The Tree of a Son of Skye

History | Culture | Ancestry

Outlander and the Culloden Battlefield & Visitor Centre

The launch of the hit series Outlander has introduced a whole new generation of people to Scotland. It has also undoubtedly contributed to the enormous revival of interest that we have seen in Scottish history over the past 20 years, particularly from people in North America.

Yet, time and time again we’ve seen how issues arise when people try to digest complex history through the medium of popular culture, in this instance the fictional stories of Outlander. We’ve seen it before, most notably with Braveheart and the weird and wonderful historic misconceptions that have become ingrained in popular consciousness as a result.

Of course anything that promotes Scottish history should be welcomed, but the Outlander craze does have some negative side-affects. Tour groups have emerged, offering customers the chance to ‘walk in the footsteps of Jaime and Claire’, something that I thought was quite innocent until I recently saw someone quoting Jaime Fraser, the lead character of Outlander, as if he was an authentic, first hand witness to the real life events of the Battle of Culloden.

Some fans find it hard to separate fact and fiction.

Some fans find it hard to separate fact and fiction.

In fairness to the Outlander TV series, my understanding is that they have always tried to have some degree of historically accuracy, while deviating slightly from authentic portrayals in the name of creative license. The show, for example, has been pro-active in including and therefore promoting the Gaelic language, and that is something that should definitely be commended, particularly in light of recent concerns that Scottish tourism has airbrushed the contribution of the Gaels from Scotland’s history.

The producers of Outlander are ultimately not responsible for what other people think or do, they are producing entertainment not documentaries. It is what organisations closer to home are doing that should cause greater concern. I’ve noticed for example that the Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre has started to use the Outlander craze in an attempt to draw visitors to the battlefield, particularly through their social media channels. The National Trust for Scotland, the organisation that runs the battlefield centre, also has a dedicated part of their online shop for ‘Outlander inspired’ merchandise.

outlander1

I accept that there will always be an element of commercialisation in trying to promote and raise revenue for historic sites. I do however start to become uncomfortable when the Culloden centre is using a war memorial as a tool to promote merchandise referring to a TV series primarily about fictional characters. After all, it’s worth reflecting that Culloden was a battlefield in which thousands of men died, many executed after surrendering before being unceremoniously dumped in shallow mass graves. The battlefield deserves respect and many organisations are able to promote and raise revenue for historic sites without a lowly appeal to fans of the latest fad franchise.

Look for example at the way other nations promote their historic battlefields. The Americans, as usual, are light-years ahead of us in the way they preserve and promote their historic battlefields. The Gettysburg National Military Park website deserves particular praise. It’s packed full of useful information about battlefield preservation, educational resources, environmental issues and volunteer opportunities with not a single link to tacky merchandise. The Somme Battlefield website is equally tasteful in not highlighting the sale of merchandise. That’s because, as it should be with Culloden, it doesn’t need to – the history speaks for itself.

Some of the 'Outlander inspired' merchandise being sold by the National Trust for Scotland.

Some of the ‘Outlander Inspired’ merchandise being sold by the National Trust for Scotland.

Part of the problem with the specific example of Culloden is that there are still so many people in Scotland that don’t take the Jacobite risings seriously. Far from considering it to be one of the great military and political struggles of our national history, many people have an abstract view of the 1745 uprising as a ‘brig-a-doon’ fantasy and not really a ‘real war’ like say, the First World War. While we’ve recently seen an almost quasi-religious veneration of World War One soldiers, the Jacobite uprisings are still seen as a bit of a joke, more fit for a shortbread tins rather than serious commemoration.

We’ve seen this manifest itself in some shockingly disrespectful scenes at Culloden. In 2009 there were reports of visitors picnicking on mass graves and leaning against clan memorial stones, completely oblivious as they smoked cigarettes and watched their dogs piss all over the graves. As was pointed out at the time, there is no way that behaviour would be considered acceptable at a World War One battlefield, so it’s curious that people considered it to be acceptable at Culloden. Following national and international media attention, The Culloden Battlefield Centre eventually installed new signs, asking visitors to respect the site as a war grave.

Appropriate at a war memorial?

Appropriate behaviour at a war memorial?

