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Issue 78 - Time Travel with the Jacobites

Scotland Magazine Issue 78
December 2014

 

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Time Travel with the Jacobites

Roddy Martine talks to the Outlander series author Diana Gabaldon

Relaxed and stylish in a black skirt and colourful blouse, obviously enjoying the storm of success surrounding her Outlander novels, not to mention the STARZ television series currently taking America by storm, Diana Gabaldon was in Scotland in August for a string of interviews and personal appearances at the Edinburgh and Wigtown book festivals.

Born in Flagstaff, Arizona, the time travelling world of her heroine, World War II British Army nurse Claire Randall who falls into a time slip when plant gathering among the fictitious standing stones of Craigh na Dun, near Inverness, could not have been further apart from the world she grew up in. Her father Tony Gabaldon, who died in 1998, was an Arizona State Senator. She continues to live in Arizona and is married with two grown up daughters, Laura and Jenny, and a son, the fantasy author Sam Sykes.

To have written an international bestseller set in a country she had never set foot in is by any standards a remarkable achievement. But Diana has certainly made up for lost time in getting to know Scotland since the first of her eight multi-genre novels won the Romance Writers of America RITA Award for Best Romance in 1991. Since then, she and her husband have made twenty four investigative trips and the characterisation has grown richer by the volume.

In Edinburgh's Charlotte Square, the author tent was packed to capacity with her adoring readers. Indeed, the lady sitting next to me confided that she felt privileged to be so close to her literary amanuensis. But make no mistake about it, this was an educated, enthralled audience caught up in time travel and the telling of heated sexual conflicts and emotions experienced three centuries apart. Fictional, of course, but sensitively observed with an intriguing undercurrent of contemporary themes such as the nature of war.

“My husband said to me that if I hadn't been born with a conscience and a sense of empathy, I'd be a very dangerous person!” they were told.

However, to go back to the beginning, it was essentially a Scottish character in the BBC's science fiction television series Dr Who that first inspired her, a man in a kilt to be specific. “When I began writing, all I had in mind was a vision of a man in a kilt,” she confesses, seemingly slightly bemused by the phenomenal amount of interest her books have attracted on both sides of the Atlantic. “The story then took on a life of its own.”

“But it was never intended for publication,” she confesses. “I wrote it for practice . I didn't even tell my husband about it to begin with.”

Nevertheless, being a research processor by training and knowing her way around libraries, it was only natural that she should know where to start and she read every available book she could find on Scotland, literally hundreds. That was in March 1988, in an almost unimaginable era before the internet existed.

“I was looking for a way to make money in the second oldest profession,” she says coquettishly. “I didn't write with an outline in mind let alone a deadline. Fortunately Scotland in the 20th Century is a very accessible country for a writer, very conscious of its history and there was a lot of information to be discovered.”

For example, Craigh na Dunn was the bi-product of that research. “I had to get a feel for the place and the people who lived there,” she reflects. “I was intrigued about standing stones and began speculating about their possible uses. After everything that has been written about them nobody actually knows what they are there for, so it seemed perfectly acceptable for them to be portals to another time.”

After her first three days of basic research, Diana decided to introduce an English woman and to put her in a room full of Scotsmen to see what they would do. “It's all Claire's fault,” she says. “From that moment on she took over as the voice of their story.”

Since that moment, Diana's (or should one say Claire's?) gripping, often fantastical story lines have transported Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser, her handsome plaid-wrapped 18th Century red-headed Scottish paramour Jamie Fraser, Diana's 20th Century husband Frank Randall and their daughter Brianna back and forth with dazzling dexterity between Jacobite Scotland, France, America, and the West Indies.

The books – each running to an average of 822 pages – are designed so that you can go backwards and forwards (as in Time Travel). “I wanted to create nice big books for readers to take on long journeys to places like Cleveland.” she quips.

And what makes the genre even more compelling is that you do not have to start with the first and read the subsequent novels in sequence. Each has its own compelling ‘cliff hanger’ conclusion, cleverly enticing the reader to want more or to go right back to the beginning.

However, from a Scotland of the 18th Century alternating between golden sunshine and mists, it is the settings in which the
Outlander action is set in the television series that have brought it to life on 21st Century television screens.

Castle Urquhart, on the shores of Loch Ness; Doune Castle, Castle Leoch in the books and some 40 years ago the setting for the film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; Falkland Palace in the Kingdom of Fife; the bleak horizons of Culloden Moor; Preston Mill in East Lothian; the thatched quirkiness of the Highland Folk Museum at Newtonmore and, incidentally Midhope Tower in Midlothian, built by George Martine, one of my own ancestors in 1582. I wonder what he would have made of his home being used as a film set?

To add factual authenticity, she was helped by native speaker Ian MacKinnon Taylor who contacted her and hesitantly asked if she had been getting her Gaelic from a dictionary? Thereafter, the Gaelic singer Catherine Ann MacPhee was among those who advised her about Highland life.

As one might expect of old and new Scotland, the surrounding scenery Diana Gabaldon describes, which comes to life in the filming, is wild and often dramatic and inspiring. Visit The Outlander Tour Map (www.visitscotland.com/outlander).