History | Culture | Ancestry
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 Jamie and Claire’, something that I thought was quite innocent until I recently saw someone quoting Jamie 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.
In fairness to the Outlander TV series, my understanding is that they have tried to have some degree of historically accuracy, while deviating 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.
It must be remembered however that the show is primarily a work of fiction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As an aside, I brought this issue up on social media and I was contacted by Outlander fans who were 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.
**Update – January 2018**
When I wrote this article three years ago I did not expect that it would eventually lead to international coverage. In January 2018 I was contacted by The Herald newspaper after they read this article and tweets that I had written to Historic Scotland regarding their promotion of Outlander. I provided comments to The Herald and their article prompted a flurry of media coverage, culminating in Diana Gabaldon requesting that Outlander fans respect Culloden as a war grave.
I hope that the National Trust for Scotland takes on board the concerns that have been raised and re-thinks how visitors to the site are educated.