Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.


Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.

Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources

I thought I could fit it all in one final post, but that proved to be a mighty miscalculation. I had far too much to say about the Outlander tour alone–big surprise!–and I still plan to provide an overall series wrap-up. In fact, this post is so substantial, with pictures and tons of Outlander-related resources, I thought it best to include a table of contents. Get ready for everything (else) you need to know to create the best Outlander adventure for you and yours!

The final post is forthcoming. If you missed any of the first 4 parts of the series An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, you can find them in my blog’s Scotland and Outlander sections, linked through Scotland Ventured, Scotland Gained, or in direct links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. The first 3 parts showcase 37 filming & book locations with several photos. Part 4 details my trip planning process with snapshots of our planned vs. actual itineraries and reflections on the quality of our Scotland vacation experience. This post, a.k.a. part 5, includes a succinct list of 40 Outlander filming sites. Read on for more!

Table of Contents

  1. All Our Outlander Tourist Destinations in Scotland
    • Our Outlander Day Tour Experience
    • Special Visit to Glencorse Old Kirk
    • Other Outlander-Related Sites We Visited
  2. Our Outlander Tour Company: Slainte Scotland
    • Day Tours with Slainte Scotland
    • Outlander Tour with Special Guests
  3. Outlander Tourism Reference – Diana’s Recommendations, Tour Company Pages, Location List, Articles & Resources
    • Tour Companies’ Tour Advertisements, including those of Slainte Scotland
    • List of 40 Filming (NOT book) Locations
    • Articles and Info about Filming Locations
    • Specific Filming Locations in Depth
    • Info about Outlander Book Locations
    • Book and Premise Inspired Outlander Tourism
    • Places Mentioned on Series 1 of the Show
    • Sam Heughan (Jamie) and Laura Donnelly (Jenny) Studied Theatre Here
    • Articles Reflecting Outlander STARZ’s Pop Culture Progress
    • And for Good Measure (surviving Droughtlander)

All images © C. L. Tangenberg

All Our Outlander Tourist Destinations in Scotland
Our Outlander Day Tour Experience

I started my tour search by perusing Diana Gabaldon’s recommended Outlander tour companies, discussed on her website. I sought a company that offered tours of more than half a day but less than 3 days so we could balance official Outlander tourism with exploring Scotland more generally. My first choice was Inverness Tours, but by the time the dates of our trip became settled, there were no tours of the right length available among those led by their four tour guides who work year round. Inverness Tours has long been a popular tour company with Outlander fans.

Moving on to Slainte Scotland, I contacted the company through both email and their website’s chat feature to get details about their 1-day Outlander tour. After a few messages back and forth, and a chat with a very helpful representative, I learned the likelihood of visiting West Kirk (the Black Kirk) in Culross and the all-important Midhope Castle (Lallybroch), and I carefully parsed the schedule of stops to ensure we’d have time to make it to our 7:30pm play showing in Edinburgh that evening.

Satisfied with all the circumstances, I decided to take the plunge and booked our tickets for the tour. Slainte Scotland made a great first impression by being prompt, informative, enthusiastic, and professional in their communications. They provided the detail needed to help make our day flow as smoothly as possible.

The day started on our own with a train ride from Edinburgh to Dalmeny Station, our meeting place for the start of the tour. Slainte Scotland day tours allow travellers from both Glasgow and Edinburgh to converge on a central location for sites in the wider area. Dalmeny is located in South Queensferry, a stone’s throw from the Firth of Forth, about 20 minutes by train northward from Edinburgh’s Waverley Station in the valley opposite the Princes Street Gardens between Old Town (south) and New Town (north).

The Slainte Scotland Outlander Day Tour we enjoyed on September 17th was a 9-hour van tour that guided us and about 8 other people in 2 vans through 5 filming locations:

  1. Midhope Castle (Lallybroch) on the property of Hopetoun Estate, West Lothian,
  2. the fascinating Blackness Castle (Fort William) perched on the coast of the Firth of Forth, in the council area of Falkirk, then across the Forth Bridge north to
  3. Falkland, in central Fife (1940s Inverness), including lunch at the Covenanter Hotel (Mrs. Baird’s B&B), then westward to Stirling for the famous
  4. Doune Castle (Castle Leoch, Monty Python & the Holy Grail castle), including a complimentary Dalwhinnie whisky tasting on the grounds outside the castle, provided by our fun-loving tour guides, and finished as the sun descended, 
  5. in the well-preserved 17th-century style Royal Burgh of Culross, used for Crainsmuir village, Geillis Duncan’s house, and the Castle Leoch herb garden.

Each site’s inherent charms, curiosities, and historical intrigues await your discovery.

Midhope Castle, the exteriors and grounds of which served as the site of the Fraser home of Broch Tuarach, or “north-facing tower” in Gaelic, is known affectionately by those who call it home in the series as Lallybroch. The building itself is hazardous to enter, so the entrance is locked to visitors. The interiors of Lallybroch were constructed and filmed at LBP Outlander, Ltd., the Outlander studios at Wardpark North in Cumbernauld, to the east outside Glasgow.

Visitors may be surprised to find a couple of houses in close proximity to the building, but you might enjoy reading a bit on the way to the castle about the history of the family that used to live in and now cares for the estate. When we visited, it was the last day of public access before a solid month of filming for Outlander series 3 two days later. Preparations were in evidence with the plastic tarp and orange cones covering the threshold, along with equipment set up beside the castle.

Note the electric poles and wires they have to edit out of final shots. Jamie’s ep102 flashback to BJR’s visit to the estate, where it starts on the hill as Jamie sorts the hay, and Jamie’s ep113 confrontation with Tarran McQuarrie’s lackeys of the Watch in the Lallybroch stables were filmed behind the castle and up the hill at this location.

Blackness Castle was one of my favorite attractions in all of Scotland, not just from the Outlander tour. As our tour guide Catriona explained, “Blackness” describes not the mood of the castle but the color of a specific type of land form on which the castle was built, called a “ness,” meaning a “promontory; a cape or headland” (https://glosbe.com/en/gd/ness). With the sun shining down on it, the tide out stranding a smattering of sail and fishing boats, and a view across the shore and the firth, our time at Blackness Castle was nothing but bright and cheerful.

Said to be haunted, the prisoners’ tower I left to my husband’s exploration–I didn’t want to climb all those steps. Our guide Catriona (pictured) showed us where the platform staging Jamie’s flogging by Captain Randall was set up. It was interesting to see how much uplifted rock protruded into the floor of the courtyard of this very intact, ship-shaped castle.

There was much to explore and there were hazards to avoid as we climbed in and out of the corridors and doorways, down steep steps and along the terraces framing the top level. Catriona also showed us the location where Jamie and Murtagh question the English soldier rather rudely as to the whereabouts of the “Englishwoman,” Claire.

Royal Burgh of Falkland, a National Trust Scotland site, offered a little eerie magic at the Bruce Fountain in the town center. Here in ep101, we see the back of Ghost Jamie watching night-gowned Claire through the second-floor window of Mrs. Baird’s B&B as she brushes the tangles out of her hair. Moments later, Frank walks up to him in the rain, and he disappears. I couldn’t resist a little mimicry of the scene.

The lunch at the Covenanter Hotel was simple but acceptable (I had tomato soup and a tuna sandwich), although service was a little slow. They were not particularly expecting us and seemed to accommodate us but grudgingly, based on the comments of our tour guide at the time. This delay may have contributed in part to our skipping West Kirk as the final stop in the tour.

Falkland Palace was visible across the main street from the hotel, and on the opposite end of the town square was the furniture store that served Claire’s window shopping of vases in ep101. Our guide Catriona had the opportunity to be an extra background actor in series 1 and described the freezing cold conditions of working on set that day. We walked a bit through town on our way back to where they had parked the vans after dropping us off in the center of town.

The sunshine enhanced our enjoyment as we passed a tavern where Catriona pointed out a sign outside that Àdhamh Ò Broin had told her misspells a Gaelic word, comically altering the translation from “a thousand welcomes” (ceud mile failte) to “a thousand smells” (ceud mile faile). Whether the proprietors were Scots, English, or other, it proved that even the locals lose themselves in translation sometimes.

Doune Castle first became widely known overseas from its use in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Now, complimentary audio guides at the castle impart insights about filming experiences from both Terry Jones of Monty Python and Sam Heughan, who plays Outlander‘s Jamie Fraser. Castle Leoch’s great hall and some other interiors found form on constructed sets at the studios, but the raw materials at Doune provided the courtyard, steps from the castle, exterior shots of the castle, and scans of the surrounding countryside. Monty Python used the interiors heavily for Holy Grail. Another well-preserved structure, Doune Castle was an impressive element of the tour.

At the close of our Doune visit, Slainte Scotland provided samples of 15-year-old Dalwhinnie (Highland) single-malt Scotch whisky. A little fiery going down, but still smooth and a good introductory single malt, Dalwhinnie became one of two whiskies my husband and I took home with us from duty free.

An unusual aspect of our tour that day was the presence of the tour guides’ three children and their German shepherd puppy (pictured in the Falkland section above). Their arrival in Dalmeny was slightly delayed due to complications in the aftermath of unavailable daycare. The kids were well behaved and charming. One spoke Gaelic from attending a Gaelic school and also sang us a song. It was equally delightful to meet and chat with our fellow Outlander tourists from England, Kentucky, and Germany.

While our van held two of the the three kids and Catriona, the other was driven by her husband with the puppy and the other American group as passengers. While we tasted our whisky, the kids were off running, inducing the dog to whine so as to join in the fun. Overall, from our point of view, the impromptu adjustment worked out well. I’m sure it helped that we love dogs and are perfectly contented with good kids around.

Royal Burgh of Culross. At the witching hour before sunset, we arrived in old Culross, National Trust Scotland site of series filming for exteriors of Crainsmuir village. We drove past the distinctive yellow buildings of the Palace into the square of the mercat cross where the exterior of Geillis Duncan’s house and the pillory were filmed. We stayed only briefly, and driving was particularly tricky in the narrow streets of this well-preserved old village. Cars kept coming down a hill into the village square, forcing our van to back up a couple of different times before successfully making it all the way up the hill. Such is life in old towns with one-track, or one-lane, streets that go both ways.

For Outlander series 1 filming, the Culross Palace Garden doubled as the Castle Leoch herb garden, the Mercat Cross stood in for the village of Cranesmuir, and visual effects fused the Palace Garden with the backdrop of Doune Castle to bring Crainsmuir and Leoch together. The Study building (in white) was Geillis Duncan’s house, and the Culross Palace Withdrawing Room became Geillis’ drawing room. In series 2, the Palace Courtyard provided the main stair where Claire practices dentistry while Jamie meets with Bonnie Prince Charlie, while the Palace High Hall was used for the Jacobite meeting where Jamie swears his oath to the Prince. Then, the Palace’s Kings Room became Jamie and Claire’s bedroom when visiting a village, and the Palace’s Kitchen and Pantry served as the tavern bearing wanted posters, and the Bennet House outside it, in ep211, “Vengeance Is Mine.” See where Jamie & Claire stood: http://www.nts.org.uk/Outlander/Culross-Palace/.

Although I had hoped we would venture nearby to West Kirk (the Black Kirk), time constraints and fading daylight robbed us of the chance, so we worked our way southward again, back across the Firth of Forth, to Dalmeny, South Queensferry, to catch the train back to Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. On our way back to Dalmeny, Catriona played a mix of songs by Scottish artists, old and new, which added to the festive mood.

I took a final opportunity to ask Catriona about Hopetoun House, the estate of which we passed on our return path. She provided the insight that a visit there would require at least 2 hours, whereas one could take in all of Linlithgow Palace in about an hour. These details helped us make decisions about where to go in our trip’s final days.

Summary Review of Outlander Day Tour with Slainte Scotland

This exciting 9-hour tour with Slainte Scotland was led by Owner and Managing Director of Clyde Coast Tourism Ltd., proud Scot, and Outlander STARZ TV series extra–the lively, lovely, and knowledgeable pro tour guide Catriona Stevenson. Assisted by her husband and fellow driver, the small group experience allowed time and attention for individual questions and interests. Although the tour path altered slightly from the order of advertisement, in the end we had no regrets.

Mirroring positive first impressions, the Slainte Scotland experience met and exceeded all expectations. The tour ran smoothly, and they made it insightful and fun. Visiting time at each site was ample and enjoyable, and Catriona was uniquely qualified to provide glimpses of behind-the-scenes facts about the Outlander TV series, including her encounters with its stars and crew. This tour also served as our official primer on Outlander filming locations, which we further pursued on our own afterwards. *

The sun was setting as we alighted on the train platform in Dalmeny. That evening at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, we attended a vibrant performance by the Dundee Rep Theatre of a 20th-century, ceilidh-style historical and political play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, which kept us awake even after an all-day tour and with jet lag setting in from the day before. Seeing this play early in the trip provided essential perspective on the past 200 years of Scottish-English relations and politics, which we could then reflect on as we traveled the country.


Special Trip to Glencorse Old Kirk

* One particular Outlander visit I arranged directly with the property manager, Sarah Chambers, was to Glencorse Old Kirk, location of Claire and Jamie’s wedding in ep107. Through email and then mobile texting upon arrival on the grounds, we settled on a day and time, around 2:45pm on 21 September, for a brief look through and around the kirk.

We were staying in Arrochar at the time and had just visited the incomparable Stirling Castle that morning. Sarah asked in advance for a donation of 20 pounds, which we gladly provided, and she showed us a scrapbook of filming pictures not seen online. She also pointed out how the grounds and interior were used in the making of ep107, sharing her personal observations of the occasion.