I have a further concern that some Outlander fans, gently encouraged by some tourist organisations, are generating an interest that comes at the expense of Scottish history and not always in conjunction with it. I doubt for example that many Outlander fans know or care about people like Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir or George Murray when compared with the infatuation with Sam Heughan and the fictional Jamie Fraser. Let’s face it, if there was a fansite dedicated to Sam Heughan’s skid-marks it would have a lot more followers than anyone ever actually connected to the 1745 uprising. If that’s what you’re into I wish you all the best, but let’s not masquerade it as a genuine interest in Scottish history.

I would reiterate that I fully understand the need for organisations to generate revenue through the sale of certain merchandise. However, the Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre needs to be very careful to ensure that they get the balance right. I’m simply not convinced that it’s the role of a government funded organisation to be using something like Outlander as a promotion tool for a war grave and massacre site.  Sure, there is a place for Outlander in promoting Scotland and if people want to visit Scotland to see the sites where it was filmed, that’s great. However, it cannot come at the expense of the real history, of the real people who suffered, struggled and died through the uprisings. Outlander is fictional, the Jacobite Risings were real life, and even to this day there are unresolved ramifications of those uprisings.

Jacobite propaganda showing the Duke of Cumberland, also known as 'the butcher', flaying the skin of a captured Jacobite. -National Library of Scotland.

An engraving showing the Duke of Cumberland, also known as ‘the butcher’, skinning a captured Jacobite. National Library of Scotland.

As an aside, I brought this issue up on social media and my goodness was I bombarded with messages from almost exclusively American middle-aged women. The replies I received expressed the very strong opinion that because they had previously never heard of Culloden before Outlander, the show was therefore an acceptable educational tool. I understand that argument, but Outlander is not an educational tool, and it’s not the role of the Culloden Battlefield Centre to promote Outlander, even if it is to generate revenue for the visitor centre.

In the end I’m not sure that I can fully articulate why the association of Outlander with the Culloden Battlefield makes me so uncomfortable, I think it is largely because I feel the association cheapens Culloden and the men who died there. Equally, it’s perhaps a fear of the ‘Braveheart effect’ whereby people now mostly associate William Wallace with a fictional Hollywood movie, instead of real life events. I don’t want the same to happen with Culloden and Outlander.

Culloden stands as a silent and eternal monument that does not need to sell itself to anyone, it’s not a theme park. Ultimately, I believe the men that gave their final charge on that ground did so for Scotland and Prince Charlie, not so that we could sell trinkets to American tourists for £29.95.

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21 comments on “Outlander and the Culloden Battlefield & Visitor Centre

  1. Alasdair MacNèill
    July 17, 2015

    Fantastic comment! And absolutely on the money (pun intended). Wrapping tragic history in tartan tat certainly cheapens the lives of those men and boys buried beneath the mounds these individuals lounge upon to be photographed.

    • Colin MacDonald
      July 18, 2015

      Mòran taing a charaid (and also for your own work on this subject).

  2. John W. Zimmerman
    July 18, 2015

    Very well said!

  3. fabcamilla
    July 18, 2015

    In the Outlander books, there is a portrayal of the Jacobites their culture, their pride, their weaknesses and strengths, the political settings. It’s not just numbers of men killed, they have flesh and kin who have to deal with the after-effects of the battle for the decades following… If you had read those books you’d be grateful for the memory and tribute it gives to the fallen. It’s _not_ a Braveheart Brigadoon..That’s why it is promoted by the officials, thanks to this literary saga, millions of people remember the sacrifice and what it really meant to the Scots..It certainly does not cheapen the memorial. Now maybe SOME people don’t observe proper decorum..But if they shed a tear for the fallen, they won’t fade from memory ,or from heart…
    The TV show did not address Culloden in season 1 yet ; after you’ve read the books, after the show addresses it and you’ve watched it, you’ll be in a position to have an informed opinion about what Outlander brings to or takes from the Battle of Culloden . Just now i believe you are lacking proper background. The people who travel a long way to the burial stones of Culloden and take a picture, they say to the men and boys buried there “You are remembered” .
    Isn’t it just what a memorial monument stands for ?

    • Colin MacDonald
      July 18, 2015

      Thanks for the comment Camilla, and for the patronising pat on the head. Like many others, you seem to be having a difficult time comprehending the fact that Outlander if a work of fiction and is full of historical inaccuracies. It doesn’t give the reader any more insight into the Jacobite uprisings than watching Rambo does about the Vietnam War.

      There are a wealth of resources on the period, including a huge number of academic works using primary evidence and first hand accounts. McLynn’s biography on Charles Edward Stuart is approachable and well worth reading, although Prebble’s ‘Culloden’ has become the standard text on the battle itself.

