Actors Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe and writer Matthew B. Roberts discuss Outlander, post-Culloden Scotland and the resilient, far-reaching Scots culture.
As always with Outlander, it’s a time and place that’s been thoroughly researched, “because history is one of the best tools for a fiction writer,” says writer, director and executive producer Matthew B. Roberts.
Season three opened with the Battle of Culloden. How did you re-create such a bloody, chaotic melee?
Sam Heughan: It was the first thing we shot for Season Three. It’s a part of our history, Scottish history, and we were all excited to shoot those scenes since we’ve been talking about it for two seasons - not only the actors, but the extras and the crew. It’s actually not described in the book; Jamie just wakes up on the battlefield. We had a couple of weeks of rehearsals because it had quite a few different elements to it—different fights.
Matthew B. Roberts: We took about 200 extras, supporting artists, and we put them through a boot camp. We trained them with muskets and swords and axes, and all the weapons they would be using. We took them through charges and got them proficient prior to shooting. The lovely thing about period battles is everybody gets filthy dirty and they all have beards. Recognizing people is very difficult.
Claire even appears in the aftermath— as a vision to a wounded Jamie as he lies among the dead?
Caitriona Balfe: That was a strange day. It was one of my first weeks going back, and the boys had all been filming these battle scenes. It was nighttime and freezing and those poor extras were just on these really thin mats.
One take—it was quite funny—I was walking through and someone had obviously fallen asleep and all I could hear was the loudest snoring coming from one of them. You’re trying to be all ethereal and make this moment as magical as possible, and then all you can hear is snoring. But it was really quite eerie to see all those bodies just strewn across a moor.
The aftermath of the battle, the way the Jacobites were treated by Cumberland’s army, is just brutal in the show.
Initially after the battle, Cumberland, who is the King’s son, was called the Butcher because there was no quarter given immediately after. They went in and they killed. After, they imprisoned Jacobites—many in what they would call open prisons. In our portrayal, it’s more of a closed prison. We played it slightly in a different context, where it’s more closed; Jamie has to escape.
Scotland changed a lot between seasons one and two and season three and four? Was that intentional?
Balfe: Yes, in one scene during season three, Claire looks at a place in Edinburgh and makes a comment that the last time they were there, they were with all the generals and Bonnie Prince Charlie. When she comes back, it’s a depressed people and their culture has been stripped from them in many ways. We see this through Jamie and his cohorts—good men who had been soldiers or who had been landowners are now relegated to the black market and to existing on the fringes of society.
Roberts: We wanted to stay true to the fact that the Clearances took place after Culloden, and they banned bagpipes, they banned tartans, they banned kilts—essentially banning the Scottish way of life. Scratch that, not the Scottish way of life, the Highland way of life. Because what we kept running into in the history is that many Scots fought on both sides. There were many lowland Scots fighting for what you would essentially call the British on the battlefield. It wasn’t really necessarily Scottish versus English. It was a fight between two monarchs. “Our monarch is better than your monarch!” The Jacobites wanted to install the Stuarts as the rightful Kings, and the Hanovers wanted to keep their throne.
In Season Three, no Scot wears a kilt. We don’t do bagpipes. There are no tartans. We take away all the weapons, because it was also a crime for a Highlander to have weapons—guns or pistols or muskets. We play that. It’s part of the story going forward, and then the Clearances, and how difficult it all was.
Jamie was a leader of his people before. What is he fighting for now that the war is over?
Heughan: Jamie went to die with his men at Culloden. When he wakes up on the battlefield, he has to find a purpose to live again—but he now can’t, because he’s an outlaw. It was a very difficult time, so yeah, he’s a fugitive and he assumes many different guises before he establishes himself in Edinburgh many years later, but it’s a really interesting journey that he goes on. I think ultimately it’s about him finding a purpose—and he does become a rebel again, but in a different way. He does it through literature.
Roberts: He finds that over time the one thing he can latch onto is the freeing of Scotland in his mind. He becomes a seditionist, he becomes a traitor in a way, but he can’t fight the way he would normally fight, so he takes up pen and paper and becomes a printer. He starts printing seditious material in a way that Thomas Paine or someone in America would’ve started printing pamphlets. Paul Revere did, actually, as well. They used the press to get the word out, and that’s what Jamie did in his time.
In her time, the 1960s, Claire has become a pioneering surgeon, yet she still chooses to go back to the mid-1700s.
Balfe: No matter what time Claire’s in, she’s a woman who breaks through glass ceilings. But I’ve always felt that she’s most her vibrant self when she’s back in the 1700s. So it’s interesting to watch this formidable woman plow her way through medical school [in the 1950s] and buck against the patriarchy and then make a decision to go back to a time we would probably think is much more patriarchal. And yet she finds herself in a much more comfortable position, in some ways, back then.
Is that part of what makes this rough, dangerous past so appealing? The sense that it was somehow more of a meritocracy?