Many visitors and some journalists have mistaken the Glencorse House for the Glencorse Parish Church as the building used for the wedding. The actual site is downhill and behind a gate from the house. It’s a little hidden and difficult to find, even with assistance, and it requires permission to access. But if you’re all about the wedding, Glencorse a great little addition to an itinerary. Incidentally, they also regularly host weddings at the church and receptions at the house. See the Glencorse House facebook page for a flavor of their work.

These were Sarah’s directions, which we had to alter slightly coming from Stirling Castle instead of from Edinburgh:

Directions from Edinburgh: Take A701 toward Penicuik. After you pass the Ikea, continue past the Nissan garage at the traffic lights. Then, there are 2 roundabouts till Gowkleymoss roundabout (very large). Continue on the small dual carriageway w/ Glencorse Golf Club on left, then very shortly Fisher’s Tryst pub on the left. Directly opposite the pub, take the road to the right signposted Glencorse Kirk. The large church on the brow of the hill is NOT us. Continue round the corner, to the bottom of the hill: you’ve arrived! Total of about 2 miles from Ikea.

The property is owned by the McCaig family, and our contact was Sarah Chambers (McCaig), daughter of the owners. Glencorse Old Parish Church, or Glencorse Old Kirk, is located in the foothills of the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh and north of Penicuik, Midlothian. The address is the town of Milton Bridge, EH26 0NZ. Tel: 01968 676 406. Email: info@glencorsehouse.com. Glencorse House: http://www.glencorsehouse.co.uk/.

After our visit at Glencorse, we enjoyed exploring the iconic Rosslyn Chapel in nearby Roslin, site of key scenes in the filming of The Da Vinci Code.

Other Outlander-Related Sites We Visited

Previous posts have touched on our experiences of Linlithgow Palace (Wentworth Prison) and other Outlander-related sites not included in our guided tour. See the previous parts in the series An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, organized by region, for comments and pictures about the following book and filming locations we sampled:

  • in part 1, Edinburgh, Palace at Holyroodhouse, and Glencorse Old Kirk
  • in part 2, Glasgow Cathedral, Pollok Country Park, and Outlander studios
  • in part 3, Loch Rannoch, Clava Cairns, Culloden, Beauly Priory, and bits about Inverness, the River Ness, and Loch Ness (Highlands)

I also provide insights with photo captions at Scottish Color: A Photo Essay.


Our Outlander Tour Company: Slainte Scotland
Day Tours with Slainte Scotland

Slainte Scotland offers several different kinds of their most popular day tours including the Loch Lomond and Trossachs Day Tour, Whisky Distillery Tour, Glencoe Day Tour, Loch Ness Day Tour, South of Edinburgh Tour, and a selection of Outlander Day Tours. However, they are open to interests in other destinations, and some tours can be personalized. Their website’s site map also has sections for Whisky Tours, a Luxury Tour, a Private Tour, Cruise Ship Shore Excursions, and a tour search page.

On TripAdvisor, the management company for Slainte Scotland, called Clyde Coast Tourism Ltd., features over 100 reviews with an average rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars, and has earned TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence, awarded to attractions that consistently receive great reviews from travelers.

Visit http://slaintescotland.com/ and http://slaintescotland.com/day-tours.html for more information.

Outlander Day Tours at http://slaintescotland.com/outlander-tours-of-scotland.html describes the packages for the Outlander Day Trip, Outlander 3 Day Tour, Outlander 7 Day Tour, and Outlander 5 Day Tour.

Outlander Tour with Special Guests

In addition, a new offering from Slainte Scotland this year is a special Outlander tour featuring actor Scott Kyle (Outlander‘s Ross) and supporting Highlander actors from the show, as well as Outlander‘s Gaelic Consultant Àdhamh Ò Broin, Fraser Murdoch who works on Outlander‘s visual effects, and Gillebride MacMillan who plays Gwyllyn the Bard in series 1. The tour will launch from the 2017 Starfury Convention in Blackpool, England, at which Sam Heughan will appear on Saturday and Sunday. The subsequent Outlander Tour with Special Guests is scheduled for 28th August to 1st September.

Outlander Tourism Reference – Diana’s Recommendations, Tour Company Pages, Location List, Articles & Resources

Outlander-Based Tours of Scotland – DianaGabaldon.com – Herself explains the purpose of her list, provides disclaimers, and describes how the selected companies made the list.

Tour Companies’ Tour Advertisements (text theirs)

Slainte Scotland (Catriona Stevenson and co.)

Slainte Scotland – Outlander Tours | VisitScotland – Are you a fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books and the subsequent hit Starz TV show of the same name? Do you want to enjoy the landscape that inspired the books? Join us on our Outlander Tour, visiting some of the main filming locations.

Outlander Day Tours from Edinburgh and Glasgow – Scottish Tours and Private Hire – Slainte Scotland ToursOutlander Day Tours from Edinburgh and Glasgow. Includes Castle Leoch and Fort William.

Outlander Tours, Outlander filming location Tour, Outlander Tour Scotland – Scottish Tours and Private Hire – Slainte Scotland ToursOutlander Tours of Scotland. Be your own Claire Randall searching for your very own Jamie Fraser.

Inverness Tours (Hugh Allison and co.)

Outlander Tours, based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series

Outlander – Inverness Tours – All Day Diana Gabaldon Outlander Special Tour (This was the tour my friend took and greatly enjoyed in July 2016. Stops include Clava Cairns, Culloden, Inverness, as well as Beauly Priory, Castle Leod, Rogie Falls, and Loch Garve.)

Clans & Castles (clansandcastles.com/gabaldon.htm) – Clans & Castles – self-guided itinerary for fans of Diana Gabaldon ‘s novels – Clans & Castles itinerary for fans of Diana Gabaldon’s novels. Will you walk through the split stone?

Borders Journeys (bordersjourneys.co.uk) – Outlander – Preston Mill – Outlander Film Set – Borders Journeys – Tailor made private guided sightseeing and ancestral tours of Scotland. Specialising in Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders.

Outlander tour – Rosalyn’s Ancestral & Outlander Tour – Borders Journeys.

Outlander Road Trip – Borders Journeys.

Borders Journeys has also taken tourists to Glencorse Old Kirk, among other southern and central filming locations.

Outlandish Journeys (outlandishjourneys.com) – Outlander – Tour Options – Outlandish Journeys – Tour Options available with Outlandish Journeys

Outlander – TV Series Tour – Outlander Tour (outlandertour.co.uk) – Outlander TV Series Scottish locations tour from Edinburgh

Discovering Outlander – National Trust Scotland

I checked out at least four other companies online last summer, but there are probably dozens. One of those four was Vacation Scotland, included in Diana’s list. Her description was compelling, but I was put off by their outdated website presentation and place name misspellings. Further perusing signaled to me a company I wouldn’t personally pursue. Although I didn’t include them here, you may find expertise and other facets that make up for the shaky first impression. Another company steered me away by their emphasis on Ireland tours.

I recommend finding a company that has specialized in Outlander tours for several years prior to the show’s premier and those that have a genuine special interest in the series, a unique approach, or a special focus. They’re more likely to deliver a bit of the magic viewers and readers receive from the series. For instance, it was very interesting to me to hear about Catriona’s acting and running into the cast on more than one occasion. She also knows Àdhamh Ò Broin, official Gaelic language consultant for the show, with whom we explored Argyll on 20 September, three days after our Outlander tour.

For other tour possibilities, go to Outlander Tour Search Results – VisitScotland.

List of 40 Filming (NOT book) Locations – in rough counterclockwise geographical order (central to south to north)
  1. LBP Outlander Ltd. (Outlander studios), Cumbernauld & Kilsyth, North Lanarkshire, east of Glasgow, central Scotland – all STARZ series interior sets
  2. Torbrex Farm, near Cumbernauld and greater Glasgow – s2 foggy, tent-contained Battle of Prestonpans
  3. George Square, Glasgow city centre – s1 flashback of Claire and Frank marriage, Westminster register office
  4. Glasgow Cathedral, Glasgow east city centre – s2 l’Hopital des Anges, Paris
  5. Pollok Country Park, Pollok, south Glasgow – Castle Leod grounds, s2 BJR-Jamie duel
  6. Hunterston House, West Kilbride, North Ayrshire – Rev. Wakefield house interiors
  7. Dean Castle, Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire – s2 seat of Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, a.k.a. the Old Fox, Beaufort Castle, Beauly, Highlands
  8. Dunure Harbour, Firth of Clyde, South Ayrshire – s3 filming based on Voyager
  9. Troon coast, South Ayrshire – s1 end, departing Scotland for France
  10. Drumlanrig Castle, Thornhill, Mid Nithsdale, Dumfries & Galloway – s2 exteriors, living rooms & bedrooms of Sandringham’s Bellhurst Manor, England
  11. Glencorse Old Kirk, Milton Bridge, near Penicuik, southern Midlothian – s1 Jamie & Claire wedding
  12. Preston Mill and Phantassie Doocot, East Lothian – s1 Lallybroch broken mill
  13. Gosford House gardens/woodlands, Gosford Bay, near Longniddry, East Lothian – s2 Stable Building at Palace of Versailles, France
  14. Old Town, Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh – s3 Jamie-Claire reunion, adventures
  15. Bo’ness and Kinneil Rail Station, on Firth of Forth, Midlothian – s1 flashback of Frank-Claire WWII good-bye on train platform
  16. Hopetoun House, near Queensferry, West Lothian – s1 Sandringham residence in Highland, Scotland
  17. Midhope Castle, Hopetoun Estate, West Lothian – Lallybroch estate & grounds
  18. Linlithgow Palace, Linlithgow, West Lothian – s1 Wentworth Prison exteriors and corridors
  19. Muiravonside Country Park, West Lothian & Falkirk, near Linlithgow – s2 Battle of Prestonpans, British encampment, and English countryside
  20. Callendar House, Falkirk – s2 used as part of Sandringham’s Bellhurst Manor
  21. Dunmore Park, Dunmore, Falkirk – s1 Claire and VE-Day, end of WWII
  22. Blackness Castle, Blackness, on Firth of Forth, Falkirk – s1 Fort William
  23. Culross, royal burgh of; southwestern Fife – s1 Crainsmuir village, Geillis Duncan’s house, & Castle Leod herb garden; s2 Jacobite camps and buildings
  24. Aberdour Castle, Firth of Forth, southern Fife – s1 Scottish abbey of Jamie’s convalescence after Wentworth
  25. Dysart Harbour, Dysart, Firth of Forth, Fife – s2 port of Le Havre, where Jamie, Claire & Murtagh arrive in France, 1740s
  26. The Reaper Tall Ship, Anstruther Harbour, Anstruther, near East Neuk, coastal Fife – s2 one of the ships seen in the port of Le Havre, France
  27. Balgonie Castle, near Markinch, central Fife – s1 Eldridge Manor, MacRannoch’s home near Wentworth Prison
  28. Falkland, royal burgh of; central Fife – Inverness 1940s, 1960s
  29. Doune Castle, Doune, Stirling, Perthshire border – s1 Castle Leod castle, grounds & surrounding land
  30. Touch House, NE edge of Touch Hills, Stirling – s2 Culloden House before battle
  31. Finnich Glen, a.k.a. Devil’s Pulpit, near Drymen, Stirling – s1 St. Ninian’s Spring, a.k.a. the Liar’s Spring, where Dougal Mackenzie tests Claire’s veracity
  32. Loch Katrine, Trossachs National Park, east of Loch Lomond, Stirling – s2 Roger Wakefield driving Brianna Randall through countryside around Inverness
  33. Tullibardine Chapel, near Crieff, central Perth & Kinross – s2 Jamie & Claire small group’s hideout chapel after pursuit by Redcoats
  34. Drummond Castle gardens, near Crieff, central Perth & Kinross – s2 park & orchard of Palace of Versailles, France
  35. Deanston Distillery, former cotton mill, Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, Perth & Kinross – s2 Jared Fraser’s wine warehouse, docks of Le Havre
  36. Tibbermore Parish Church, Tibbermore, Perth & Kinross – s1 Crainsmuir witch trial church interior
  37. Dunalastair Estate, Loch Rannoch, Perth & Kinross – Craigh na Dun standing stones circle through which Claire time travels
  38. Glencoe, Ballachulish, Highland – long shots in credits and transition scenes
  39. Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Cairngorms National Park, Highland – s1 Clan Mackenzie rents collection, wool waulking
  40. Tulloch Ghru, near Aviemore, Cairngorms National Park, Highland – s1 Claire & Highlanders travel between Inverness & Castle Leod, & maybe time on road during Clan Mackenzie rents collection
Articles and Info about Filming Locations

Outlander – Filming Locations in Scotland | VisitScotland – includes a link to their pdf (below) with labeled map and site snippets, a section on Outlander book sites including Inverness, highlights of Outlander-related culture and history, and links to other TV, film, and literary tourism opportunities.

Outlander film locations – outlander-film-locations.pdf – a great guide available through the above page at VisitScotland; a full-color map of numbered sites mainly in Scotland’s central belt, each number corresponding to a succinct but helpful blurb about a location accompanied by an identifying picture of the actual site. A total of 29 listed as of this post–vastly updated since summer 2016! Also accessible through Outlander map | VisitScotland

Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander TV series filmed in Scotland – VisitScotland (2013 article)

Outlander – 14 Scottish Places All “Outlander” Fans Must Visit (Buzzfeed.com, 2015) – Never seen Outlander? You should visit these stunning Scottish locations anyway. Warning: Mild Season 1 spoilers ahead… (Episode shots alongside tourism photos of each site.)

Outlander’s Cast and Crew’s Favorite Filming Locations | Travel + Leisure (interview, 2016) – The masterminds behind the Starz hit spoke to T+L the best places they went on the job.

