete, lisping coward. Who would follow such a wimp, in life or art? In life, the Bonnie Prince possessed considerable charisma and intelligence. Advised to go back home when he landed in 1745, those who then encountered him often could not resist his call to arms. For a year, he dazzled his fellow European princes – before he began his slide to becoming a disillusioned, drink-coarsened brute.
Perhaps the script writers denigrate the prince to avoid setting up another alpha male. Prince Charles mustn’t challenge the status of Jamie Fraser, in sex appeal, daring and all-round heroism. That might create divided loyalties in the audience. So, I wonder, though I don’t know, if the prince appears diminished in stature, to make Jamie look even bigger and better?
In my NTS talk at Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival, I’ll speak about “memory… the seamstress”. I think it is a happy weaving of the cloth of history and fancy, that is giving so much pleasure.
All of this is a shot in the arm for clan Fraser of Lovat, the Highlands, and for historians. Those visitor numbers and book buyers show how thousands of us now seek the history behind the series – having entered the past through the doors of fiction.
Sarah Fraser will deliver her National Trust for Scotland lecture, Hooking the Great Leviathan – Crushing the Frasers after Culloden at the Belladrum Tartan Heart Festival, on Friday, at 2.15pm.
Outlander series three will be released in September on Amazon Prime.