Balfe: I suppose if you think about Scotland at that time and after all that social upheaval, societies are constantly reinventing themselves. So I think that when she goes back, there is a sense that if you’re an industrious person and you have the advantage of intelligence and fortitude, you can do anything within that. Maybe we think in our modern-day society that things are more settled, and it’s harder to buck the system at this point.
Roberts: The lovely juxtaposition is that she comes from a time of turmoil in the United States. It’s ‘68. There’s the civil rights movement. She is a woman. The feminist movement really hasn’t hit yet, so we play things where she goes to Harvard Medical School and she’s looked down upon. Even her husband, Frank, resents that she becomes a doctor. When she does go back, she’s a healer and she’s respected, but we still play the period. She’s still a woman in a time when women were considered breeders, and they kept the house. In our show, we don’t shy away from that.
When BHT spoke to Diana Gabaldon, author of the novels, she said that it was a credit to the Scottish spirit that they didn’t actually succeed in erasing the Highland culture.
Heughan: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a very vibrant culture and I think it still feels close to the Scottish people, even now. There’s still talk of independence and there’s a constant state of, not unrest, but of the chance that there could be something better. I guess Scotland has always been the underdog, and we’re quite good at doing that.
Balfe: I think they did their best to try. I think that the Scottish personality and the Scottish culture is very strong, but I do think that it underwent a definite depression—is that the right word?—for a while. It wasn’t until the 1800s that they were allowed this idea of kilts again and the tartan, but that was decided by the British, and it was done for the King’s visit [King George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822]. So yes, they weren’t able to completely quash that culture, but they made it very difficult for the Scots for many, many years.
Claire is our entrance into the world of 1700s Scotland. Traveling to the past, knowing what will happen, that’s a fantasy for every student of history.
Balfe: I think that’s the beauty of the story that Diana created. We all want to play around with the “What ifs” of history, and what would you do. Claire is such a great heroine for that reason, because she comes armed with so many handy skills for the past—not only is she a healer, but she has the advantage of having had a historian husband, so she has so much historical knowledge.
Roberts: That’s the way we tell the story: Claire is the audience. She’s our eyes in the world because she’s the most contemporary person we have. She’s allowed to have certain thoughts. She’s allowed to be slightly out of time [in the 1700s] and do something that’s slightly out of time, whether it’s hold hands or show affection in public or do any little thing like that. It’s OK if Jamie and Claire do it, but if other characters do it, then it’s wrong.
Heughan on his character’s growing collection of scars: “It’s ridiculous!” he laughs. “As Jamie gets older, he has more experiences, and scars are added. I hope people will appreciate that he certainly has lived quite a life.”[/caption]
Sam, you're playing a guy from hundreds of years ago, yet he really likes that his wife is this extraordinary person?
Heughan: Yeah, in some ways, he's forward thinking and he wears his heart on his sleeve at times. He's a pretty decent guy and I think he would almost fit into modern society, however, there are times that he still is a man of his time and he has a moral code and a tradition of doing things. Those are the times when he and Claire really clash and we see those throughout every season—from season one onwards. Those are the times when they really butt heads, but they learn from each other. She learns about his time and about who he is, and he learns there’s another way of doing things, a more progressive way of doing things.
The history that the show covers speaks to so many people. Just like the culture has spread all over the world—Highland games, for example, are everywhere.
Balfe: I’m Irish and we spend so long doing our own history, so I was not very aware of the intricacies of Scottish history at all. It was really interesting for me to learn all about this and the other finer points of Scottish history over the past two seasons.
Roberts: Our show is moving to the American South, and I’m starting to do a lot more American South history research, and what I’m finding is that one of the biggest Highland games in the world is in North Carolina [the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, covered in our last issue’s “Anglo-File”]. When they talk about the rebel yell from the American Civil War, the charge—if you read a description of that, you are reading about a Highland charge. You find out that a lot of the Confederate soldiers had Scottish ancestry.
Some of the best bagpipers in the world are not from Scotland anymore. They’re from Canada, the United States, India, Burma. They’re all over the world because of the Scots who went out and were transported from the Highlands to open up the British Empire. They brought their culture to these other places.
Heughan: We were just shooting in South Africa, and even there, there are great ties to the Scots. People who have been sent there—to Australia, to America, to Canada. That’s one of the draws of the show: People are interested in the history of their past.
And not all of it, I have to add, was particularly noble. There was a lot of slavery, and Scots were definitely pressed in many avenues.
That’s touched on in season three when Jacobite prisoners are sent out to the New World?
Roberts: The transportation we play—Highland Scots were transported as indentured servants to different colonies to help open up the colonies. The English, or the British, found that they were such fierce fighters that they could go and live off the land, and they didn’t complain. To put them in harsh environments was perfect for them. They didn’t want to go to prison or be labeled as traitors, so in a way it was a great compromise. You go open up these new worlds instead. We used that history. That’s when it really works, when you find history that works perfectly for your story.
Heughan: It’s just so amazing how far-reaching the Scottish culture has gone—and how much this small part of the world has affected the rest.