Where is Outlander filmed? Top 5 Scottish locations in season 2 (radiotimes.com, 2015) Gary Rose goes for a spin in the Highlands, taking in the Culloden battlefield, the town that doubles as Cranesmuir and a working medieval village

Outlander – Five must-visit Outlander filming locations – The Scotsman (2016)

7 Outlander sights you need to visit in Scotland this year – Daily Record (2017)

Specific Filming Locations in Depth

LBP Outlander Ltd, Wyndford Road, Cumbernauld, Wardpark North, Glasgow, UK – Google Maps

Pollok Country Park – Glasgow City Council
A Visit to Pollok Country Park
Pollok House

Hopetoun locations map
Outlander at Midhope (Lallybroch) – Hopetoun (hopetoun.co.uk – Hopetoun House and estate includes Hopetoun Farm Shop and Midhope Castle among its properties.)
Midhope Castle, Abercorn – Queensferry – West Lothian – Scotland | British Listed Buildings
You searched for Midhope – Hopetoun
Outlander at Hopetoun – Hopetoun
House and Grounds – Hopetoun
Grounds and Wildlife – Hopetoun
Hopetoun Farm Shop – Butchery, Deli, Bakery near Edinburgh
Hopetoun-Farm-Shop-Broxburn-to-Midhope-Castle-Google-Maps.pdf

Blackness Castle (visitwestlothian.co.uk)
Blackness Castle (historicenvironmentscotland.scot)

Bo’ness And Kinneil Railway – Google Maps

Glencorse House: http://www.glencorsehouse.co.uk/.
Glencorse, Old Glencorse Kirk – Penicuik – Midlothian – Scotland | British Listed Buildings
Glencorse Old Kirk – Outlander Film Set – Borders Journeys – Tailor made private guided sightseeing and ancestral tours of Scotland. Specialising in Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders
Glencorse, Old Parish Church | ScotlandsPlaces

City Tours Edinburgh | VisitScotland
Royal Mile and Grassmarket | VisitScotland
Palace of Holyroodhouse (Edinburgh)
Edinburgh and Stirling castles ranked in UK’s top 10 best-loved castles – Scotland Now
Discover Edinburgh Castle
Parks and gardens – Meadows | The City of Edinburgh Council

Preston Mill & Phantassie Doocot (NTS)
Discovering Outlander – Preston Mill brief profile, National Trust Scotland (NTS)
Outlander – Preston Mill’s Outlander | National Trust for Scotland USA (ntsusa.org detailed article about the scene) – In June 2014, 150 cast and crew members from the hit TV show Outlander set up camp at the NTS Property Preston Mill and Phantassie Doocot. 

Outlander – Preston Mill – Outlander Film Set – Borders Journeys – Tailor made private guided sightseeing and ancestral tours of Scotland. Specialising in Dumfries & Galloway and Scottish Borders.

Aberdour Castle | VisitScotland

Dysart Harbour – The Harbourmasters House, Hot Pot Wynd, Dysart, Kirkcaldy KY1 2TQ, United Kingdom – Google Maps

Black Kirk | My Outlander Adventure

Royal Burgh of Culross | VisitScotland
Culross Palace, Townhouse & Study | VisitScotland
Culross West Church – Culross, Fife – Places of Worship in Scotland | SCHR

Falkland | VisitScotland

Falkland Palace & Garden – National Trust Scotland (NTS)

Attractions near The Covenanter Hotel

Finnich Glen – Devil’s Pulpit – Google Maps

Doune Castle (HES)

Perth & Kinross Countryside Trust | Pages | Perthshire Big Tree Country
Rannoch_Path_Network_Leaflet.pdf
Walkhighlands: Start of Loch Rannoch Forest walk
Kinloch Rannoch, Tummel Bridge, Loch Rannoch, walking holidays, wildlife watching, fishing, highland clans
Places to Visit from the Dunalastair Estate Holiday Cottages – Central for touring
Dunalastair Highland Estate near Pitlochry in Scotland has holiday cottages for relaxing vacations
Walking, Cycling, Horse-riding around Perthshire

Glencoe | VisitScotland

Cairngorms-National-Park-Map.jpg (JPEG Image, 1969 × 1439 pixels)
Cairngorms Guide, Things To Do, Events, Activities
Map of Waterfalls in Cairngorms National Park, Scottish Highlands, Scotland

Outlander – Cairngorms – Tulloch Ghru (as Featured in Outlander TV Series) | Stately Home (lovetoescape.com) – Tulloch Ghru (as Featured in Outlander Tv Series) is a Thing to Do in Aviemore, The Highlands, Scotland. Stately Home, Loch, Lake, Waterfall, Nature Reserve, Park, Garden or Woodland . . .
Tulloch-Ghru_old-map-area_from-Wizzley.jpg – sleuthing and description of the area, distinguishing it from a similarly named one nearby
Rothiemurchus Forest landscape profile/description. This area of the Cairngorms National Park is located in its western region on an east-west line between Fort Augustus (at the southern tip of Loch Ness) and Aberdeen (on the North Sea coast).
Detailed map of Rothiemurchus Forest; includes “Tullochgrue” (Upper and Lower), which is located west of Allt Druidhe (waterway) and the forest center, just north of Achnagoichan (close to it), south of Inverdruie (farther from it), and southeast of Aviemore (farthest of these)
Aviemore: Overview of Aviemore (Gazetteer Scotland)
Bed and breakfast Kingussie near Aviemore

Highland Folk Museum home page (Highlife Highland)
Visitor Information – Highland Folk Museum (Highlife Highland)

Info about Outlander Book Locations

Lochaber, Fort William

Fort William, Highland PH33 6SW – Google Maps
The Outdoor Capital of the UK – Google Maps
The Jacobite Steam Train – Locomotive and Coaches | West Coast Railways

Inverness & Inverness-shire

Visit Inverness Loch Ness Tourist Destination Guide
Inverness Information Centre | VisitScotland
Inverness Travel Guide | Travel + Leisure
Inverness – Holidays, Breaks & Travel | VisitScotland
Art Galleries – Inverness Museum and Art Gallery
Events in September in Inverness, Loch Ness & Nairn | Things to do | Page 1 | Welcome to Scotland

Tour Search – Loch Ness by Jacobite
Jacobite Cruises Ltd | Cruise Scotland
Urquhart Castle tourist and visitor information, history and pictures | Urquhart Castle

Fort George: Overview
Contact Us – The Highlanders Museum (Highlanders Museum, Fort George)

Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre | VisitScotland
Culloden – Visit (NTS)

Beauly

Beauly Priory: Prices and Opening Times
Beaufort Estate Cottages, Beauly, Inverness-Shire – Go Breakaway.co.uk

Book and Premise Inspired Outlander Tourism

Standing Stones, Stone Circles, Stone Features, and Cairns

Prehistoric Sites in Scotland Examples:

Fowlis Wester Sculptured Stone, Perthshire (Perth and Kinross)In village church at Fowlis Wester, 6 miles (10km) NE of Crieff, On the A85. Historic Scotland property; tall cross-slab carved with Pictish symbols, figure sculpture and Celtic details.

Cairnpapple Hill, Edinburgh and the Lothians – 3 miles (5km) N of Bathgate, Lothian. Near Torphichen (B792), Narrow, winding road. Tel. 01506 634 622. Open: April-end Sep, 9.30am-5.30pm, daily. Historic Scotland property; one of the most important prehistoric monuments in Scotland; used as burial and ceremonial site BC3000 – AD500; central part of monument under cement dome with ladder leading down to interior; views from the hill. Cairnpapple Hill – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Nether Largie Cairns, Argyll and ButeBetween Nether Largie and Kilmartin, Argyll, Off the A816. Historic Scotland property; 2 Bronze Age cairns, 1 Neolithic cairn (3000BC); axe carvings in N cairn.

Temple Wood Stone Circles, Argyll and Bute.25 miles SW of Nether Largie, South of Kilmartin, Argyll on A816. Open site. Historic Scotland property; circle of upright stones and remains of earlier circle; date approximately 3000BC.

Machrie Moor Stone Circles, Ayrshire and Isle of Arran3 miles N of Blackwaterfoot, On W side of Arran, off the A841, 1.5 mile walk to the site. Historic Scotland property; remains of 5 Bronze Age stone circles considered one of most important sites of its kind in all of Britain.

Twelve Apostles Neolithic Stone Circle, Dumfries and GallowayOff the A76, N of Dumfries and New Bridge, Situated in a field. Of the 11 remaining stones only 5 are standing, the tallest of which is about 3.2 feet high.

Clava Cairns (HES)
The Clava Cairns (also known as Balnuaran of Clava) lie 6 miles E of Inverness. These Bronze Age chambered cairns are each surrounded by a stone circle in a wooded field. A most unusual place. Robert Pollock has a guide to this site. Photos online by Phil Wright and Undiscovered Scotland.

Corrimony chambered cairn is situated in Glen Urquhart (8 miles W of Drumnadrochit) and surrounded by a circle of 11 standing stones. Robert Pollock has a guide to this site. (undiscoveredscotland.co.uk)

Standing Stones & Stone Circles in Scotland | VisitScotland

Standing stones and ancient monuments – The Internet Guide to Scotland (scotland-inverness.co.uk)

The Old Man of Storr is a strangely shaped rock pillar you can see from as far as Portree and beyond; Portree, Trotternish area, Isle of Skye. (https://www.isleofskye.com/skye-guide/top-ten-skye-walks/old-man-of-storr)

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Saint John’s Castlerigg and Wythburn, Allerdale District, United Kingdom – Google Maps – Lake District, England

Fairy Hills, Fairies, Witches & Legends

Fairy Hills, Biodiversity & Heritage
Fairies – TOMNAHURICH CEMETERY (Historic Environment Scotland profile)
http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/scotland/invernesshire/featured-sites/tomnahurich-hill.html
Inverness Image Library – Tomnahurich (Hill of the Fairies)
The Witch of Inverness and the Fairies of Tomnahurich – Google Books
Fairies – The Faery Folklorist: Robert Kirk – Part 2 – Aberfoyle Church
The Kelpie of Loch Garve | Mysterious Britain & Ireland
Black Isle – RSPB Fairy Glen – Google Maps
Skye – The Fairy Pools, Glen Brittle, Isle of Skye – Google Maps

Brochs, Caves & Other Rock Formations

Brochs in Scotland | Unusual Accommodation | VisitScotland
Caves and karst in Scotland – Scottish Natural Heritage
Cliffs, Canyons & Rock Formations of Scotland, United Kingdom
10 unusual rock formations | Travel | The Guardian
There is also Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa, Bowfiddle Rock on the Moray Firth, and the famous Ring of Brodgar on Orkney, among others.
Falls-of-Rogie_tripadvisor_stock-image.jpeg
Waterfalls, Rivers, Caves & Natural Features to Explore in Garve | Things to do | Page 1 | Welcome to Scotland
Loch Garve | Fishing | Caithness, Sutherland & Ross-shire | Welcome to Scotland
12 fairy tale waterfalls in Scotland to see before you die – Daily Record

–> For a guide to nature and wildlife tourism in Scotland, see the end section of my post “Wildlife TV Programs This Week,” which also previewed the Destination Wild show Wild Scotland that aired on NatGeoWild on 2 April 2017.

The Clans

Map: The 18th century territories of Scotland’s clans – The Scotsman
Map of the Highlands of Scotland denoting the districts or counties inhabited by the Highland Clans. – Maps of Scotland
The Clan Museum – Google Maps
Strathpeffer Visitor Guide, Hotels, Cottages, Things to Do in Scotland
Castle Leod | the Seat of Clan Mackenzie
Castle Leod (Strathpeffer, Scotland): Top Tips Before You Go – TripAdvisor

Genealogical Research

How to research your Scottish family history in six easy steps | VisitScotland
Family History — Clan MacKenzie Routes

Lochaber/West Highland

Glenfinnan Monument – Google Maps

Fraser Lands

Castle Fraser | VisitScotland – Aberdeenshire (just north of Royal Deeside)
Lovat Castle (site of) | Castle in Kirkhill, Inverness-shire | Scottish castles | Stravaiging around Scotland

Castles in the Highlands | VisitScotland

Places Mentioned on Series 1 of the Show

Inverness/Nairn (searching for Claire in Ep108, “Both Sides Now”)

Darnaway Forest – Google Maps
Findhorn Bridge – Google Maps (Findhorn River)

Highland (searching for Jamie in Ep114, “The Search”)

Achnasheen – Google Maps
glen rowan cross – Google Maps
Glen Rowan Guest House – Google Maps

Sam Heughan (Jamie) and Laura Donnelly (Jenny) Studied Theatre Here

Glasgow’s Royal Conservatoire

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland: Overview of Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland: Photographs of Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
: Glasgow City Map / http://www.scottish-places.info/councils/morecpix16.html

Articles Reflecting Outlander STARZ’s Pop Culture Progress

Cumbernauld lands role in production of US TV series (From Herald Scotland) (2013)
Outlander brings Diana Gabaldon fans flocking to Scotland | UK news | The Guardian (2014)
Town movie studio is a star attraction – Cumbernauld News (2014)
Outlander article – Scots tourism feels ‘Outlander effect’ of hit TV show – The Scotsman (2015)
A brief history of Outlander and the Scottish Clans – Scotland Now (2016)
Outlander looking for trainees to work on Season 3 of hit show in Scotland – Scotland Now (2016)
Filming underway for Outlander season three Voyager – Daily Record (2016)
Outlander helps Scotland outshine rest of the UK when it comes to visitor attractions – Daily Record (2017)

And for Good Measure

10 ideas on how to beat Droughtlander | VisitScotland


In the true final post of this series, the official Part 6 to An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, I present Scotland tourism tips and logistical resources, plus share some final thoughts on Outlander tourism in Scotland. Thanks for learning along with me. Slan leat!