      I suggest you start with those, and until you respect the difference between fact and fiction I’m afraid you won’t be in a position to lecture anyone about informed opinions.

      • Deborah Dennison
        August 7, 2015

        Thank you Colin for your fine repost. I would add that not all the so called academic works are accurate – most especially Prebble’s book, Culloden. Prebble, a self-declared anti-Jacobite, is not an academically trained historian and does not seem to be constrained by those measures of fact to which most historians must adhere. His book is full of propaganda (Cumberland’s) presented as fact, as was the dreadful documentary made from it long ago. As for Outlander – as you say, it is full of historical inaccuracies and certainly makes all the Highlanders, except Jaime, look like drunken savage louts. I fear the series’ popularity is more due to the amount of nudity and sex in it, than the history.

      • Colin MacDonald
        August 21, 2015

        Thanks Deborah,

        You’re right but I was just trying to point out Prebble’s work as a generally accepted entry level into the subject. Obviously like any other book falling under the category of non-fiction, and unlike fictional Outlander, it is open to being critiqued as an attempted text on history. Personally I find his style boring and difficult to read. As for Outlander, I agree with you and in reality it is a glorified romance novel.

  4. candice313
    July 18, 2015

    I have been interested in Scotland and its history since I was 6 years old and learned of my Scottish ancestry, and always planned to visit ‘someday.’ Last month I finally did, in large part because of Outlander – for both positive and negative reasons. The books and TV series have brought to life a fascinating tale. I’ve seen photos of beautiful sites referenced in the books and used in the filming, and I wanted to see those sites I had read about before they became too commercialized. Or even closed off due to inappropriate behavior, vandalism, or silly gestures under the guise of ‘creating a memory.’

    I applaud Diana Gabaldon for her meticulous research and Starz/Ron Moore for bringing the story to life. I know that they will do justice to that part of the series that pertains to Culloden specifically, and convey the horrible events leading up to, during and after that fateful day in a respectful way. I can see the point of the women who responded to you – those who had never heard about it (which seems impossible to me, but I have met some myself). The story, while fictional, has brought the history to life for literally millions who had not heard of Culloden before. And that is a good thing.

    To say I ‘enjoyed’ my visit to the battlefield sounds wrong .. but I did. I learned a lot, I studied each exhibit, and I appreciated the accounts described as I walked the site. We were surprised that one of the names mentioned was the same as my son Michael’s, as I didn’t remember a Hughes being there (unfortunately on ‘the other’ side). It was quiet that day, I was very happy there were no tour buses with dozens of people. Often my son and I were the only ones we could see. He did comment on seeing a few cigarette butts and I was irritated to see a woman smoking at one point on the trail. I certainly don’t blame that on the show however.

    I have traveled extensively across the US and visited many memorial sites. I’ve seen silly teenage girls taking selfies with goofy smiles at the 9/11 memorial in NYC. I’ve seen piles of trash dumped from cars along the roads around Gettysburg. And I remember commenting on overflowing trash cans around the Washington DC memorial sites. Disrespect is everywhere. Culloden was the most well tended, beautiful, awe-inspiring site I’ve ever seen.

    I understand your feelings of protectiveness. No, it’s not the role of the Centre to promote Outlander. And interest will only increase as that part of the story is aired during the show’s run. But there is good and bad to that. Does the gift shop need to sell Outlander inspired items? No, however everything sold helps maintain the battlefield financially. As long as items are contained to one small area, I see no harm. Does being associated with Outlander cheapen the memory? Not to this girl. It enhanced it. But that’s up to the future fans who visit. Disrespect can come from anywhere. I hope and assume Outlander fans will treat the grounds with the respect it deserves.

    • Colin MacDonald
      July 18, 2015

      Thanks for the message Candice and for the constructive spirit in which it was given. It’s in stark contrast to the many other messages I have received from irrational Sam Heughan fans.

      I can see there is a great deal of overlap in our views on the subject. However I do disagree with your statement that the association of Outlander and Culloden enhances the battlefield centre. I remain of the view that it cheapens the sacrifice. When I visited the American D-Day cemetery in Normandy, I didn’t see Saving Private Ryan fans with cardboard cut-outs of Tom Hanks next to the graves of soldiers. I’m therefore not sure why Outlander fans (some at least) not only consider this kind of behaviour acceptable at Culloden, but feel that we should be grateful that they even took the time to notice us.