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4

Last updated March 17, 2017

My previous posts in this series collected and presented the vast majority, a total of 37, of the options for Outlander tourist attractions in Scotland: book- and film-related sites numbering 15 in Part 1, 11 in Part 2, and 11 in Part 3.

This post tells the story of my planning process for our own Outlander-themed Scotland trip, complete with changes in scope, backtracking, enlisting outside help, comparing and revising itineraries, and reflecting on the choices we made. Next time, I’ll provide a review of our Outlander tour experience and of the tour company we went with for our day tour.

Also in my final post in this travel guide series, I will list and discuss Outlander tour companies and tour options, including additional film locations not covered in my first 3 posts, compile a list of all the resources linked and discussed in the first 4 posts, and run down a list of websites and apps I used and loved but didn’t mention here. I’ll also provide some final thoughts on travel for Outlander, in Scotland, and generally. A sign-off of sorts with directory, closing credits, and bibliography.

Other Scotland trip posts down the road will add to the trail of breadcrumbs I’ve laid down since last October, to highlight specific sites visited, services engaged, adventures experienced, and images captured. Be glad you weren’t subjected to a slide show at my house; you have the privilege to take in these servings in digestible portions. In case you missed the first several, see the list at my introductory post “Scotland Ventured, Scotland Gained.”

March 2016

It was about this time last year when I began my months’ long planning process for a UK vacation with an Outlander focus. I don’t recommend spending as much time as I did—even if you have it; I simply have an obsessive, high-maintenance approach to project planning. I “just want it the way I want it.”

Still, as with many transcontinental excursions, for travelers from outside the UK going there for the first time, there are some things you should consider and do several months in advance of your departure. The most obvious include booking airfare, lodging, and, of course, your dream Outlander tour. In most cases, it will be wise to book the tour first of all.

Where I Started

My first phase involved researching England and Scotland for places and attractions I would most like seeing. In addition to doing online research, I purchased a set of travel guides and magazines at the bookstore instead of from online, where I previewed them and their reviews, so I could flip through the pages of the options, get a feel for each one’s layout, focus, ease of use, size and weight before buying. These included a combination of books and magazines:

  • the pocket guide DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 London 2016, filled with best-of lists
  • the full guide books DK Eyewitness Travel Great Britain (2016) and Fodor’s Travel Essential Great Britain with the Best of England, Scotland, and Wales (2015)
  • Discover Britain magazine (Apr 2016)
  • London 2016 Guide from Britain magazine
  • Scottish Life magazine (Winter 2015) focusing on Orkney
  • Scotland Magazine (Mar 2016) featuring “Best of Argyll”

I had enjoyed the color illustrations, digestible organization, and other features of DK’s guide to Provence when I traveled for study abroad in college, and I was not disappointed in any of the DK products I bought for this trip. Fodor’s turned out to have a valuable alternative perspective along with stellar regional maps and recommended sites labeled by “Fodor’s Choice” in each region.

Curse of Abundance

In addition to taking notes on the overall highlights of each major city, I compiled lists of attractions from different regions of England and Scotland into groups. After a few weeks of attempting to narrow the list down to a reasonable set of regions and sights, I then used the suggested itineraries in the guide books to draft a few possible trip outlines. The shortest trip I could stand to plan under these constraints was 16 days, and that turned out to be too long for us due to the budget and timing of our trip.

Getting Unstuck

To solve this problem, I took a different tack: First I created a checklist of steps to consider taking to strategize our tourism.

  1. Hire a travel agent!
  2. No more than 1 of each of these types of attractions per day in regional, smaller towns and countryside. Countryside:
    • castle & historic home
    • museum & castle
    • home & museum
    • < 2 castles
    • 2 historic homes & 1 home’s grounds
    • < 2 larger museums

          In town:

    • shopping (1 street or 1 famous shop)
    • art gallery/antiques/architecture walk
    • bookshop
    • park
  1. Travel by train or car only; buses take too long (this would later turn out to be a false assumption). Again, for smaller towns and the countryside, unless otherwise advised.
  2. Choose 2-3 regions of England plus London, maximum.
  3. Choose 2-3 regions of Scotland plus Edinburgh (or Glasgow?), maximum.
  4. Plan a trip that lasts more than 14 days (a fortnight). Otherwise, you won’t even squeeze in 2 regions per country beyond the major city.
  5. Choose a theme of types of places to focus on, especially in smaller towns & countryside, one theme per region or town. Possible themes:
    • history – range of periods for greatest variety
    • literature – there are lots of literary tours and trails highlighted in guide books, and I took special interest in crafting some possible versions of literary tours in both England and Scotland, focusing naturally on Shakespeare, as well as Burns, Scott & Stevenson, among others.
    • sports/contemporary culture
    • views/vistas
    • nature walks
    • art/architecture
  1. Consider avoiding longer ( > 1 day or ½ day) scheduled tours, being locked into those.

From this process, I color coded my previously handwritten notes, highlighting preferences and categorizing attractions by type. Fodor’s and the top 10 guides were particularly helpful to this end in their category pages by type of attraction or experience. These included castles, palaces & historic homes, villages & towns, cities small & large, gardens by season, and things like parks, mountains, lakes, and walks.

To narrow further, I even created a Must-NOT-See list of things to avoid because either I did not care about them, they seemed overrated or tourist trappy, or they might even disgust, offend, or otherwise dampen our adventure.

The Must-Flee List

My must-not-see list included things easily captured in online pictures or video and grandeur for its own sake. Between college visits, study abroad, and post-college travel, I had already been to Paris, Normandy, the Loire Valley, Provence, the Riviera, Venice, Florence, Rome, Vienna, Salzburg, and Holland, as well as Utah, Colorado, New York City, Washington, D.C., Virginia Beach, western Massachusetts, upstate New York, and several parts of California. My husband had already been to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ankara, Istanbul, and Paris.

And together we’d been to Chicago, Wisconsin, Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower and the Badlands, the Great Plains, Denver and the Rockies, Northern California, Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, North and South Carolina, Orlando and the Florida coast, and on a western Caribbean cruise for our honeymoon. With everything we’ve been blessed to see, we didn’t need to be dazzled by immensities.

Other no-nos included shopping meccas (not my thing); Wales which has lots of cool castles (plenty of those in Scotland) but not much else of obvious interest; places too far out of reach, such as the Outer Hebrides, Ireland, Northern Ireland, East Anglia, Cambridge, and the Orkney Islands (though I might make a beeline for Orkney next time for all its uniqueness); gardens best seen in other seasons; famous sites too far off our “circuit” unless personal meaning demands it; too many churches; and too many castles. In London, I discarded Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral, and anything focused solely on the Royals. I just didn’t care.

Chopping Block

When all that was said and done, even with all that trimming and relinquishing, I finally realized and admitted to myself that we couldn’t do both England and Scotland in a feasible amount of time without feeling rushed and disappointed by what we would miss. Over the years, my vacation philosophy has evolved to a preference for more in-depth exploration of a smaller territory over the impulse to cover as much mileage as possible before throwing your exhausted carcass back on the plane or in the car home.

At that point, I asked my husband if he would object to visiting only Scotland this time around, and to my surprise, he agreed. I had been laboring under the assumption that he would very much prefer England due to his greater familiarity with it, his frequent exposure to English Premiere League football matches, his Manchester City fandom, and, frankly, his lesser interest in Scotland and Outlander compared to mine.

I was so relieved to gain this freedom of focus, to be able to plan a trip that wouldn’t be the typical whirlwind tour of a vast region that goes by in a blur and becomes more stressful than the everyday work situation your vacation is meant to offset.

Scotland it would be.

Scotland Guidebooks

To adjust to this change in plans, I purchased the DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Scotland pocket guide and a used 2011 edition of Peter Irvine’s Scotland the Best, touted as the guide preferred most by Scots. The top 10 guide provided the same format of best-of lists in various categories—some regional, some interest based—found in the London version.

I would have purchased a more current edition of Scotland the Best, but the best option would not be released until October, after our trip would have ended. I felt the older edition served its purpose and did not regret buying it. Without illustrations or photos, Irvine’s guide focuses on providing comprehensive best-of lists in a broad range of categories and subcategories.

Certain of Irvine’s preferences I found surprising compared to those in the other guides that seemed more in agreement with each other. As a later purchase following so much in-depth research, Scotland the Best turned out to be less useful than the collected wisdom from the other guides, but I was still glad to compare viewpoints and learn about some attractions beyond the beaten path.

Drilling Down

With these new tools, some of my more intensely focused additional considerations consisted of narrowing down options among types of attractions found in abundance, such as castles, to only the very best, those nearest along our natural circuit through the country, or those with special literary, historical interest, or film association. For instance, having traveled in Europe and to several major U.S. cities with rich arts scenes, I already knew which types of art I preferred and what kinds of activities my husband and I leaned towards.

I also felt the need to mix in a variety of activities requiring different levels of energy, foot travel distance, and other demands on the human body or mind, spread across several days with rests or natural lulls built in. Thus, an all-day Jacobite Steam Train ride after several days of hoofing it to cover our bases. Hubby slept a total of at least an hour on that West Highland line while the spectacular countryside meandered by, but he had the very legitimate excuse of having been the designated driver of the previous week, adapting to opposite sides of car and road, as well as single-track, stone-sided, and winding roads, for the first time. I was just the navigator.

Outlander Tours

As for factoring Outlander in with all of these guidelines, I had already begun screening the other guides for popular Scottish sightseeing and scanning Google maps to locate as many Outlander-related sites as possible. I had also oriented myself to some of the better, recommended Outlander tour companies, using Diana Gabaldon’s website as my starting point.

Newly applying the Scotland focus to the Outlander tour search, I then began narrowing down those options to find one that would be more than a half-day but less than 3 days in length so we wouldn’t overdo Outlander at the expense of classic Scotland and an overall varied set of experiences.

I settled on Inverness Tours early on, but as the timing and focus of our trip evolved and solidified, I lost my window of opportunity to book a day tour during the dates we had selected. My second choice became Slainte Scotland, but I hesitated, corresponding with the company to gather more information to clarify exactly which sites the tour would include.

Reaching Out

Although it might not seem like we needed it, I did end up hiring a great travel agent, Chima Travel in Akron, Ohio, which helped with reality checking, pre-packaged tour awareness, and eventually discounted airfare and hotel package booking. However, our agent was impressed by my prior homework, to be sure.

Excited to see the trip taking shape, as I mentioned in my overview in Part 1 of this series, I laid out our tentative list of sites and sights in the post Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland.

“Five Scottish regional destinations for a 2-week visit, clockwise order from the south-west: Most preferred sights are listed for each area, though we may will not make it to all of them.

  1. Glasgow and environs (4 nights Glasgow) – Glasgow Botanic Gardens, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Park, City Chambers, Glasgow Cathedral/Necropolis, a play, boat ride on the river Clyde; Cumbernauld (Outlander studios drive-by), Falkirk Wheel, Stirling Castle, Doune Castle (Monty Python, Castle Leoch), Wallace Monument

  2. The Trossachs, Argyll, and Central Highlands – Loch Lomond (and maybe Loch Katrine) in Trossachs National Park; Loch Awe, Inveraray Castle; Glencoe

  3. The Great Glen, Highlands, and west coast (2 nights Fort William) – Fort William, Glenfinnan Monument (Jacobite Rebellion launch), Jacobite Steam Train to Mallaig, lochs and walks in the Great Glen; Eilean Donan Castle

  4. Inverness and environs (3 nights Inverness) – Inverness Visitors Centre, excursions to Foyers Falls, Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle (maybe a boat ride), Cawdor Castle (Macbeth), Culloden Moor (Jacobite Rebellion), Clava Cairns (standing stones with split rock), Cromarty, Black Isle, Moray Firth

  5. Edinburgh and environs (4-5 nights Edinburgh) – Edinburgh Castle, National Museum of Scotland, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Calton Hill, The Royal Mile main street, which includes Writers’ Museum, Greyfriars Kirk (“Bobby” the Westie), St. Giles’ Cathedral, Scott Monument, and more; Southern Uplands including Rosslyn Chapel and maybe Abbotsford House (Sir Walter Scott) and Melrose Abbey

The above sites are separate from several specific towns and rural locations where the Outlander TV series has been filmed. After some consideration, I’m inclined to skip a packaged Outlander tour in favor of making our own. I know enough about the books, TV series, and show creators that information won’t be lacking, and we need not be further restricted in our movements or schedule. ”

What I ended up doing is splitting the difference and combining self-guided Outlander tourism with a single day’s guided Outlander tour, taking the official tour early on and scooping up the remainder once we obtained our rental car on day 4.

Another part of reaching out came to me around this time. My friend and fellow Outlander fan called to tell me she and her husband would be going to Scotland in July with another couple for 10 days and that they had booked with Inverness Tours. She thought I’d be jealous, but I told her about my planned trip too, and we ended up sharing in each other’s excitement. She agreed to help with recommendations after her trip to inform mine, and she even looked at my itinerary to weigh in on its feasibility. I’ll share their circuit and some of her tips in my final post in this series.

Our Scotland Trip

Next is a look at our two-week trip overview and a comparison between the planned and actual itinerary of the first two days. While day 1 turned out quite different from its plan, day 2’s plan came to fruition, except for the Real Mary King’s Close, which was our last major Edinburgh attraction on the 19th. Note the bit about where we dined and what I ate.

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And the rest of our itinerary . . .

Sept 16

We flew in overnight on September 15, arriving September 16 late morning in Edinburgh, and used a taxi from the airport to our hotel, the Residence Inn south of Old Town. After sleeping very little on the plane, we snoozed in the restaurant of our hotel waiting for our room to open up, then slept the rest of the afternoon and had a late dinner at Vittoria, which serves up-scale Italian food.

We then used a combination of buses, trains, a tour van, and our unaccustomed feet to explore the hilly, cobbled Edinburgh and surrounding areas over the next three days.

Sept 17

Outlander Tour of 5 filming sites. A 9-hour tour with Slainte Scotland, led by Managing Director of Clyde Coast Tourism Ltd., proud Scot, and Outlander STARZ TV series extra, the lively, lovely, and knowledgeable pro tour guide Catriona Stevenson: Midhope Castle (Lallybroch), Blackness Castle (Fort William), Falkland (1940s Inverness), Doune Castle (Castle Leoch) including whisky tasting, Culross (Crainsmuir and Castle Leoch herb garden).

That evening at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, we attended a vibrant performance by the Dundee Rep Theatre of the ceilidh-style historical and political play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil, which kept us awake even after an all-day tour and with jet lag setting in from the day before. Seeing this play early in the trip provided essential perspective on the past 200 years of Scottish-English relations and politics, which we could then reflect on as we traveled the country.

Sept 18, 19

Edinburgh city tourism, including book sites Palace at Holyroodhouse and walks through Old Town, setting for the printer’s shop and smuggling outfit of A. Malcom, Jamie’s alias in book 3, Voyager. The main focus on these days, though, was catching some of Edinburgh’s major attractions, including Edinburgh Castle, the Writers’ Museum, the Real Mary King’s Close, and Scott Monument on Princes Street—well worth it!

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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We picked up our car on the evening of September 19, our last night in the capital before heading north to the Trossachs and Argyll early on Tuesday morning.

Sept 20

All-day personalized journey through Argyll & Bute’s vistas and sites of ancient Scots roots and a Gaelic kingdom’s medieval hillfort, with the delightful Àdhamh Ò Broin, Gaelic Language Consultant for the Outlander STARZ show. We hired him for a day of his time to share his love and knowledge of the endangered Dal Riata Gaelic dialect, the wonders of Argyll, the region of his upbringing, and insights into the everyday lives of Scots from the past and today.

We managed to fit in views of island mountains, croft ruins, standing stones, ancient hill fort, cairns, sheep, a few castles and ruins, lochs and hills, bagpipes, singing, cattle, jokes, supernatural stories, local color tales, coffee, lunch, two churches, and a night view over the Kyles of Bute. We even took a close look at a caterpillar (in Àdhamh’s hand on this blog’s recent header image) at the Kilmory Oib Township ruins.

Phew! What a day. By far superior to anything we could have done on our own. As a result, we skipped visiting Inveraray Castle and the Auchindrain Museum village, though we passed by both. The richness of our experiences made those omissions irrelevant.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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Sept 21, 28

Combined with unrelated but great attractions in the vicinity, we selected additional Edinburgh-area Outlander options among Glencorse Old Kirk (visited, film), Linlithgow Palace (visited, film), Hopetoun House (skipped, film), and Preston Mill and Phantassie Doocot (skipped, farther east, film). Upon returning to Seabank B&B at the end of day 2 in Argyll, the Trossachs, Stirlingshire, and Midlothian, we encountered our previous day’s guide Àdhamh Ò Broin at the Drover’s Inn, on the north end of Loch Lomond! Well, it is a small country, after all.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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Sept 22

Drove through Glen Coe—an absolute must for any first-time visit to Scotland—on our way northward up the Great Glen toward Inverness. Parts of Glen Coe were used for long shots during Outlander‘s credits.

Sept 22, 23

Made sure we passed Loch Ness (book) to and from other adventures, such as our Jacobite Steam Train ride from Fort William (book) to Mallaig on the western coast and back. The train passes and stops at Glenfinnan after crossing the Glenfinnan Viaduct, which was used in the filming of Harry Potter. The Glenfinnan Monument is the site where the standard for the Jacobite Rising of 1745 was raised by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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Sept 25

Drove to Loch Rannoch area, Perthshire, sort of hunting for the site of Craigh na Dun‘s filming, surmising also about the location of the Mackenzie rent party’s rides on the way for Jamie to meet Horrocks through the forest near Aviemore, along the way to and from Rannoch Forest, Loch Rannoch, Rannoch Moor, and Kinloch Rannoch. It was actually somewhere on the nearby Dunalastair Estate where the Craigh na Dun set was created and filmed.

Sept 25, 26

Identified Inverness (book)-area Outlander filming and book sites to choose from, visiting the gorgeous Beauly Priory (book), mysterious Clava Cairns, and humbling Culloden Battlefield (book & film), as well as Cawdor Castle (the Macbeth castle), while skipping Loch Garve (book), Falls of Rogie, and Castle Leod (book) in Strathpeffer.

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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Sept 27, 28

Scouted and targeted Glasgow city centre and metro-area filming sites, including George Square, Glasgow Cathedral and Necropolis, Pollok Country Park, and the Outlander studios in nearby Cumbernauld. On our last day of sightseeing, we visited Linlithgow Palace, used to film the exteriors and corridors of Wentworth Prison in the last episodes of series 1, and finished the day at Hampden Park, home of the Scotland National Football Team, of the Celtic Rangers, and of the Scottish Football Museum. We ate a fabulous lunch at The Cotton House, in Longcroft, Bonnybridge, Stirlingshire (http://cotton-house.co.uk/).

                        Planned                                                                Actual

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Some days fulfilled the carefully assessed, vetted (by recent Scotland traveler friend), and revised plan, but most deviated quite a bit, and some plans were totally replaced. Overall, we managed to meet our priorities, fit in some spontaneity, and get sufficient rest to keep going.

End of the Tourist Season

One thing that really helped us was favorable weather for outdoor activity during the whole first half of the trip, including our day-long Outlander tour on the 17th. A mixture of sun and clouds with highs in the mid 50s to low 60s held strong through most of each day from September 16 to 23. From all I had heard, this was like winning the lottery. Actually, my research showed September to be generally drier than late summer, but we were lucky, too.

Before making final reservations at B&Bs, and for the Outlander and train tours, and before purchasing tickets for the play, I asked my husband whether he would prefer a train trip or a boat ride on Loch Ness. He chose the train. I originally preferred the boat cruise, but a train excursion turned out to be the wiser choice, as it rained the whole day of the 23rd and the train offered shelter and the occasion to nap, which hubby really needed at that point.

We had a rainy afternoon in Perthshire on the 24th while the west coast got hammered (we were lucky to miss the really bad stuff in Mallaig the day before), but we enjoyed a beautiful sun and clouds Culloden visit that morning. Then, the daylight hours of the last two days in the Highlands—25 and 26 in Inverness, Moray Firth coast, Beauly & the Black Isle—were uniformly gorgeous.

Once we got to Glasgow, our last leg of the trip, the rain mixed with the cloudy skies more often, but shelter was easy to come by and most of the 27th was conducive to picture taking at Glasgow Cathedral and around town. Finally, the 28th provided steady light rain throughout our visits to Linlithgow Palace (castle ruins), Outlander studios (front gate), Pollok Park (driving around), and Hampden Park (indoors).

The Verdict

My experience of this trip was so absolutely positive, I don’t hesitate to call it the best trip of my life, and my husband is nearly in agreement on that score. Thorough, careful planning surely played a key role in increasing the chances of such an outcome, but we must also give proper credit to the place, the sights, and the people.

What we might have done differently if we had a do-over

Top changes I would have made to smooth out the schedule, without looking at weather:

  1. Limit the 17th to only the 9-hour Outlander tour to reduce exhaustion for subsequent days. If possible, schedule our viewing of the play’s performance for the evening of the 16th instead.
  2. If possible, avoid scheduling exploration of Inverness-shire for Loch Ness Marathon weekend, for greater flexibility.
  3. Travel earlier in the tourist season to increase Jacobite Steam Train scheduling options.
  4. Book lodging at three major bases instead of four, to allow more time to explore and spend less time packing and unpacking, as well as adjusting to a new home base.
  5. Allocate sufficient time each evening to literally map out the next day’s specifics.
  6. Skip the interior of the Palace at Holyroodhouse, or reduce the time spent, in keeping with my lesser interest in pomp, circumstance, and royalty. Focus solely on its abbey ruins, and then climb Arthur’s Seat instead.
  7. Visit a local pub for a pint or a dram and strike up a conversation with a native.
  8. Walk less and see fewer sights during one of our packed days to make doing #5 and #7 more plausible.

Top changes I would have made if I were in better shape, without looking at weather:

  1. Add a whisky distillery tour in the Highlands or a whisky tasting experience in Edinburgh.
  2. Make the effort to climb up Arthur’s Seat near Holyroodhouse and take in the view of Edinburgh and environs.
  3. Climb all 237 steps to the top of Scott Monument, the tallest monument to a writer in the entire world.
  4. Visit Calton Hill for more views of the city from the opposite end nearest Edinburgh Castle.
  5. Do more hill walking among the lochs in the Trossachs, at Schiehallion near Rannoch, or around Loch Ness.
  6. Walk up and through the Necropolis path (also if I hadn’t been so fixated on capturing every last nook and cranny of the Cathedral) in Glasgow.

Top changes I would have made if we had had more time, without looking at weather:

  1. Spread out our Edinburgh sightseeing across 4 full days instead of 2.5 (18, 19, and only a bit of 17 and 16). Our last day in Edinburgh was a bit stressful as we tried to cram in all the best of the rest, including The Real Mary King’s Close (accomplished) and the Scottish Whisky Experience (skipped).
  2. Visit Gladstone’s Land and Georgian House for the Old Town-New Town classes comparison in Edinburgh.
  3. Make sure to enter a bookshop dedicated to selling books. This notion ended up on the chopping block, but I did purchase a National Trust Scotland book on Culloden, and Historic Environment Scotland books on Cairnpapple Hill near Edinburgh and on Linlithgow Palace.
  4. Go back to Culross to see West Kirk (the Black Kirk) and visit Hopetoun House (Sandringham) and/or spend more time at each stop of the Outlander tour, including Culross Palace and Falkland Palace.
  5. Go back to the National Museum of Scotland to take in more of its numerous galleries.
  6. See more waterfalls, try harder to see wildlife, and make a point of seeing sea wildlife, especially otters.
  7. Spend some leisure time enjoying the amenities and luxuries of Daviot Lodge, including the garden, the living rooms, and the huge bear-claw tub!
  8. Take a ferry to the Isle of Skye and explore it for at least a day, including the Fairy Pools and the Cuillin Mountains.
  9. Make a more concerted effort to find the Craigh na Dun set at Dunalastair Estate, Rannoch.
  10. See the Burrell Collection and/or Pollok House at Pollok Country Park, Glasgow.

Top changes I would have made to lighten the luggage load and save time, without re-considering weather:

  1. Pack fewer jeans and more leggings and light-weight, comfortable pants to reduce laundry needs and vacuum bag compressibility.
  2. Pack fewer toiletries and over-the-counter medical provisions, allowing occasions to purchase them as needed in Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Inverness areas.
  3. Pack no reading materials for leisure that were not directly related to the current trip; have audio books available instead.

What you can do

While careful, refined planning can have positive outcomes, as you have gathered by now, it’s no quick or easy process. I had to contact multiple service providers directly, exchanging emails with our tour guide at Glencorse Old Kirk and hosts at Daviot Lodge and Seabank B&B, arranging Alamo/Enterprise car hire (I was more successful at finding good rates than my travel agent was!), and booking the Jacobite Steam Train excursion, our viewing of the Lyceum Theatre play, and our Outlander tour directly from across the pond.

All of this was of course predicated on gaining intimate knowledge of distances and durations of travel between key towns and cities and spatial relationships among sites on our must-see list. I spent countless hours just perusing Google maps, creating personalized travel guides including a chart of distances between cities, and bookmarking and starring favorites toward making this a great trip.

Then, I familiarized myself with money-saving strategies such as purchasing Historic Environment Scotland’s Explorer Pass and National Trust Scotland’s membership to reduce costs at individual sites. In the end, it was cost effective to buy the Explorer Pass but not the NTS one in our particular case. I oriented myself to banking, traffic, and other infrastructural systems, often trying out apps for satnav/GPS, bus systems, and rail networks. I even had my husband program our Garmin Nuvi GPS with Scotland maps, which became indispensable when trying to save mobile data with phone satnav.

Glimpsing all the detail, reading, rehashing, clarification, and direct booking that went into my process should tell you one of a few things about your own planning. It may tell you either that:

  1. You had better get cracking and start planning well in advance if you insist on a DIY experience of some duration and are a first-time traveler to Scotland or the UK.
  2. This self-tailoring is not for you; your best bet is to trade flexibility for a pre-packaged set of experiences where the details are out of your hands and you can just relax and enjoy. Or,
  3. If you do like the idea of going it alone for whatever reasons and you’re confident you can take a much simpler approach than I did, perhaps in part because you don’t mind healthy doses of spontaneity, you can separate which factors are deal breakers and which ones you’re happy to leave to chance.

You may discover that you couldn’t care less about Scotland itself (or at least cared less than you thought you did) and are only interested in the Outlander attractions, or heaven forbid, vice versa. If so, more power to you, but if you can stomach the stress of it, I recommend splitting your focus between the two.

The good news is that Outlander‘s growing popularity continues to boost Scotland tourism (confirmed by both my own travel agent and Scottish news sources). As a result, more and more travel companies and touring services have added Outlander to their repertoire in one way or another or enhanced the offerings they already had.