      The examples I’ve listed above clearly show that not all Outlander fans are as respectful of the battlefield as you are. I remain unconvinced that some Outlander fans are primarily visiting the battlefield out of respect to the fallen men as opposed to paying homage to a book/tv series and Sam Heughan.

      Putting that aside, the main focus of my piece was that I do not think it is the place of the Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre to be using Outlander to promote the battlefield. As you stated, Outlander is a work of fiction and that fact alone makes it unworthy to be associated with the Culloden centre in any significant capacity.

      Of course we can be in agreement that when Outlander fans do visit Culloden, they should treat the ground with appropriate respect.

  5. Rosemary Gillanders
    July 18, 2015

    I was born in Scotland and moved to Canada in my teenage years. I agree with your comments completely. I’ve been to Culloden and I consider it to be a very special place which should be treated with respect. I also read the complete Outlander series of books and have taken them as they are meant to be – Fiction! Having lived beside the U.S. and seen movies like “Titanic and Argo (1980 U.S. Hostage crisis). I have been amazed at how the truth has been ‘adjusted’ to suit the Producers, then when shown, people actually believe it’s true? America is full of amazing friendly people, but is also a very insular country too.

  6. bigirishman
    July 19, 2015

    There is an additional reason for the tensions about the Culloden Battlefield, and that is because there is quite a strong tradition of Scots who are ambivalent about the Jacobites. While I recognise the bravery of the Jacobites, I also happen to believe that the cause for which they fought and died for was essentially wrong.
    I am a Whig. My martyred dead lie in the South West of Scotland where they died because they did not believe that the Stuart king could tell them how to worship God. It was only after the 1689 revolution (I do not call it glorious) that they were freed from the burden, and the man who had been most active in persecuting them, went on to try and run the counter revolution.
    I agree with you that it is important that the Culloden Battlefield is respected. I respect it so much that despite living within 10 miles of it, I have not and would not visit it. However while everyone has heard about Culloden and the Outlander series will make it more famous little is know even in Scotland about the other Rebellion. At least as many Scots died or were taken prisoner at Bothwell Brig as were were affected by Culloden, while the actions taken by the Stuart Monarchy against the communities round about were at least as brutal to the communities as the actions of the Hanoverian were post Culloden.
    Far from your description of ” still so many people in Scotland that don’t take the Jacobite risings seriously. Far from considering it to be one of the great military and political struggles of our national history, many people have an abstract view of the 1745 uprising as a ‘brig-a-doon’ fantasy and not really a ‘real war’ like say, the First World War” the fact is that many lowland Scots have a folk memory that the ’45 nearly succeeded and that would have made life difficult for even the moderate Presbyterians and put persecuting episcopalian or worse in charge. Of course no one has ever been romantic about a bunch of dour Psalm Singing Calvinist lowlanders in the way that the delightful exotic Jacobite Highlanders can be pictured.

  7. Lisa Michelle Woody
    July 19, 2015

    I see your point. Maybe the merchandise shouldn’t be sold at the historical sites. I understand that these sites are important you and you want them protected. I know the books are a work of fiction but they have inspired people to learn more about Scotland and their own Scottish Heritage. I for one knew very little of my ancestry because my family kept a poor oral history of it. The books have brought Scotland of the 1740’s to life for the average person. Now I learn everything I can about Scotland because that’s now a part of my history. I have learned a bit about the clan system and how much Scots influenced the American Revolution, etc. This is not something that is taught in our schools I really had no idea of it until I started reading about for myself. I think the books and the show have both improved tourism for your country. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I have read the comments and I don’t think you are being fair to Sam. I don’t think he would do anything to purposely hurt Scotland. I think if you contact him and explain your concerns he may be able to help you.

    • Colin MacDonald
      July 19, 2015

      Thanks Lisa and it’s good to hear you are researching your own Scottish heritage.

      I probably wouldn’t go so far as to say that no merchandise should be sold at the visitor centre. Neither would I disagree with the statement that Outlander has had some positive impact on Scottish tourism. Equally, I do not disagree that fictional versions of history do not inspire people to learn more about real history.

      What I am arguing is that these stories in themselves are not useful for learning about real history. I’d be very careful in believing that Outlander is an accurate portrayal of life in the 1740s. Ultimately they are only works of fiction and Outlander is not trying to be a documentary, it’s for entertainment only.

  8. Jo Woolf
    July 19, 2015

    You’ve opened a can of worms here! 🙂 A bold point but thank you for making it, because you have pinpointed something that has been bothering me for a while. When I write about places with this kind of history – even though I’m not a fiction writer – I am acutely aware that I am dealing with something fragile that I can’t see, but which is so easily broken. These places are usually, by definition, picturesque or remote or derelict, or they have some deeply moving human story attached to them. The instinct is to share your love of them – but the glare of publicity can be like a scorching sun, and the sun burns away the mist. I do not watch Outlander (and have not read the books) and so I cannot comment on its historical accuracy – nor would I be in any real position to do so. As I see it, the difficulty is caused not by the overlap between fiction and historical fact, but when a work – any work – gathers the kind of momentum that can only be achieved by 21st century media, and it becomes an unstoppable force. I also have a feeling that with successive generations we have become distanced from our roots, and are yearning to return to them – ironically via the very technology that caused the rift. Stonehenge is a good example – I remember going there when it was still possible to touch the stones, but they have to be protected from us now. Aagh, what is the solution? I shall be pondering this all day, probably! 🙂

  9. Terry Coffey
    July 19, 2015

    As a middle-aged American Outlander reader, I whole heartedly agree with the points in your article. I visited Poland last year and can’t imagine anyone posing with a fictional character cutout at Auschwitz. A war memorial/grave site is deserving of deep reverence, not for demonstrating fan appreciation. Regardless of how well researched or written a favorite novel may be.

  10. Doris Cote
    July 19, 2015

    I can see people taking pictures of Culloden, but not with “pocket Jamie” or themselves, but as a remembrance of a visit to a special place. I took 7th graders to Washington D.C. and before the trip, spent many lessons on decorum and that the memorials are places like cemetairies and low voices, no running, etc… hats off as well. My 160 students were respectful and although they did take pictures at the Viet Nam Memorial, they were respectful, to show that they were there, reading the names. Now when they saw how long the wall was, how many had fallen, it meant something more than a line in their history book. When they saw the statue, they were able to point out the dog tags tucked in the shoe laces to other visitors, because they were taught why that was done. Some traced names of those with the same last name as a means of connecting because they weren’t even a twinkle in an eye then, but it was with respect. My co-teachers and I did this for several years and were very proud of our students’ behavior. Those were life lessons that will stay with them forever and hopefully they instill those lesson in their children.
    My point is this: those picknickers should have been asked to go elsewhere by the staff at Culloden, because their moms and teachers missed those lessons. I think the staff at Culloden needs to step up their game if they expect the battlefield and graves to be respected. Tour bus drivers can be requested to ask the people to be respectful and remember this is a cemetary before they open the bus door. People need to be educated and some need to be reminded.
    I see no problem with merchandising the Outlander stuff to raise funds to support the memorial site.
    My grandparents graves are in Germany. Yes, I have a picture of their plot with their names. I don’t get there often.

    • Colin MacDonald
      July 21, 2015

      Thanks Doris, I think you’re right to suggest that perhaps bus drivers could request that people treat the battlefield with the appropriate respect. I think though that it is ultimately up to the Culloden Battlefield & Visitor Centre to set the tone of the site and perhaps they could be a bit more direct about what kind of behaviour will be tolerated at a location that includes mass graves.

  11. dachasgunbrogan
    July 21, 2015

    Hi Colin,

    I think I pretty much agree witht he general thrust of your arguments, though at times they do seem to contradict themselves a little. But I suspect that is because the two polar extremes conflict so completely. I don’t have time today, or I would have a go at explaining that more fully.

    Meantime, do you have a public email address I can get to you at? I have some information which might be of use to you, but posting email addresses online is against my principles! 🙂 Or perhaps you can see my email address?

    Chas

    • Colin MacDonald
      July 21, 2015

      Hi Chas,

      Essentially the post seems to have stimulated debate about two/three subjects. Firstly, whether or not Outlander is useful as a tool for educating about history and secondly the appropriateness of the Culloden centre in using Outlander as a promotional tool. I’ve also seen people online talking about Outlander fan behaviour at Culloden more generally.

      I’d hoped the debate would be mainly focused on the Culloden Visitor Centre although most people seem interested in the debate about the usefulness of Outlander itself. I’ve never received so many emails or messages about a post as I have with this one and I’m pleased that the vast majority of people, including Outlander fans, seem to be in agreement with me.

      I can see your email address through the administrator panel, I will contact you.

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