Just remember for me in reading this post, the previous ones or the next, that . . .

(Disclaimer) It’s ultimately up to each of you as trip planners to verify details to make your stay go as smoothly as possible, details such as which sites are open to the public (not all are), how, and when, especially if you intend to take the DIY approach for all or part of your trip. I have and will continue to provide some resources to get you started, but information and access can change, and the location property owners and stewards have the final word, so be sure to do your own verifications.

In the next part of this travel guide series, we’ll focus on Outlander tour companies and tour options, along with film locations not covered in my first 3 posts, and bring together all the shared and unshared resources I used and liked. I’ll close with some thoughts on Outlander, Scotland, and general travel.

But wait! There’s more. In future posts, I’ll continue to highlight specific sites visited, services engaged, adventures experienced, and images captured during our trip. Keep coming back to my introductory post “Scotland Ventured, Scotland Gained.” to get the full scope of available bits from just after our trip last fall through the rest of this year.

I hope all this helps you get through Droughtlander, at the very least. Thanks for reading.

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Live Event Review: Diana Gabaldon Skype Session

Barring some spotty transmission of sound, tonight’s Skype session with Outlander author Diana Gabaldon was a treat–and free! Connecting from her Santa Fe, NM, getaway house (lives in Scottsdale, AZ) to our own Lake High School Performing Arts Hall in Uniontown, Ohio, the Goddess of Jamie and Claire Fraser chatted to upwards of 200 people.

To start the presentation, Diana skipped the most common questions avid fans know the answers to, such as how she started writing the first book. Instead, she shared highlights about book 9’s progress (Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone–finish date still unknown), her writing, research, and editing processes, her three main types of characters (“mushrooms, onions, and hard nuts”–see Part 2 of her reference book The Outlandish Companion for full details), and impressions from consulting on the STARZ TV show adaptation.

In her explanation of character types, she used the case of Mr. Willoughby in Voyager to illustrate how a character springs up like a mushroom. Jamie and Claire are onion characters, with layers that keep revealing more depth. Then, some characters she is “stuck with,” hard nuts such as history’s George Washington, as she writes her current book during the American Revolutionary War, and Brianna Randall, Claire and Jamie’s daughter who had to be born for the long-haul story to work.

Diana has to get to know such characters gradually as they reveal themselves to her. She also noted that she doesn’t “kill” characters; they just die and she, too, finds those events “distressing.” She depicts her role as more of a conduit or vessel through which her stories create themselves. While it is not a passive, or by any means easy, process, she works intuitively and must remain receptive. She uses the senses to pose questions that her imagination then helps her answer.

True to her science background, (former) Professor Gabaldon described her writing in terms of natural processes. She revealed how her scenes start from “kernels” (a vivid image, a line of dialogue, a certain ambiance, a physical object) and proceed by an organic process that she compared to both “growing crystals in the basement” and “a slow game of Tetris.” She “fiddles” until the pieces fit together just right.

Perhaps unusual for a novelist, Diana doesn’t write in a straight line or plan her books in advance; she works wherever the images come from and cobbles or, as some have said, “quilts” scenes together. From the beginning of her book making, she has combined the research and writing processes, toggling back and forth to learn more and make corrections as needed. Her research prowess has become legendary among fans. She also shared how each book ultimately forms a geometric shape. Dragonfly in Amber is like a barbell, anchored by a framing story on both ends, and Outlander has a series of three pyramids or triangles where tensions rise and fall.

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Diana Gabaldon, San Diego Comicon 2015

During the Q&A, I was blessed enough to be able to ask Diana a direct question about how the show is adapting the Jamie-Claire relationship. I talked to HERSELF face to face sort of! Whoa. Happy Birthday (week) to me indeed. She agreed with my view that the core bond of these central characters needs some attention and further development on screen, and she indicated the producers think so, too. Diana assured us that the first six episodes she has seen of season 3 are “great,” which brought cheers from several attendees including me.

Just turned 65 last week, Diana Gabaldon is an endearing blend of erudite, friendly, and oddball. This was my second experience of a live Diana Gabaldon video session. She’s very generous and engaged with her fans, a wonderful writer and natural speaker.

Our hosts ran a solid event, the lights and audience mics worked well, and, though we were dram-dry, there was ample, delicious homemade Scottish shortbread laid out near the exit. Mmm . . . buttery, flaky goodness.

In sum, read these awesome Outlander books, people, and if you can, catch a video chat session with Herself. (Preaching to the choir?) The STARZ show really is pretty great, and season 3’s coming up. Even more impressive, though, the books are an endless fount of riches with an essence that even the very talented team of show producers and writers is hard pressed to capture in a visual medium. Books and TV are distinctly different species of animal, but in the case of this timeless, time-driven story, each is fierce and beautiful in its own way, with something for just about everyone.

Sláinte mhath from this balmy winter’s night in northeast Ohio’s Outlander fan land.

The event was hosted by the Stark County District Library, sponsored by Lake Community Friends of the Library, and buoyed by Diana’s two signed book copies for two lucky trivia game winners (not me which was a-okay).

Book Review: The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Alexandre Dumas, père

Warning: This review and analysis include several spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Style and Substance

The writing in Alexandre Dumas’ historical French novel, relating a 19th-century tale of injustice and revenge, can be long winded. Readers might expect this when noting that an “unabridged” version ranges between 1100 and 1400 pages. With so much space consumed, we might suppose this writer who loved his craft was tempted into ostentation. Perhaps he was.

However, I wouldn’t call his style flowery; a tempted Dumas exhibits self-control. Understated and enticing, the author’s abundant wit, along with great storytelling and readable prose, justify the length of the text. Truly.

I finished this book club selection more than a month before our February meeting, quite the feat considering how often I don’t finish on time. Yes, I started before our last meeting about a single Agatha Christie short story, but never mind.

A suspenseful page-turner for most of its fecund pages, The Count of Monte Cristo kept me reading steadily to learn the fates of characters set aside for long, overlapping periods. My circumstances helped, but Dumas helped more.

Rooted in European history, the settings span a 25-year period of the early 1800s and explore diverse locations from sea and prison to Rome, Paris, and the French countryside. At the story’s fulcrum is the question of political loyalties and their implications. Early shifts in power between Royalists and Bonapartists animate the lever that decides the ground on which central characters begin their journeys.

The plot is intricate and well organized, and the story proves emotionally dynamic, replete with dramatic irony. Rhythmic flow springs from engaging dialogue, which, beside measured descriptive text, renders Monte Cristo a delightful, theatrical melodrama. Its film adaptations attest to this strength with their number.

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“Dantes Cast into the Sea” by French artist Dumont. George Routledge and Sons edition, 1888

Genre, or Who This Book Is For

My first, unspoiled reading never brought tears, drew audible gasps (maybe some silent ones), shocked me, or provoked any wild laughter. In that way, I see it as a steady, well-written, well-told yarn composed of entertaining threads. It is more dark, sweeping Romance in the Gothic tradition than affecting, relatable human drama. This fact tempered my enthusiasm somewhat, as I tend to prefer the latter.

Intrigue, mystery, crime, adventure–all in the particular context of early 1800s Continental politics and cultures–overshadow character complexity and intimacy despite dozens of highly emotional moments. Sadly, there are no kisses lip to lip, let alone sex scenes; sexual suggestiveness is rare and subtle.

Perhaps Victorian in those respects, the book offers some extreme violence, ample cold-blooded murder, and one instance where an unconscious maiden signifies rape. Several incidents are told as stories within the story, but such elements serve to emphasize the grisly tragedies and grotesque fascinations comprising the tale.

Specific Critiques and Praise

Among its flaws, The Count of Monte Cristo tends to telegraph plot points. Thus, prolonged suspense meets the anticlimax of predictable, but satisfying, outcomes. We could attribute this forecasting effect in part to the amount of space and time provided for the reader to guess results correctly, but it is noticeable.

[Second warning: If you’ve never read this book but think you might want to, leave this post now and go read it!]

Still, I felt great moral and literary satisfaction in anticipating the villains’ comeuppance. Then, the collateral damage is realistic and heart rending, dispelling any notion of a surgically precise wrath of God. Lingering questions about the fates of key characters also felt appropriate, particularly concerning Benedetto. As we leave him, we suspect he just might get away with his crimes.

The reader gains significant insight into more than half a dozen characters, sympathizing with their situations. By this method, Dumas succeeds in conveying the imperfect nature of vigilante justice (or any justice) as each major villain meets a punishment that may not match the severity or nature if his crime. The costs of vengeance are dear. Given the paths before these ends, the final choices and turns the antagonists make seem to befit their personalities, also well developed.

By contrast, I found the main character surprisingly underdeveloped for so long a work and despite, or perhaps because of, the different characters he embodies. Edmond Dantès’ journey is remarkable early on and leading into his manifold vengeance. The changes starting to take shape in the climax also work well, but the ending felt rushed. Dantès’ reflections seem insufficient, his remorse and renewed questing half hearted, and his love for his ward lukewarm and a bit convenient.

[Third and final warning: I really mean it this time – Turn back now or skip to the summary below, or suffer the consequences!]

One can imagine Dantès’ moral education continuing beyond the fifth volume of the story, along with the revival of his will to live and start again. I don’t personally need a neatly wrapped ending. Yet, if that emphasis on waiting and hoping was the author’s intent for Dantès as much as for other characters, I would have preferred hints of a more precarious future happiness for our primary hero, more of a sense that the next climb may be just as long and steep as the last.

For Love of Money

Other trouble comes in the author’s apparent emphasis on needing a seemingly limitless fortune to possess true, full freedom and happiness. This notion meets no significant challenge anywhere in the story, which I found strange, if not quite disappointing. Reinforcing this sentiment is the unmitigated misery associated with every example of poverty or even humble means. Dumas might look upon the poor as inherently noble creatures, morally superior, a Romantic vision, but he leaves no doubt that everyone from prince to pauper prefers, and even needs, substantial wealth. Such assumptions irritate.

The exceptions are the slaves the Count owns; Dumas portrays the happiness of Ali and Haydée to be as incandescent as their devotion is supreme. They hardly count, for they are completely dependent, without their own money, and thus without authentic agency. The author seems to doubt that even a single, independent Frenchman could be happy in this time and place without one of the following conditions: possessing great fortune or knowing the security of directly and loyally serving (or being a beneficiary of) a person of great fortune and benevolence, such as the Count of Monte Cristo.

Evidence accrues of the author’s money love. The vast majority of focus characters are members of high society and the wealthy elite, many of superior education, notable beauty, close royal connections, or distinguishing experience. Yet nowhere do riches serve as an obvious corrupting force, except in the most obvious, a priori cases of the antagonists.

The young people cradled in luxury from birth–Albert, Eugénie–adapt swiftly to financial uncertainty, if not to real or projected financial loss. Each is strong of mind, and each charges ahead with definitive plans. Their apparent lack of greed seems plausible, but how long will they last? On the contrary, how will the two most worthy, noble, and innocent characters (hint: not Albert or Eugénie) avoid their lives’ ruination upon acquiring an incalculable fortune?

Currency for the Count

During the rising action, as he operates like some other-worldly creature, at least the Count’s near immunity to the ill effects of being filthy rich seems reasonable. The immensity of the treasure he acquires coupled with the depth of the misery he has suffered accounts for it. There is no room for covetousness, for there is no need. His vision is fixed not on indulging his chosen life of opulence–for his jaded soul can hardly enjoy it–but on using it for convoluted, comprehensive payback.

It is in the name of this sophisticated vengeance for genuine wrongs against him that the Count wields his fortune, education, disguises, and cunning like a four-flanged mace of justice. It is only after his perceived atonement for such absolute revenge that the Count is finally ready to relinquish his wealth and the power and esteem it awarded him. As a result, he believes he needed the money only for the scores he had to settle, but without money going forward, his status and influence will fade.

The question is, Can he indeed adjust to this new reality? For an author whose characters so unilaterally and fervently depend upon prolific capitalism for their happiness, it would seem doubtful. It makes me curious to learn about the life of Alexandre Dumas (of which I currently know nothing), to seek a reason for this.

Revenge? What’s That?

Since the reader never has the chance to observe the changes in either the man who gives away his “first-rate” fortune or those who receive it–changes either in those who lose all they had or in those who squirrel away a buffer against such loss–the consequences of these shifts remain open ended. Despite the age difference between the Count and the younger people, all seem to be of a more flexible generation than their parents are regarding money, status, and survival.

What may be most telling is that none of the villains (1 of the 3 perhaps) truly suffers for very long the consequences of their greed and evil. Each escapes a traditional punishment the reader might think they deserve, whether doing so by their own free will or decidedly not. We never get to see them struggle for any notable duration without money, without status, without family.

They suffer in other ways, many established without the Count’s interference long before he catches up with them; most of it they have done to themselves. The prospect of loss terrifies them and they sustain heavy blows. However, no one reaches, before story’s end, the degree or longevity of deprivation and sorrow that Edmond Dantès has known at their hands.

An epilogue assuring the reader that the evildoers will all receive and experience what they deserve–whether in life or in death–might have been soothing. Without it, we can only guess, “wait and hope” that at least one of them does.

Mercédès

As to patriarchal double standards, I found the Count, if not Dumas, to be harsh in accusing and punishing Mercédès, Edmond’s betrothed before his imprisonment. She is also harsh in judging herself. The woman who becomes Countess de Morcerf, though marrying Edmond’s rival and persecutor, was technically as innocent as Valentine and Maximilien. Disgraced and poor in the end, she is convent bound as her son leaves for military service. The weight of having lost and again losing Edmond is her greatest regret, and rightly so, but it is through no fault of her own in either instance.

Her ignorance and naive perspective of wrongdoing matches Edmond’s as he begins his time in jail, and Mercédès does what she can to atone in the end. Yet the reader is left with the sense that her punishment is deserved, she has not done enough, and she was even a sort of prostitute under the circumstances–all of which is hyperbole. First, how could she have known? Second, what should she have done differently while kept in ignorance?

Mercédès nursed Edmond’s ailing father to his dying day, continued to appeal to the government for news of Edmond, and then made the best of loss and a loveless marriage, sought continuously to better herself, raised a worthy child, and finally relinquished all her ill-gotten gains.

Among all central characters, as Countess de Morcerf, Mercédès alone never seeks to harm anyone, only to save them. More than Haydée, who avenges her father, if not more than Valentine, who avenges no one directly, Mercédès is in fact among the most saintly of the story’s women. Also, because she is so very far superior to both Baroness Danglars and Madame de Villefort, the Countess de Morcerf receives more than unjust treatment.

The unwarranted nature and degree of Mercédès’ eventual suffering approach those of Edmond’s initial suffering. What is that one saying about those we love most? With nothing but vengeful hatred in Edmond’s heart as he enacts his plans, he has doomed his first love, Mercédès, from the start. Perhaps instead of “Frailty, thy name is woman” (Hamlet), the Shakespeare quotation Edmond should have studied and remembered is “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” (Merchant of Venice).

Summary Review

The Count of Monte Cristo is a robust, culturally observant work that explores the mysteries and ironies of destiny. Absorbing characters take shape at a good pace for the story’s length. There is clear, abundant evidence of the skill, the care–in short, the investment–applied by author Alexandre Dumas, père (senior). Although I would have preferred a more detailed look into the title character’s mind and the lessons he learns, the novel, like the Count himself, has earned its place among the classics. I doubt I’ll ever re-read the book entirely, but I imagine returning on occasion to dip into its turbulent, colorful, and ambitious pages.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Translation and Abridgement (No Spoilers)

À propos of length and language, I found no fully reliable, consistently clear, and high-quality English translation among the five versions I sampled while first reading and listening to the story. The Robin Buss translation published by Penguin Classics, though widely preferred and lauded, may be more complete than other unabridged editions, but I found the diction too contemporary, the phrasing overwrought, and the writing generally less elegant than in other editions.

Furthermore, while at times wrinkling my forehead in puzzlement at the Buss translation, I found the text of the Oxford World’s Classics 2008 edition–and even more so of the David Clarke Librivox recording and very similar Gutenberg Project epub ebook–to be more accurate, more logical and appropriate to story context, and more understandable in several instances.

I doubt this divergent assessment has anything to do with my having studied French for 8 years. It probably has more to do with my preferences for archaic diction, unusual syntax, and general clarity. A treasured French study background increased my enjoyment in part due to my understanding of the untranslated French expressions, such as “Pardieu!” (literally “By God” but meaning “Of course!” or “Indeed!”), but any astute reader can gather meaning from context.

Incidentally, David Clarke does a fabulous job with theatricality, French and Italian accents, male and female registers of voice, distinguishing main character voices, clear and consistent projection, and excellent articulation. Aside from occasional mispronunciations, Clarke may have stumbled once or twice in 117 chapters in the Librivox recording. Highly recommended. My having blended listening to recordings with reading ebooks and print copies is largely what allowed me to keep my momentum and finish this massive book quickly.

The Gutenberg file uses the 1888 illustrated (and non-illustrated) George Routledge and Sons edition. I thoroughly enjoyed the illustrations by various French artists of the period provided in the .html version of that file. The claim of Robin Buss’s work in the Penguin Classics translation is the supposed recovery of and return to nuances of the original text that had been lost in earlier editions, and I can see some of that happening as well.

The comparable heft of the Modern Library Classics edition suggests little to no abridgement, but I found it makes noticeable, unnecessary cuts, at least to descriptive text in the few parts I bothered to read.

At any rate, we must allow that some flaws resulting from translation could be due to the original author’s style and diction in French as well. I recommend reading an unabridged edition if you read the book at all. Furthermore, if you are fluent, I feel confident, without having read it myself, in advising you to read the original French instead of a translation into English or other languages. Bien sur! (Pardieu!)

Novel excerpt: Song meets Alice

I’m still working on my next Outlander tourism blog post. Meanwhile, our writing group meets today, and I plan to share this scene draft from my novel-in-progress, Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land. Enjoy.

Posts related to this novel’s journey include Last Week of Camp: Ready to Start (April 2016), Packing for Camp (July 2016), The Labor of Learning to Set Limits (September 2016), and This Hunted Story (October 2016).


Scene: Song and Alice meet for the first time as Alice leaves Humpty Dumpty’s estate.  From Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land by C. L. Tangenberg. Draft 11/5/16, revisions 11/22, 12/15

“Little girl!” called Song as Alice began to pass, heading away from her.

It was not the smoothest of introductions.

Alice looked up and screamed, beginning to run the way she was already going before she received such a fright.

“Wait! It is all right. I am not going to hurt you.”

Alice, too scared to listen, did not stop, but it only took a few strides for Song to catch up.

She had no choice. She grasped Alice’s side and shoulder with her right claw, but she did not lift her. Song held the girl in place and tried to shush her. It was not working, so to avoid attracting unwanted attention, Song spread a finger from the same claw over Alice’s lips and said, “I promise, I am not going to hurt you, but I must speak with you as a matter of some urgency.”

She paused but briefly.

“My name is Song, and I am going to take my hand off you now and back away so you can turn freely. Please do not run. I need to talk to you about how you got here. It is a matter of life and death for those I love.”

Alice had begun listening at first because she could hardly do otherwise, and then, something about the creature’s voice, though deep and tremulous with excitement, seemed calming to her. She stopped struggling, and as soon as she did, Song gently let go of her. Still afraid and shivering, Alice did not turn right away. When she finally did turn, her head moved first, followed by her body.

“Wha– I mean, who – are you?” Alice asked in a voice that squeaked in spite of her. She swallowed, hoping to strengthen it. She was now fully turned and facing Song.

The young Jabberwock breathed an internal sigh of relief and decided not to press her luck. She slowly sat down so as not to tower over the girl. Instinctively, she closed her hands into tighter balls than was comfortable, knowing that her claws might easily seem to be reaching for Alice if she were not careful about how she held them. She dropped her hands to her sides, making fists into the ground, which also helped her relieve some tension and feel more grounded.

Now that Song had Alice’s attention, it seemed impossible to know just where to begin. The wind was whipping up, and a few stray leaves in full green dipped and dived across the clearing in which the two very different girls sat. There was a chill that went with this wind, and the sun seemed to grow shy in the face of such a meeting as this. Song looked around and up, then, behind them toward Humpty Dumpty’s stone wall. She wanted to be sure no one had heard Alice scream or seen Song chase her.

“My name is Song Warber,” she began. “I am of the Wock race that lives, well, that used to live, here in Looking-Glass Land. My parents, my brother, and my sister are nearly all that is left of us. The Nobles have—” She stopped. No. Too much too soon. “Let me back up. I live in the Tulgey Wood by the Knights’ Forest. Do you know either of those places?”

“No,” said Alice, growing calmer with each breath. “No I do not. I have meet the Tweedles—”

“Yes, I know.”

“You know?” Alice’s eyes widened. “How . . . do you know?” Alice’s speech became strained and tentative again.

“Oh, I was passing through there. It is actually not far from the path I usually take to get home from my chores. And I have heard of you,” she added quickly, “from around the land. Your coming here has raised some . . . interest.”

She paused again. All of this was changing so fast, it was hard to know how to represent everyday life. Everyday life was effectively extinct for Song.

“Your name is Alice, is not it?”

“Yes, that is right.”

“Forgive me. I stopped out of curiosity and watched you with the twins for a while. I heard how they frightened you about the Red King. I’m sorry for that. For what it’s worth, I believe you are real.”

Song attempted a smile, but she knew it would not be received as anything more friendly than a grimace. It was not in the Wocks’ custom to smile as an expression of happiness. They expressed their joy with the instruments nearer to hand—their arms, their wings, their antennae. Their lips were not much, and not much for flexible movement. It had taken an accelerated adaptation to learn English as a spoken language. One could almost liken their speaking to ventriloquism; they were able to pronounce English words very well without much lip motion.

Alice tried to smile back, perceiving that Song had tried, too.

Song looked down in mild embarrassment upon noticing this gesture. “The thing is,” she began again, “it is because you are real that they feel threatened by you. The Nobles, I mean.”

“Threatened? How?” This was news to Alice.

“Well, I do not want to alarm you, but they have employed sentinels, a kind of guard, to watch the portals for forbidden species and humans trying to enter Looking-Glass Land. My father is one of those guards. Or, at least he was until the Nobles found out about you. Now, he has been punished for letting you in. You see, human children are among those not allowed here. I don’t suppose anyone has mentioned that to you yet.”

“No, they haven’t.” Alice was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable indeed. It was also odd to her that her fear was not coming directly from beholding this creature before her, but from warnings, of what seemed a friendly sort, that the creature was sharing. But then she remembered.

“Then why do they not escort me out? I have met several of the chess pieces already—the Red Queen, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the White Queen, and Humpty Dumpty just now.”

“Well, technically, the Tweedles and Humpty are more like pawns, but never mind. That is not important. Yes, the queens might well have seemed tolerant of you, acted out of politeness. The truth is, I think they are afraid of human little girls.” Song opened a questioning claw while adding, “I do not know why. So many things about the Nobles and Royals are not to be explained.

“Afraid? Of me?” This notion seemed quite silly to Alice. She chuckled, but it quickly turned to hurt. “Why, I would not hurt anyone! I hardly can.”

“Yes, there seems to be some hidden reason for their fear, which is why they try so hard to act normal around you.” Song was pensive, searching.

“Normal? I would not say that.” Alice reflected on what passed for normal around here. “No, I wouldn’t say their behavior is normal at all.”

“Well, still, it is a bit of a mystery, as if there is something they chose not to tell Looking-Glass citizens about the blacklisted creatures. It really seems as if more and more beings are getting to be off limits. It becomes sort of . . . tight around here, if that makes any sense. Kind of pinched. I do not know quite how to explain it.”

“You mean stressful? Like everyone’s afraid of upsetting the king?” Alice offered.

“Yes, just so! They keep adding more and more rules and restrictions all the time, of all sorts, until it is hard to know how to behave or where to go or what you are allowed to say, or even be, after a while. The Wocks have long been restricted terribly much, in many ways, by the Nobles. For us, too, things are getting worse, very fast actually.”

Song looked up to see if Alice understood. She was fully attentive, but her expression had changed little. Wide eyes and a sympathetic brow accompanied rosy cheeks and a petite set of pink lips. Suddenly, Alice sat down where she was, with growing interest in what Song had to say. This was encouraging to the Jabberwock youth. At least this human girl wanted to hear more, even if she could not understand everything. Song continued.

“This is why I came to find you. It was mere luck that I happened to hear you and Humpty Dumpty talking. I needed to tell you about this, about my situation because I thought you might be able to help.”

Song took a deep breath and went for it.

“Would you be willing to help me?” Her tone was almost shy.

“I suppose so,” Alice said simply. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I guess that is the real question. I want to get my father back, for starters. He has been banished to the Sleef Mountains off to the west. That was his punishment for what they said was ‘not doing his job.’”

Song decided to keep things simple by not telling Alice about the mysterious additional penalty, the details of which Song herself did not yet know. It seemed pointless to add this wrinkle to the present complications. She needed to gain momentum now that she had Alice’s ear.

The wind picked up again, but the sun came out this time, light scattering across Song’s antennae as if across tree limbs. Alice was watching, wondering what the creature was thinking. “Are you really sure I can help?” she asked finally.

“Honestly, I do not know,” Song admitted. “I was hoping you would come with me to the White Palace in order to petition to the King for my father’s return. You see, I know my father. He is a good worker. He would not shirk his duties. He has never had a mark against his record. I know he could not have let you in.” Song blushed suddenly.

Not missing a beat, Alice said, “Wait, how can that be? Does he not guard the looking-glass above the hearth in the house in the 1st Square?”

“No, he does not. Wait, the house?”

“Then how—”

“You said it was a house?” Song just realized Alice was describing a portal she did not know about.

“Yes, why?”

“Oh, there is more than one portal in and out of Looking-Glass Land, but there is no portal at any house in the land. At least I have never heard of it. My father worked the one nearest the Reed-Wallow, not at a house.”

“There are supposed to be only four portals.” Song opened her lips again to say which ones were where but then thought better of it. She did not want Alice escaping the land without at least coming with her to the palace, if possible. Song settled on “Yours would make five.”

“Well, it is not mine,” Alice replied bashfully, but the feeling turned into pondering, with scrunched eyebrows and a finger to her mouth. “At least I do not think so.”

Alice began to have a strange feeling that maybe she had created the portal on her own somehow, that it was not there until she put it there. Curiouser and curiouser, she thought to herself.

“This is very strange,” Song said, echoing Alice’s thoughts. “Why do you suppose— Well, no, how would you know, right? I mean, do you come from a place with many portals in it?”

“Not exactly. We can walk through open doors and cross borders and such, but those are all clear and visible. You know what you are about to do by how it looks from the side you start from.” Alice secretly believed she was still dreaming, and that, perhaps, it was possible her dream was a kind of portal into this world. “No, we do not have portals like the one I went through, usually. But then, I did go through it . . . This is all so confusing.”

“Yes, it is,” Song conceded. “But maybe, if you come with me to the White Palace, we can both get some answers. If you can tell them about what you did, then maybe they will see my father is innocent.”

“But I thought you said they do not like little girls. Will I not get into trouble just for showing up?” Alice brought her arms in toward her chest, folding them with her fists resting under her chin in apprehension, and then she began to scramble up on to her hands and knees from the seated position she had been in. “I— You have told me—”

“Yes. Yes, it is possible things will not go very well, for either of us. But I guarantee my fate will be worse than yours. You, they will most likely send back to your own world, if they find the courage to deal with you directly, that is. But something about their rules and behavior regarding little girls makes me think they might not be brave enough to do much of anything with you. It is a risk, I know, but honestly Alice, I am desperate. I think you’ll be okay. And you see that I am also strong.” She paused, working diligently on more ways to convince the girl to go with her.

Finally, Song said, “What if we were to make a deal, you and I? You agree to come help me get my father back, and I agree to protect you if anyone at all should try to harm you. As I hope you have learned by now, I have nothing against little girls. In fact, I think I am starting to like you.” Song smiled. “Even with all the craziness in my life that is making it hard to like anything or anybody. You might just be something really special, Alice. All these strange things. I do not know.” She shook her head in wonderment.

“I think I know what you mean. You have proven that you are not bad yourself.” Alice chuckled nervously, not quite convinced of her own declaration. She thought for a moment about Song’s proposal. This was not exactly how she had pictured her adventures in Looking-Glass Land going. But it was an adventure, even if it was one she had not chosen herself.

“Why not? Let us strike hands on the bargain.” Alice gradually held out her right hand to Song.

“Oh, okay,” Song said slowly, reaching out her hand equally slowly. She did not want to hurt the girl with her ungainly claws, so she held her large hand out still, nodding to Alice to strike it.

“It is a deal,” said Alice, with a pat of her hand on the claw, which felt a bit dry and scaly.

“All right. This way.”

And Song led them off to the east toward the seat of power in Looking-Glass Land, on what would seem to be a hunch and the smallest hope, but she felt lighter somehow. Now they had each other. Alice was a good girl, she could tell. Song decided she would do her best to do what she had promised, to protect Alice from harm, no matter what else may happen.

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns

In honor of my trip to Scotland, the harvest season, nature poetry, and Scottish National Poet Robert Burns, this post shares a few excerpts and a discussion of his famous poem “To a Mouse.”

See the end of the post for links to more information and the poem’s full text, as well as a list of earlier posts from this blog series on nature poetry by well-known poets.


To a Mouse
On Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785

Wee, sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
               Wi' bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
               Wi' murd'ring pattle!

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
               Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion,
               An' fellow-mortal!

Language.

The first thing you may notice in these first two stanzas is the unorthodox orthography. Contractions for words like “cowering” and “timorous” and unusual terms such as “sleekit,” “bickering,” and “brattle” used in stanza one challenge the average reader.

The poem begins in a Scots dialect using conversational vernacular. This approach both conveys the startling nature of the encounter for the ploughman and creates intimacy between speaker and subject. The ploughman deeply sympathizes with his frightened, thwarted neighbor who happens to be a mouse. The regular, liberal use of exclamation points heightens this effect.

Distinctly formal diction then counteracts that sense of closeness with a thoughtful, reverential tone when Burns opts for the dramatic “O” and distancing pronouns “thy,” “thou,” and “thee” in place of “your” and “you.” Such choices set the mouse on a pedestal, almost as an object of worship.

Between word choice and ideas, the poem amounts to a humble, emotional message of significant length, firmly declaring Burns’s love for even the smallest wildlife despite its serving no utilitarian purpose as either food source, working animal, or even personal pet.

Scots terms in the first stanza:

  • sleekit – adj., sleek or, figuratively, slick (in Outlander ep105, Willie facetiously praises braggart Angus’s sexual prowess using this word: “Aye, aye, ye sleekit dog!”)
  • na – not
  • awa – away
  • sae – so
  • bickering – adj., hurried
  • brattle – n., scamper
  • wad – would
  • laith – loath
  • rin – run
  • pattle – plowstaff (“paddle”)

The stark shift to a philosophical tone in stanza 2 coincides with a shift in dialect from Scots to more standard English. While still directly addressing the mouse, this stanza’s language sets it apart from the rest, presenting the poet’s main thesis in words that non-Scots readers also will easily understand. Stanza 3 then returns to dialect, which persists through the end of the poem.

Central to the poem’s meaning, an oft-quoted line appears in stanza 7 of 8:

7
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
               Gang aft a-gley.
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain
               For promised joy.
8
Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e
               On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
               I guess an' fear!

This famous line, of course, inspired the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men.

Scots terms in the last two stanzas:

  • no thy lane – not alone
  • gang aft a-gley – often go awry
  • lea-e – leave
  • e’e – eye

Rhyme scheme. “To a Mouse” gives us a unique opportunity to explore the nature of rhyme. The overall pattern in the poem for each stanza is a rhyme scheme of aaabab. Six lines containing two distinct sets of rhymes in each stanza. The repetitive sound of the first three lines creates a build-up of emotion and suspense. Next, the change late in each stanza accents the new indented lines of a different rhyming pair, leaving us with those ideas to ponder as we move on to the next stanza.

The effect of his use of near rhyme adds interesting possibilities. Debates have surfaced over the centuries as to whether writing in dialect is a legitimate enterprise. Burns, among others, was heavily criticized by some for his chosen approach in cases like “To a Mouse.” As time has passed, judgments of acceptableness have evolved and varied. Ultimately, it is each reader’s prerogative to judge the work being read. So you decide: Do you see an artful use of “slant” or “near” rhyme, a perversion of standard English, or something else entirely? Consider the patterns and their aberrations.

In “To a Mouse,” if we go by only the vowel sound of the very last syllable of each line and follow standard English expectations, the rhyme schemes of the dominant rhyming lines in each stanza (lines 1, 2, 3 and 5 as opposed to the indented 4th and 6th lines) would be as follows:

  • St. 1: beastie breastie hasty thee – a a a a
  • St. 2: dominion union opinion companion – a a a a
  • St. 3: thieve live thrave lave – a b ? c
  • St. 4: ruin strewin new ane ensuin – a a b a
  • St. 5: waste fast blast past – a b b b
  • St. 6: stibble nibble trouble dribble – a a b a
  • St. 7: lane vain a-gley joy – a a a b
  • St. 8: me thee e’e see – a a ? a

On the surface, with simple line analysis, there appears to be no consistent rhyming pattern at all, but at least the first two lines of each stanza usually rhyme with each other. For larger patterns, only the first two stanzas of these groupings, that we can say with certainty, consistently rhyme with each other.

In this context, as one might expect, the more formal second stanza is among those with the most regular rhyme. The most divergent vowel sounds occur between the first three lines and line 5 of stanza 7, as the long “a” sound in “lane,” “vain,” and “a-gley” doesn’t even remotely resemble the vowel sound in “joy.” (Farther down the page, I discuss the special cases of the Scots terms in bold above.)

The only dominant pattern overall is of consonance or assonance ending each line, specifically, with the consonants n, v, st, and b, as well as the e vowel sounds. All stanza 7 gives us is the visual common y consonant between “a-gley” and “joy.” Like stanza 2, stanza 7 is an outlier.

The result of this close investigation might suggest unintended sloppiness on Burns’s part.

Form and meaning. However, is it coincidence that the themes of stanzas 2 and 7 match their respective degrees of exactness in rhyme? Standard English, -ion endings, and the idea of unity in stanza 2? Dialect, divergent line endings, and the idea of destroyed plans in stanza 7? Even if it was done subconsciously, Burns was an artist, an educated man, an intelligent person, and, like the rest of us, an incorrigible “schemer.” So, no. It’s not likely to be coincidence.

And what about their placement in the poem–a sort of thesis position for stanza 2 and similar location for stanza 7, the second and second-to-last stanzas, placed symmetrically in relation to one another across the whole poem?

Perhaps Burns is making a statement not only about man’s relationship with nature–between the broken union with the wild and the industrialization of the field–but also about man’s relationship with man, particularly, the relationship between the masterly English and the servile Scottish peoples. Or, is it a more egalitarian critique of the hubris and, thus, inevitably negative effects, of at least some of everyone’s best intentions?

Boldfaced Scots (no pun intended): I used question marks to indicate my ignorance about how to pronounce the bolded Scots words. I would be inclined to pronounce “breastie” like “beastie,” assuming a humorous intent on first reading the poem, but it could be pronounced with the short e vowel sound as in the typical pronunciation of “breast.” As one reads more of the poem, its serious tone becomes apparent.

In the next instance, not knowing the word at all, I would most likely take it on face value and pronounce “thrave” like “grave.” Lastly, I wouldn’t know how to pronounce “e’e” as a contraction of “eye.” Is it the long e as in “thee,” the long a in “way,” or the long i sound as in the standard “eye”?

At the very least, first-hand knowledge of this Scots dialect in its 18th-century context and perhaps a scholarly knowledge of Burns’s intent and poetic patterns across his body of work would be required to say definitively. It’s possible, however, that pronunciation could vary even further, placing spoken vowel sounds, not just of these isolated words but of any number of others, in between the surmised alternatives we know from standard English.

There is no single, perfected version of a dialect of any language, just as what we think of as standard language can vary within itself as well. In other words, there are multiple Scots dialects within the umbrella of English dialects.

If Burns and other writers in dialect teach us anything about spoken language, it’s that it is subjective and fluid, different and constantly changing across all sorts of cultural boundaries. Those boundaries are not stark black dividers, but gray realms of overlapping traditions and identities. Whatever linguistic purists might say, certainly spoken language, along with written language in many ways, is a living, breathing, moving–and sometimes wild–thing.

Meter and rhythm.

Further evidence of Burns’s well-laid schemes emerges with a look at the rhythmic elements of the poem. The meter is set down regularly as iambic tetrameter paired with iambic dimeter, and the changes closely match the rhyme scheme shifts. Lines 1-3 and 5 follow tetrameter, with 4 iambs per line, and lines 4 and 6 use dimeter, with 2 iambs per line. An iamb is a set of two syllables, also known together as a metric foot, that begins with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable.

A simple illustration of an iambic foot is in the infinitive form of any one-syllable verb: to go, to breathe, to call, to jump, to know. We pronounce this pair of words with emphasis on the unique word in each pair: go, breathe, call, jump, and know. We don’t pronounce each set in the opposite manner, which would result in phrases with the sound of “TOO go,” “TOO breathe,” and so on, making the words sound strange, like the Roman garment “toga” or imaginary “tookle” for “to call” or “tune-o” for “to know.” Theoretically, one could create an iambic phrase solely out of infinitive verb phrases:

to WANT to KNOW, to WALK to YOU to SMILE  (iambic pentameter, five metric feet of syllable pairs, the first being unstressed, the second stressed)

where the capitalized words signify landing on them more heavily than on the word “to.”

Often, then, the stressed half of the metric foot (in these cases, the iamb) is where the more important words, and natural stresses in multi-syllabic words, arise. Another iambic pentameter line:

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words if, fail, call, know, left make the central message.

The unstressed half of an iambic line is where the connecting words, less important words, and natural lack of stresses in multi-syllabic words would be.

And if I fail to call, you’ll know I’ve left. The words And, I, to, you’ll, I’ve are links and pronouns.

The unique feature of the iambic lines in “To a Mouse” is their often ending with a weak final syllable after the recognizable pattern of four or two iambs. Stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6 contain this feature, ending on words like “beastie,” “startle,” “ruin,” and “dribble”–all words with a strong first syllable. There are exceptions even in these stanzas, with lines 4 and 6 in stanza 4 ending in “green” and “keen,” for instance, with stressed final syllables.

Still, the overarching tendency to add half an iambic foot to the end of many lines creates a lilting rhythm and lightness in tone, suggesting affectionate tenderness, as we sense from words like “beastie” and “nibble,” which are emotionally similar to diminutives like “sweetie” and cutie.”

The alternating stanzas with stressed last syllables and regular iambic feet include, from stanza 3, lines 1 (tetrameter, 4 stresses) and 4 (dimeter, 2 stresses):

“I doubt na, whiles, but thou may thieve; / . . . . ‘S a sma‘ request:”

The final two stanzas, shown above, also have regular iambic meter throughout, emphasizing the message there contained, for example, in the poem’s final two lines:

“An’ forward, tho‘ I canna see, / I guess an’ fear!”

In his poem, Burns deliberately places men and mice on an equal plane, both subject to the whims of fate and nature. Equating man with mouse is a startling choice, provoking thought and sometimes indignation. But the poet takes it one step farther, elevating the mouse above the man again in the final stanza: You know only how to live in the moment, you free and lucky mouse, whereas I’m a slave to regret for the past and to fear of the future.

For the full text of this poetic ploughman’s speech to a mouse, visit “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns. For an annotated version defining all the Scots terms, try scholarly sources such as page 748 of the full fifth edition (paperback) of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. My source for the terms I defined was the fourth edition.

The Burns legacy.

To learn more about Scots poet Robert Burns, check out the extensive article at Poetry Foundation. I also enjoyed visiting The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, which featured artifacts, writings, illustrations, and recordings about authors Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are many other sites in Scotland dedicated to Burns and his legacy that I did not get to visit. I’ll share more about Scottish literary tourism in an upcoming post.

As the National Poet of Scotland, Robert Burns even has his own holiday: Burns Night, January 25th, when people in Scotland and worldwide Scots create and enjoy a special feast and a night of beloved poetry.


Previous posts in this series, featuring nature poems from both the Canon and a few contemporary poets, include:

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1: Sun Spots
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1a: “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 2: Elizabeth Bishop
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 4: Promise of a Fruitful Plath

I also wrote about the use of Burns’s work in the first Outlander TV series by STARZ:

Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy