Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

Featured image: Claire & Frank walk Culloden Battlefield, grave markers center, memorial cairn right, Outlander Ep105, “Rent,” credit: STARZ/Sony Pictures Television

Warning: Possible spoilers from Voyager, book #3 in the Outlander series

The Heart asks Pleasure – first –
And then – Excuse from Pain –
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering –

And then – to go to sleep –
And then – if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die –

– Emily Dickinson, 1890

On the cusp of our long-awaited Season 3 of Outlander STARZ, starting this Sunday in the U.S., some readers and viewers renew in their minds, if not through talk, the age-old debate over the quality of a show’s adaptation of the book it’s based on. But not me.

Since I have yet to enjoy a book in the series more than the first, this season’s treatment of book 3 matters less to me than those of the previous two books. By re-watching and closely studying Seasons 1 and 2, I’ve become accustomed to expecting improvements, surprising differences, and lackluster elements in adaptation, and I’m prepared to accept the show more fully on its own terms, independent from the books.

Admittedly, I found this easier after reading of Diana Gabaldon’s endorsement of Season 3, particularly in how closely it follows Voyager. But I never needed exactly identical details to cross the format threshold, anyway; the essence and soul of the story are what matter most to this fan. Besides, absolute mimicry would be both impossible and, if it were possible, a detriment to both book and show. The unique entertainment value of each would decline the more alike they became.

So I won’t be re-reading the book for the purpose of comparing and scrutinizing the show’s third season, and I advise both book and show fans to refrain from the activity as well. Any dipping back into the longest of the first three books for me will be piecemeal and most likely to satisfy curiosity or just enjoy reading.

As a fan who returned with her husband from an Outlander-focused Scotland vacation almost a year ago, my interests in the series relate more strongly to Scottish cultural authenticity, the romance of the saga’s milieu, and the richness of history permeating both series. The people, the places, the times.

During the latter half of our trip, we went to the Culloden Visitor Centre and Battlefield near Inverness and purchased a guidebook there. The impressiveness of the museum, enhanced by my familiarity with the Outlander series and Culloden’s role in it, and the sobering experience of walking the battlefield all made a deep impression on me.

Now I’ve been reading the gargantuan Tolstoy novel War and Peace since May, a month after my president bombed war-ravaged Syria. With lesser eruptions of political violence in my own country and North Korea’s recent missile launches escalating Kim Jong-un’s threats of nuclear war, the power and propensities of my government and others naturally darken my thoughts these days.

At the intersection of fiction and cultural history, then, my current and greatest interest in Outlander STARZ Season 3’s first episode, premiering this Sunday night, is their representation of the Battle of Culloden. With the formidable Sam Heughan leading the cast of Jacobite soldiers, making war look sexy is inevitable, but I hope a healthy dose of realism also accompanies the depiction—a rendering of the oft-obscured losing side of history and the consequences of that loss through the season’s first half.

Between the Lines

On the cover of Culloden, the National Trust Scotland’s official guidebook to the battle and field, appear two lines of identical length and thickness. Like railroad ties not on a map but in a picture, they recede at one end, seeming to reach forward and down to the right on the surface, toward some common point of interest—where the pages open. Separated by a word, their other ends point at diverging angles to the sky of the background image.

They nonetheless come from the map, these lines, the red above, the blue diving into the brown straw grass of the funereal field. A blue line, a red line, divided by a clash of cultures, red representing the government, blue the rebels. Blue underscores the beige Gaelic word “Cùil Lodair.” Red upholds the death knell in beige English type: Culloden.

Red rising into the sky, above the fray, above the dead grass of the haunted moor. Blue sinking into the nameless land of burial, of death from final battle in a year-long, lifelong, centuries-long conflict. A conflict said to have been between either English and Scottish, Highland Gaels and Lowland Scots, Jacobites and Hanoverians, or two peoples in a global power struggle for the imperialist upper hand. Shades of each dichotomy fall on the weathered pages of history, but, the guidebook says, none of these alone is strictly true.

So simple, these two little tracks of primary color. So complicated, turbulent, ironic, intriguing, and dark the history they bespeak. Separation, divergence, oppression, progress, strategy, integration, interdiction, imperialism, diaspora—such abstractions are some of the closest we can come to accurately labeling these mysterious, Hydra-headed developments. Mere words, single words, no better than colors, flags, or battle lines for explanation, inadequate to forge understanding.

The causes are many, serial, circuitous, and complex, rendering king, commoner, historian, novelist, and film-maker alike unable to capture fully the why, the how, and, to some degree, even what made this single battle, the Battle of Culloden, what it was. Despite its being the first British battlefield to see archaeological excavation, as with all of history, no one can ever fully know all of what really happened.

Story and History

Do the details matter? All of them? Every last moment, word, object, event, and item? Recorded history is never 100% true, just as works of fiction, even when not historically based, are never 100% untrue. One could also argue that history itself is an art form, not an exact science. Certain things such as names, events, and objects can be objective elements, fact. The rest is nearly, if not in some ways just, as subjective as the politics and fiction surrounding it. All lines blur at the intersection of life and its representation, where writers and readers or viewers connect.

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for.

This was not my war that I should weep for the lost or for those still suffering its reverberations through the collective consciousness. So many conflicts and disasters are not mine, thank God, not ours, yet they merit no fewer tears. I am human and can empathize with my fellow humans.

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, which I’m nearly finished reading, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

It is this individual human lens on infamous past conflict that Outlander, too, affords us. In short, though it flies in the face of conventional military discipline, be like Jamie Fraser. Follow your prince as far as you can, and then when it’s clear the cause is lost, save your people if not also yourself.

Adoption and Adaptation

Although they’re neither my books nor my monuments, museums, or people, I attend the story. And why? Why do I choose to focus on this history and these people over others, including those one could say are more rightly mine? I cling with a sense of loyalty in having adopted threads of a culture not native to me. Why have I selected Outlander, its stories, and Scotland in which to invest my time, money, energy—in short, my conscious presence as an American?

Why did a science academic from Arizona, with no Scottish heritage and who had never been to Scotland, choose a 250-year-old version of that setting for her first novel? Inspired whimsy as much as anything else. An image of a Highlander in a kilt on an episode of Dr. Who pretty much started it all, along with the desire to learn how to write a novel “for practice,” one that became only the first of an international-bestselling series. In short, because she could, and excelled at it.

Now, in more than 35 posts, my blog explores Diana Gabaldon’s imagined saga and its Scottish origins.

The following can all be found through this blog’s menu tab “Outlander.”

  1. Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy
  2. Adapted Bawdy Lyrics: Outlander TV Series, Episode 114, “The Search”
  3. Happy Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day!
  4. Response to Outlander Post, “Episode 115: ‘Wentworth Prison’ (SPOILERS)”
  5. Review: Outlander Season 1’s Ironic Chilling Effect
  6. Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  7. 3 Quick Book Reviews: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager
  8. Outlander, 2015 San Diego Comic-Con: Binge On
  9. Five-Phrase Friday (9): “Slings and Arrows . . .”
  10. Five-Phrase Friday (10): Outlander Grammar
  11. Golden Globes for Outlander Starz!
  12. Outlander “2”: Dragonfly in Amber
  13. Five-Phrase Friday (36): Comic Relief in Outlander STARZ Ep201
  14. Five-Phrase Friday (37): No “Callow” Craft
  15. Outlander STARZ: Season 2 Review, Eps 201 and 202
  16. Review: Sandringham in Outlander STARZ – Beyond Adaptation
  17. Live Event Review: Diana Gabaldon Skype Session
  18. Outlander STARZ: “Faith” and Patience

Posts of our Scotland excursion are linked below and through the far-right, top-menu tab “Scotland” on the Philosofishal home page.

Before the trip:

  1. Book Review: Fodors Travel Essential Great Britain
  2. The Labor of Learning to Set Limits
  3. Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland

After the trip:

  1. Morning Fog, Loch Long, Arrochar – photo, the Trossachs (Oct 11, 2016)
  2. Scottish Color: A Photo Essay – overview of sensory highlights (Oct 12, 2016)
  3. The Paps of Jura – sea-and-mountains vista; language lesson (Oct 15, 2016)
  4. Linlithgow Palace, a.k.a. Wentworth Prison – profile of a lesser-known Outlander STARZ filming site (Oct 20, 2016)
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns – reading “To a Mouse” & The Writers’ Museum (Oct 24, 2016)
  6. Kurdish in Edinburgh – restaurant review (Nov 4, 2016)
  7. Dial up the sun – original poem, plus photos, National Museum of Scotland (Nov 9, 2016)
  8. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1 – my take on Outlander tourism, starting with film sites in Central Scotland (Dec 1, 2016)
  9. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2 – Central Scotland cont’d, Glasgow film sites, south to Ayrshire coast, Dumfries & Galloway (Dec 23, 2016)
  10. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3 – wraps up orientation to Highland sites from Perthshire to Ross & Cromarty to Inverness; Outlander STARZ & my museum/field photos of Culloden Visitor Centre, with commentary  (Feb 11, 2017)
  11. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4 – story of my trip-planning process, snapshots of our itinerary, our experience, and improvements (Mar 11, 2017)
  12. Wildlife TV Programs This Week – a heads-up for Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild. See the end section about select Scotland nature and wildlife tourism options with brief descriptions and links to resources. (Mar 27, 2017)
  13. Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources – (a.k.a. Part 5) our Outlander tour, Slainte Scotland company review, notes on OL sites we visited alone, profiles of most popular OL film sites, list of 40 OL film sites, resources for OL book and inspiration sites, other OL tour co. links, articles on the show, plus how to survive Droughtlander (Apr 11, 2017)
  14. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6 – the final post in the OL tourism series, focused on Scottish and more general travel tips and resources, based on our Scotland trip experiences (Jun 15, 2017)

And I keep coming back to it—because I’m fascinated, captivated, intrigued, provoked in thought and feeling and spirit. It’s Gabaldon’s masterful storytelling that made all this possible and Outlander STARZ that elevates my interest even further. I write because I want to, because I can, and why the hell not? I daresay Tolstoy would approve.

My husband recently informed me that two Icelandic airlines have started direct flights from Cleveland to Reykjavik. “Wanna go to Iceland?” he asked. My coy reply? “Sure, as long as we can stop in Scotland on the way.” We spent our first vacation of any real length and substance since our 2008 honeymoon on a two-week Scottish excursion last fall. Some day, I hope to go back. For our 10th anniversary next year, I cannot think of a better, more romantic way to celebrate than reprising the trip we both so loved.

Outlander Season 3

Until then, there’s the third season journey of the STARZ adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s currently 8-novel series called Outlander. The premiere of the TV show’s return based closely, we have now been told, on Gabaldon’s third book Voyager airs in the United States on Sunday, September 10, 2017. Catch the show on STARZ at 8pm EDT or on the STARZ app.

It’s a 13-episode adventure through 1940s-60s Boston, 1960s and 1740s-60s Scotland, and various parts of the Caribbean Sea in the 1760s after our epic romantic heroes Claire and Jamie reunite in an Edinburgh print shop after 20 years and two centuries apart. I know it’s a lot of numbers to parse. . . . Stay tuned.

That separation, made possible by Claire’s time traveling ability, occurred as a direct result of the Battle of Culloden in 1746. In the Season 2 finale, Claire acknowledges to Jamie her new pregnancy and agrees to keep her promise of going back through the standing stones at Craigh na Dun, taking herself and their unborn child safely back to the future (Sam Heughan’s favorite movie, by the way).

While the battle itself is not part of the book’s plot, the TV show’s premiere features Jamie’s version of recalling the battle. The first several episodes then explore the separate, parallel lives of these time- and ocean-divided lovers, wife Claire and husband Jamie, as they struggle to learn to live and find purpose without one another.

As pivotal as it is to Scottish history, so is the Battle of Culloden to the Outlander STARZ drama. And because occasions for artistic representation of the battle are as rare as a total solar eclipse, I’ve chosen this niche topic as we prepare to watch a fresh rendering of parts of the battle in living color.

I have written previously about the anticipation of a TV representation of the Battle of Culloden in Part 3 of my six-part series An Outlander Tourist in Scotland. Key points are excerpted here:

Culloden Battlefield, a.k.a. Culloden Moor, Inverness-shire. “The Outlander action is all leading up to the bloody Battle of Culloden in 1746. More than 1,200 [Jacobite Army] men were killed [and nearly as many wounded] in the defeat of the Jacobite [side].” Source: photo caption excerpt. This final battle, while not depicted in the book, will be portrayed in the STARZ show during series 3, which is based on the third book Voyager.

Culloden Visitor Centre stewards, battle and Jacobite scholars, descendants of Scotch soldiers and their families, British historians, Outlander fans, Outlander STARZ cast and crew, and Scots citizens–in short, many, many people no doubt all eagerly anticipate this unique project coming to fruition.

I know it will be unforgettable, and I hope it will bring even more people to this historic site that has long been at the center of Scottish cultural identity and its dramatic transformation.

Previous Reenactments

Although this project is unique, the Battle of Culloden has been depicted in film before. Early during the Vietnam War, the 1960s brought us Culloden, Peter Watkins’ 70-minute docudrama, or “mockumentary,” of the battle in black and white, told as if modern TV cameras were present interviewing participants in the battle. Although I have not seen it, the film appears to have garnered some very positive reviews and has been described as “seminal” in its style and substance.

There is also The Great Getaway, a recent film about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight from British justice in the wake of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden, a production in which the battle plays a role. Although a trail of articles tracked its development, I was unable to discover whether this project ever saw the light of day or if it is still forthcoming; if you know anything about it, feel free to leave a comment.

Farther back, in the silent film era, 1923’s Culloden Avenged uses that historical turning point as a pretext for a rematch done archery style between the King’s Scottish Archers and the Woodmen of Arden in an International Archery Contest. Black and white, 60 minutes.

Beyond explanations and images in history books, there are available at the Culloden Visitor Centre museum dozens upon dozens of first-person accounts, artifacts, letters, poems, reenactment recordings, songs, artwork, and other representations of the battle in part or whole. I don’t plan to take my expertise on this subject further than reading all the articles in my Sources section at the end of this post. Perhaps I’ll watch Culloden or The Great Getaway at some point in the future, but history books about Culloden I leave to other readers.

Truth in the Balance

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well Outlander, or any production, portrays history pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, and we are free to do so. The verdict is up to each individual consumer, however, and there should be no criminal indictment, just literary criticism. Art is for everyone to make of what they will.

As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in the conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.

Acknowledging this lack of necessity for accuracy leads us to ask a different kind of question. Which elements of story have the most impact on reader perspective? Should certain aspects carry more weight than others?

If we grant that readers and viewers of the Outlander series love it primarily for one, a few, or many of the following qualities—and these are all present, in my humble opinion—then historical correctness takes a farther seat back in the stretch limo:

  • intriguing premise and sweeping scenery
  • engaging plot and dramatic conflicts
  • compelling ensemble of characters, including seminal villains
  • high-quality writing, with sharp turns of phrase and vividly descriptive details
  • 20th-century English combat nurse’s narrative perspective, intelligence, insight, rash courage, ironic wit, loyalty, compassion, sense of justice (Libra), sharp memory, sharper-tongued sauciness, resourcefulness, ingenuity, medical skills, hardiness, sexual confidence, sense of adventure, large heart, steady determination
  • 18th-century Scottish Highlander’s physical strength, resilience, hot-headed stubbornness (Taurus), decisive leadership, clever intensity, educated virility, romantic sensibilities, controversial brutishness, forward-thinking adaptability, uncanny intuition, and unimaginable tenderness, i.e., “king of men”
  • centuries-spanning heroic couple’s beautiful transcendent love and at-times shocking sexual relationship
  • sci-fi/fantasy elements of time travel, folk superstition turned real, and the generally supernatural

At any rate, the best fiction, and the best art more broadly for that matter, sets out first to inspire, entertain, intrigue, or provoke thought. It is not, and should not be, the novelist’s job to “tell the truth” beyond what is true to the essence of the story itself. It’s fine to educate and enlighten, but that’s not the top priority with fiction.

Still, as someone whose interest extends beyond Outlander’s fiction into the culture and history of the Scottish Highlands, as well as Scotland, the UK, and the Scottish diaspora more broadly, I find value in examining the intersection of history and story.

In Good Faith

Besides the numerous, varied aspects listed above and despite our relieving historical fiction authors of the responsibility for absolute factual precision, this kind of accuracy is no less part of Gabaldon’s critical praise. As a former college professor and editor, as well as a keen and tenacious mind, the author has really done her homework. Readers note her extensive, intensive research of settings, customs, clothing, technology, medical expertise, weaponry, household goods, conveyances, animals, plants, and all other specific details she has selected.

In her first volume of The Outlandish Companion, Gabaldon describes her research precepts, what she tells audiences during lectures on the topic of historical fiction, and the process she pursues to balance authenticity with storytelling.

It is true, on the one hand, that a degree of accuracy, plausibility, and internal consistency are essential to author credibility in the telling of a story if the author is going to keep readers interested and not distracted by errors, suspicion, or confusion.

On the other hand, perhaps we should aim to focus our inquiry instead on the fictional representation of historical themes and settings as fiction—how the book series author imagines contextual history in order to serve a fictional story and how the STARZ TV production imagines its own version of Gabaldon’s use of history.

For, in truth, despite their impressive efforts to create an authentic milieu, both Gabaldon and STARZ’s crew would seem to have made some historico-factual errors toward the end of Dragonfly in Amber (DIA) and in Outlander STARZ Season 2’s penultimate episode, “The Hail Mary.” In different ways, they both diverge from what the National Trust Scotland official guidebook Culloden represents as accurate historical fact concerning the events leading immediately up to the battle. I’ll present each creative choice, compare them to fact, and then discuss implications.

Creative License or Misrepresentation?

Gabaldon changed the timing of the night march. STARZ changed the reason for its being aborted.

In DIA‘s Chapter 46, Gabaldon writes that the night march, historically represented to have occurred the night before the Battle of Culloden, happened two days earlier than it actually did. I would like to give this highly experienced, research-skilled author of numerous historical novels the benefit of the doubt, but I am curious to learn her reason or reasons for making this rather noticeable change in historical timing.

While STARZ/Moore got the moment of its occurrence correct, they more than implied that it was primarily lack of sufficient troops leading to the attack’s delay, rather than solely the projected timing of the army’s arrival at the Cumberland encampment in Nairn, that made Lord George Murray turn his troops around and head back to Inverness.

Fact: The night march did occur on April 15, the night before the Battle of Culloden, and those troops that did return came back exhausted, starving (more than they had been), and barely in time to form up for the noon-time battle.

Fact: There was no errant set of lost Prince Charles troops who never showed to meet up with Murray’s troops, as represented by the show (perhaps to give Jamie Fraser a larger role in the action?). By 2am on April 16, Murray’s lot, delayed instead by darkness, rough terrain and weakened bodies, were still four miles from the encampment and would lose all advantage with the sunrise.

Both of these seemingly unnecessary errors for the story or production create alterations that substantially improve neither dramatic effect nor characterization. Furthermore, pacing could have been preserved in the same way it came out if they’d left well enough alone. An aspect of history that was not in dispute has, under each author, become a thing, so to speak, needlessly increasing potential for controversy where before there was none.

It leads one to wonder whether these differences are accidents or intentional deviations, and if the latter, deviation for what purpose. But the key question is, “Whether purposeful or not, is the misrepresentation problematic, in any substantial way, to either history, story, or present society?”

The answer will, of course, depend on whom you speak with about it. For example, perhaps historians, modern-day Jacobites, Culloden-warrior descendants, fans of Bonnie Prince Charlie, today’s nationalistic Scots, and those sympathetic to people they perceive to be oppressed Highland Scots and Gaels will be none too pleased to see even fictional characters and their circumstances casting Prince Charles and his troops in an unfavorable light.

Omitted also from the show and book is the historic fact that, even before the night march, the over-eager prince formed his lines on Culloden Moor on April 15, the day before the battle actually took place, anticipating Cumberland’s forces that never arrived. Adding this fact to the fictionalized representation would legitimately portray the troops as being as thoroughly exhausted and unprepared as they really were.

Combine the two false starts of previous-day non-battle and aborted night march, and in some respects Charles Stuart appears even more foolish and the Jacobites more imperiled in the 24 hours leading up to the battle than either Gabaldon or the STARZ crew conveys.

Specifically with respect to those few days prior to the battle, however, the TV adaptation proves more historically accurate than Gabaldon’s use of history in the book, and in so doing, the show restores some of the pitiable absurdity of those desperate last moments of build-up to combat.

Perspective and Picking Your Battles

Motives aside and changes in detail considered, what are the effects of each creative choice?

For most readers and viewers, probably none. If you never learned (from a scholarly historical text, for instance) the detailed history of Culloden or the Jacobite Rising of 1745, you wouldn’t know what you missed, except that now I’ve told you.

Those who’ve paid a little more attention, perhaps visited Scotland, including the Culloden Visitor Centre, as well as some Scotland- or UK-based fans of the show, may notice a vague dissonance between scenes watched and history lessons recalled. Perhaps a few will “mark me” that those sequential details don’t wash.

We who notice errors, discrepancies, unintended anachronisms, or timescale flubs in film and television productions, and are bothered by them, can take solace in the fact that almost everybody does it at some point. For story’s sake, a production’s budgetary constraints, because they feel like it, or because they simply don’t know any better, mistakes happen in any endeavor involving human action. Culloden itself is, in a large number of respects, a seminal example of that truth.

Yet again, the Battle of Culloden is “merely days away,” as Claire says in ep212 to Black Jack Randall of his day of death, referring to that same fateful date of April 16, 1746. Our first Outlander-filtered experience of the battle will occur on September 10, 2017. Last April marked the 270-year anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, and the final Outlander Season 2 episodes, representing the eve of that battle, aired for the first time last summer.

Now at last come the battle itself and its aftermath through the eyes of our hero Jamie Fraser. His narrative filter replacing Claire’s usual perspective (complete with voice-overs), along with the combined writer-producer lens, greatly erodes the importance of accurately representing the events Jamie “reports.”

Fictional aims take priority. So, while past error may presage future error (or, in a time-travel story, vice versa?), the author can stand confidently at least behind the acceptable claim, if not the essential trait of fiction, that no character’s or narrator’s viewpoint is ever equivalent to the author’s.

Anyone who reads novels on a semi-regular basis also should know that the narrator is never 100% reliable and, in fact, this is even a large measure of the fun of exploring literature. I’d say the thoughts of a severely injured, exhausted, starving, and love-sick survivor of a major battle having flashbacks of said battle slot him neatly in the category of unreliable limited, first-person narrator, at least in that moment. No offense to James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser.

Characters, if they are realistically drawn, get lots of things wrong—not only details but also the essence of their experiences—with imperfect, incomplete, biased, and sometimes wholly fabricated remembering. Memory, as I learned recently through my memoir writing class, is at best a reconstruction of partially formulated experiences that change in some way inevitably each and every time the mind revisits them. There are no pure, objective memories, and that’s just in real life.

With a first-person narrative pervading the fictional Outlander series, and given the degree of detail we are meant to imagine that fiery, intelligent, love-driven Claire recalling for the reader, such a saga, even as a work of fiction, must necessarily allow for the main character-narrator’s flawed memory. In other words, yes, sometimes in telling her story, Claire could be almost lying, even to herself, though that’s clearly not Gabaldon’s overall intention.

It’s not only just a story; it’s a tale told by a completely manufactured character, who, as some of the best writers and musicians argue, has a mind of its own. Conversely, in a way, we must suspend our disbelief to allow Claire’s memory to be far too intact for realism, thanks to Diana’s meticulous research and writing.

Lines Blurred and Crossed

Where does all this leave us in our questions on the relationships between history and story in the case of Outlander? Is there a red line on misrepresentation or creative alteration? Has Outlander already crossed that line? In world building, no. In some specific events, actions, and sequences, it’s possible.

So, what is a reader or viewer to do with that? My recommendations follow.

Where the creator’s conscious intentions of a certain type of portrayal of a historical figure, event, period, or atmosphere are evident, it comes down to a simple choice. As a consumer, you either accept it or withdraw support by refusing to read or watch.

Where accident seems more prominent than purposefulness, you can criticize or chalk it up to fallible humanity. If it’s unclear and not easily learned one way or another, then be confused if you must, but reserve harsh judgment for greater, more obvious crimes. With Outlander, Gabaldon and STARZ/Moore got the vast majority of things right.

Truly accurate nonfiction representation of history would mean that the red and blue lines on the battle maps of Culloden (and of most conflicts) should in fact both appear as rainbows, multicolored pixel grids, or gradient color bars with mildly contrasting shade tendencies, rather than starkly contrasting, completely separate, solid, single-color areas. In the end, complete accuracy might be both rare and indecipherable and, thus, practically pointless.

And, besides, if you’re already an Outlander fan for any or all the aforementioned non-historical reasons, and some of the historical ones, how likely are you, really, to throw the baby out with the bathwater now?

If I am to keep reading a book or watching a show, you could say my only hard-and-fast rule for soundness beyond good narrative grammar and general readability is internal consistency. By this measure, Gabaldon definitely has a leg up on STARZ and Ron Moore, due to their series of time-scale errors bridging the second half of Season 1 through the opening of Season 2. (The one I don’t discuss in the above-linked post is the “typo” on the screen caption to ep201 when Claire, Jamie, and Murtagh land in France: it would have to be 1744, not 1745, folks.)

Producers of the STARZ adaptation chose a different seasonal starting point of autumn instead of spring of the respective years of 1945 and 1743 to start the series, which in itself might not have been problematic. However, perhaps for this reason but probably also others, the time line chips fell (apart a little) from there. But again, just check the IMDB.com entry of your favorite movie or TV show, and you’re sure to find errors in the “goofs” section of the page.

Imperfect Fondness

Even knowing all that I’ve learned through close examination and a little research about both the timescale issues and the pre-Culloden discrepancies, and feeling troubled by them, I don’t plan to stop watching the show or reading the books (I’m on book 5 of 8, soon to be 9). That’s just how good it all is.

As an English teacher and a student of philosophy, I’ve always believed in the power of fiction to reveal truths of human nature and to raise valuable life questions. Both book and show of the Outlander saga have proven their worth to me by excelling in this art. I’m also curious to see how closely the story follows the battle in this first Outlander representation of scenes from it. Note that Gabaldon chose not to depict the battle, probably to keep focused on Claire’s perspective and to emphasize Jamie’s individual story over the larger context, as is fitting.

The book and TV series have made us laugh, gasp, hold our breath, stare in horror or fascination or infatuation, cringe, look away, and generally become obsessed with the story and its characters. Perhaps most of all, Outlander makes us weep, and the battle depiction may indeed prove to be another major trigger for tears–and cringing.

The infamous Battle of Culloden has been talked about in the script since the first season. It is the reason for our heroic couple’s separation, and it changed the course of history.

The real, horrific general slaughter of Jacobites in battle, their defeat, and that of the rebellion precipitated the great suffering of Scottish survivors and innocent civilians alike. As part of a campaign of punishing traitors, the Duke of Cumberland allowed government soldiers to hunt down fleeing Jacobites, pillage and burn property, torture, rape, and murder in the hours and days after battle.

Later that year, rebel leaders were executed, others including Prince Charles fled the country, and mass exodus followed. New British laws brought more formal economic and cultural suppression of Highland Gaels, and even Scots who had fought for the government, through decades of humiliating, famine-stricken aftermath. Culloden was the last battle fought on British soil.

Inevitably, then, Culloden in Outlander STARZ will be the ultimate tragedy of the entire series so far, a series that has delivered multiple, regular nightmares and personal tragedies, as well as the most hair-raising encounters, rescues, reunions, and journeys.

Till next time, enjoy—and endure in solidarity—the journeys of mind, heart, and soul that these Outlandish art forms, in their peculiar cross-dialogue, give us all. They fuel our obsession and reward our curiosity with such overarching respect, dedication, talent, hard work, and passion for the Outlander story and its cultural and historical inspirations.

I hope this post has offered fans, those on the fence, and those about to jump off some meaningful perspective on the nexus of culture, history, historical fiction, and artistic adaptation. Perhaps Outlander can teach us something about the nature of truth and fact, the variable gap between efforts and results, the wonder of resilience, the supreme importance of love, or the inescapable folly of war. In art as in life, you cannot control all the outcomes, but the choice of which most valuable lessons or beautiful impressions to take with you is no one’s but yours.

And Happy Season 3, Sassenachs! We made it—we conquered the longest Droughtlander yet. Catch the show’s return September 10 on STARZ at 8pm EDT or on the STARZ app.


Sampling of Sources Consulted or Considered, a.k.a. Almost a Bibliography

Recent History

Headlines

Wandering Educators, Dr. Jessie Voigts, 2009: Culloden: From Battle To Exile

BBC News, 2011: Apology sought for “war crimes” in Culloden’s aftermath

I wonder if the show’s success (2015-17) at all contributed to their story selections:

History Scotland, June 2016: The Battle of Culloden – new research dispels three long-held myths. This article reviews a scholarly publication addressing myths about (1) the choice of battleground, (2) types of weapons the Jacobites used, and (3) identities of the opposing sides involved. Includes video of the professor’s views on his findings. The book is Culloden. By Murray Pittock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Works by Pittock on Stuart and Jacobite myths listed in NTS’s Culloden.

Daily Mail, Richard Gray, April 2016: Holey skull gives a glimpse at the brutality of the Battle of Culloden: 3D model of soldier’s remains shows he was shot in the top of the head in 1746 | Daily Mail Online

Daily Mail, Mark Duell, July 2016: Bonny Prince Charlie’s vanquished troops were NOT an army of Highland savages | Daily Mail Online

Outlander News

Daily Record, Carla Callaghan, June 2015: Outlander’s Sam Heughan on his excitement over Battle of Culloden plot and what writer Diana Gabaldon emails him

Cinemablend, Jessica Rawden, August 2016: Why You Should Be Excited About Outlander Season 3’s Battle of Culloden

IGN, Terri Schwartz, April 2016: Outlander: The History vs. Fiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie

Literature

Nonfiction

Culloden, National Trust Scotland, 2016, official guidebook on sale at Culloden Visitor Centre. Writers/contributors: Lyndsey Bowditch, Dr. Andrew Mackillop, Dr. Tony Pollard. Edited by Hilary Horrocks. See also the “Further reading” section opposite the inside back flap of the guidebook.

The Tears of Scotland, Tobias Smollett, 1746 (referenced in the NTS guidebook).

Culloden, John Prebble, 1961. Pimlico, 2002.

The Outlandish Companion, Diana Gabaldon, 1999. Delacorte Press, Random House.

Novels

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

Novels of the Eighteenth Century, Historicalnovels.info/Eighteenth-Century.html lists 1700s novels in English, including all of Diana’s. Sections include British and Irish, Continental Europe, North America, and mysteries in thrillers from these settings.

Scholarly Articles and Books

Joseph Knight: Scotland and the Black Atlantic. Michael Morris. International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue Four, Spring/Summer 2008. ISSN 1751-2808. Terms used to find this source: “books battle of culloden fiction nonfiction history depictions descriptions explanation”

The “Outlander” Experience: Time-Travel, Literary Tourism and North American Perceptions of the Scottish Highlands, Dr Amy Clarke, (N.d.), University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Retrieved on Academia.edu. Good bibliography with some selections below.

Bueltmann, T., Hinson, A. and Morton, G. (2013). The Scottish diaspora. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

Currie, H. (1997). Diana Gabaldon breaks the rules: best-selling author knew nothing about Scotland before writing Outlander series. Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 31 January.

Devine, T. M. (2004). Scotland’s empire, 1600-1815. London: Penguin.

Finlay, R. J. (1994). Controlling the past: Scottish historiography and Scottish identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Scottish Affairs 9, 124-140.

Gold, J. R. and Gold, M. M. (1995). Imagining Scotland: tradition, representation and promotion in Scottish tourism since 1750. Aldershot: Scolar.

McCrone, D. (1992). Understanding Scotland: the sociology of a stateless nation. London: Routledge.

Fine Art

Painting: An incident in the rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

Film/TV

Culloden Avenged, 1923

The Battle of Culloden (TV Movie 1964) – IMDb

Culloden (The Battle of Culloden) (2003) – Rotten Tomatoes

Epic battle to star in Bonnie Prince Charlie film – The Scotsman (The Great Getaway, 2016)

Historical Movies in Chronological Order. Patrick L. Cooney PhD, Rise Education Resource Center.

Outlander

Episode 212, “The Hail Mary,” Outlander STARZ TV series

Aggregate of Season 1 and 2 episodes

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.

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 22:56:18_p1d1-2

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

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 22:59:36_p-1d3-4_18-19_re-done_WritersMuseum

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

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:00:08_p-1only_d5partial_20th_topScreenshot from 2017-03-08 23:00:08_p-2d5partial_20th_middle

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:00:50_p-2d5_20th_bottom

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

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:01:31_p-2d6-7_21-22

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

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:01:57_p-2d8-9_23-24

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:02:06_p-2-3_d9-10_24-25partial

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

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:02:16_p-3_d10-11_25-26

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

Screenshot from 2017-03-08 23:02:36_p-3_d12-14_27-29

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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The Dream of Turning 40

My birthday’s gift to you? Getting personal–one day early.


Each time I’ve thought of this coming birthday, I have heard Meg Ryan’s immortal lines:

“And I'm gonna be forty!”
“When?” asks Harry.
“Some day,” Sally adds weakly.
“In eight years!” Harry reasons.
“Yes, but it's just sitting there like this big dead end. . . .”

As with many of my favorite movies, and even ones I don’t like much, I occasionally hear these movie lines from When Harry Met Sally running through my head as I go about my day. These days, this particular record is broken.

Sally wants a family and has just learned that her several months’ ex-boyfriend Joe is engaged. Harry has gone to her place to comfort her. She’s crying rather hysterically, having shown no signs of grief post-breakup. Finally, the bubble has burst, and Harry and Sally’s friendship takes an irrevocable turn.

What’s my point? Lord knows. But isn’t that a great scene? More entertaining than I find everyday life, which is probably why I live in the cinematic fantasy world a significant portion of the time. (Don’t need the video; it’s all memorized.) Besides, the trauma is happening to someone else. I’m comforted, safe, but it also often means the joy and rapture are more likely found elsewhere. What reward without risk?

My eight years have passed, and 32 more besides. That reminds me, I’ve decided to state my age as “ten and thirty,” as in the days of yore. That sounds much more forgiving. Go for it, 60-year-olds! Say, “I am twenty and forty” or “I am twice thirty.” Sounds younger. I got this idea from my husband, who is nearly 14 months younger than I. Very thoughtful, Dear.

No, my husband is a hoot and adorable, and my parents, bless them, still vital and being parents. But I currently have no pets or children to look after (besides the backyard birds), which is the most accepted form of daily joy. No little ones to amuse me each day, which is, of course, the primary function of kids. Right, parents? Well, maybe not “primary,” but it’s mixed in there with all the exhaustion, stress, bewilderment, and worry.

The truth is I’m on the fence about having kids and have been for a while, but the inevitable alarm bells for presumably fertile women go up in volume a few decibels with the introduction of that dreaded digit “4.” No more thirties, not that I’ll miss the years themselves. No more legitimately falling into the young category. I’m entering that middle zone some refer to as “too young to be old and too old to be young.” Sounds like license for a mid-life crisis, for sure. 

But it’s certainly not a mid-reproductive years crisis. No, if it is a crisis or anything like, it’s that we’re coming down to the wire. As Sally Albright says after “this big dead end,” “and it’s not the same for men. Charlie Chaplin had babies when he was 73.” Harry replies: “Yeah, but he was too old to pick ’em up.” Sally starts to laugh but it returns to sobs.

Generally, women who want children and haven’t found a mate by their mid- to late-30s have more cause for mid-life crisis than men do, but science and evolution give us hope for higher numbers of fertile years and higher survival rates amidst high-risk pregnancies and complications of childbirth. Risk is always there, and danger still increases with age, but the 21st century is patient with late bloomers, whereas even as recently as 150 years ago, unmarried women past their twenties were already doomed to spinsterhood.

Risks and rewards come in many forms, and mean different things for different people. We as a society seem to believe we have no right to seek, let alone expect, healthy challenge or happiness in work or marriage itself or travel or the arts, especially not instead of in reproducing. Shouldn’t we take growth and joy everywhere we can get them?

You might think it depends on whether you’re passive or active in the “getting.” Actively seeking seems more honorable somehow, more adult, more enlightened than waiting for manna from heaven, as if we’re helpless, inert, ineffectual, and faithfully convinced of it. I.e., sheep.

Two movies intercede here. The Sound of Music and She’s Having a Baby, another 80s gem. “The Reverend Mother says you have to look for your life,” Maria tells Captain Von Trapp. And: “What I was looking for was not to be found but to be made,” says Jefferson Edward (“Jake”) Briggs of his wife and newborn son. Love that John Hughes.

Yet, even when we look for and make a life, nothing that results is absolutely great or horrible. Just as important as the issue of seeking actively or passively is to weigh the potential risks and rewards together.

For me, added risks come with carrying and birthing a child. Greatest of these besides age is that, due to inflammatory arthritis, any pregnancy would be considered by clinicians to be “high risk” from the start. I can imagine, have imagined the possible rewards as I watched my friends expand their families and now watch their eldest become teenagers. I’ve made my mental pros and cons lists and thought about all the right and wrong reasons and good and bad ways to have children. I’ve assessed our suitableness for parenthood and the question of passing on hereditary health conditions. Most important, after all that careful consideration and consultation, though, is to feel the desire rise above fear and doubt.

But whatever ends up touching us, however strangely or improbably it happens, however deliberately, desperately, or passionately we reach for it, there it is. It can either be good or bad for us, or both. We receive the good with the bad whether or not we want either of them.

The universe presents good, bad, worse, and better to us sometimes as options from an à la carte menu. The tongs grab the casual sex instead of the terrifying emotional chemistry that means risking great loss. Single woman will take slavery to meddling, co-dependent mother with side of slaw, instead of daunting freedom of looking for life, with unsweetened iced tea. But we always get a full plate. Another memorized movie brings the idea to a head:

“I have this theory of convergence that good things always happen with bad things, and I mean, I know you have to deal with them at the same time, but I don’t know why . . . . I just wish I could work out some sort of schedule. Am I babbling? Do you know what I mean?”

An enamored Lloyd Dobler replies, “No.”

But I got it perfectly! “Diane Court, whoa.” Genius of 1988, valedictorian of the class in Say Anything . . . Weren’t the 80s golden for rom-coms? She finds love just when her father’s life is falling apart. She can’t pick and choose. They both descend unbidden, and neither is going away any time soon. So she does the logical thing and pushes away the good out of loyalty to her lying, thieving father.

We do that sometimes—make self-sabotaging choices, afraid of happiness, scared of the sin of it, especially as others suffer, whether we play any role in their suffering or not. It feels wrong to be happy when loved ones are not. Fortunately . . . perhaps, Diane rights herself, rejecting Dad for Lloyd. The ending is open ended.

Love does not guarantee happiness; the opposite is more likely. But that doesn’t mean we should shun love. Pain is a powerful teacher. Once in a while, we learn something valuable to apply to the future.

Oh so much wisdom can be found in film. Our movie and TV heroes show us how we stumble and how to recover. They demonstrate how it’s done. The best stories at least hint at the fact that it’s an ongoing process, until it’s not.

If we’re lucky, we get to choose to embrace life or embrace death. “Get busy living, or get busy dying,” says Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption. Even more fortunate is the blessing of joy in this life. We may make our own happiness. We can certainly try.

Failing that, we can preserve our sense of wonder, mystery, beauty, or hope, even when rapture is out of reach. Even when disability, disease, injury, mistakes, conflict, or loss seems to mock our reaching.

In truth, fortune is fickle, and navigating it takes effort and patience, of initiative and waiting and recovery, and, for some, of praying. It really does seem to be all about the balance.

Whether equilibrium or tipped scales, the balance holds all. A 40-year-old can wobble like a toddler in heart or mind or body. A six-year-old can dispense ancient wisdom effortlessly. A 90-year-old can cut through the bullshit with razor sharpness. Nothing is completely as we might assume. Expect to have your expectations defied.

When you do, the likelihood of it may just increase. Sometimes a taste of the possibilities outside convention opens up the horizon like a star exploding. It’s messy, destructive even, but creative, too. We are all more resilient than we suppose, more capable of renewal and starting fresh after a fall or fallout or the numbing effects of time. I must remember this.

I think about death a lot, particularly my own, and not just because it’s my birthday. I expect to be struck down at any moment, much of the time. Especially any time I get in a car. I don’t really fixate; I just let the thoughts meander through. There’s little to stop them. Sometimes, I think I focus on death as a way to force myself to embrace life more vehemently. Losing grandparents, aunts, uncles, former classmates, and friends hasn’t done the trick. The terror does not yield to carpe diem, and some darkness lingers.

Losing the dog last February, however, brought new emptiness, which I greedily filled with guilty pleasures and renewed ambitions. Seen another way, I dusted myself off and kept going. However, along with vigorous effort and focus comes not just hope, but expectation.

We have no right to expect positive outcomes just because we are open to them or want them or reach for them or demand them. But while we’re here, we might as well try to build and enjoy something that is ours. Few will remember us for long after we’re gone, and eons from now, no one will.

Nowadays, almost as much as I think about death, I wonder about having kids, and my husband and I discuss it periodically (no, not monthly). The questions arise, along with the concerns. Answers are few and indefinite. In short, neither desire nor aversion has yet won.

People like to say, “It’s never too late,” but frankly, for everything, one day it will be. The line cavalierly sanctions procrastination of major life decisions. It’s little different from “There’s always tomorrow,” but that may truly never come, and one day, it just won’t. Do now, be now. All we know for sure is now. Do what, you ask? What is most true to yourself. This notion has become a trend and may now be somewhat out of fashion.

I’ve read my share of self-help books, most before the age of 30, and some have pearls of wisdom I’ve tucked away. You may know one that says, “Your mission in life is where your deep joy and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (I won’t say which one; I’m promoting movies, not books, today.) In reading these, and favoring this quote, I’ve trained myself to be alert to my inner truth and its expression, and it seems to be working as I work. I don’t seek out those kinds of books anymore; too many better options await my attention.

If we all cop out or settle to some degree and at some point, or even if only most of us do, it’s no great tragedy. On the other hand, if we ignore our soul’s longing completely, it may not be a mortal sin, but it could become a terminal regret. My fear of regret keeps me asking important questions such as, How can I make the most of my life? What am I meant to do?

Like today, even tomorrow may be nothing but a dream. In that case, I choose to embrace the dream, and the dreams within it. I’ve made it this far. I survived. I fulfilled the dream of turning 40. It’s a milestone, a benchmark, a signpost, a weigh station (I try not to stop at those). As if life is an aging contest or some sort of race to the finish, as if the finish line were not death itself.

Age is a sort of accomplishment in our culture. For people with, say, a terminal illness or violent household, this may well be true. Obviously, war-torn countries are so described because of death and maiming, where celebrating survival may become almost necessity. Still, in places and times of relative peace, we celebrate birthdays from year one forward, and in weeks and months before that. When birthdays are used to celebrate life and becoming, it makes sense to add some hoopla.

Otherwise, encountering another year really isn’t much of an achievement. This time, a song borrows the old adage: “Wisdom doesn’t follow just because you’ve aged.” Experience doesn’t guarantee learning. “Been there, done that” doesn’t mean you’re really any better off than someone who hasn’t. So don’t gloat so much, old fogie.

I’m certainly not done yet, not done trying to “fulfill” my “potential.” At some point, you’ve got to deliver, Dodo-head, or find yourself going the way of the dodo. And who would mourn the loss? The inability to evolve, to persevere, maintain a foothold on earth, on behalf of your species? To represent! I always feel that pressure to achieve, to make a difference, to leave a legacy, but with long-term pressure, I risk overcooking.

One side of you is saying, “And so you should.” And perhaps: “How selfish of you, how typical, to lament the inevitable passage of time, to make excuses for not using yours wisely. More selfish still, just spending (wasting) the time thinking about it because you ‘have the time’ to do so.” That’s my projected criticism from all those busy family people my age who don’t have such a “luxury,” the disapproval from the other voices in my head.

Why do I choose to look at it this way? Is that motivating? Even with these last quote marks, my defiance comes through. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” says Popeye. It’s a defiance to convention, conformity, being ordinary. It’s an insistence on forgiving myself for not being perfectly healthy, at my ideal weight, in shape, and bursting with energy while also juggling two jobs, a home, and children. Besides, I do juggle many parts of a busy life.

I defy contempt for privilege, I defy the progressive insistence that moral rightness means impoverishing oneself in the name of equality, and I defy the stigma and misconceptions about writers’ and artists’ lives. I could do office work, and I have done lots of it. I could do manual labor if I really, really had to, but I don’t. Now I work to be an artist, I teach for some income, and, thanks to my husband, I’m not starving. There, I said it.

Of course I would consider writing about, which requires dwelling upon, turning 40. I am a writer. And what’s more, a writer in a culture accustomed to celebrating and obsessing about birthdays. I’ve often thought that I am better suited to life as a free-wheeling scholar from the Age of Enlightenment or something than to traditional, modern-era work. Rather than snub the blessing, I embrace the chance to be just that kind of scholar and writer, while still working toward greater individual contributions to our income.

I usually try to keep my defiance in check in my writing, never wanting to seem too selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, too forthright, feminist, emotional, emotionalist, or otherwise stereotypically female, except in jest. But also because I claim a cherished penchant for reason and logic. True, the suppression is a bit neurotic, but, hey, awareness is the first step.

I really like that first step. I walk it all the time. It’s an infinite loop, as though I have one leg much shorter than the other and am walking in circles. Selfish –> anxious about it –> neurotic about anxiety –> selfishly neurotic. It’s oh so productive.

Suppressing defiance or anger, though, just comes across as being cold, rigid, emotionally distant, or, perhaps worse, dishonest. Unlikely I’m fooling anyone but me.

Defiance leaks out, anyway, eventually, in other contexts, the rest that I have—tutoring, friends, family. I’m human and American. Overall, I like to think my students and loved ones are pleased with me despite my egocentric leanings. (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)

Maybe I shouldn’t try so hard to defy expectation and to be different. The effort has become its own sort of tedious convention. Those who know me have come to expect it. Who, in the end, is truly 100 percent original? We are creatures of habit, pattern, and imitation. Relax a little when faced with things you really can’t change. Do everything in moderation, even moderation. Let loose on occasion. Balance.

And so, I revel in the riches of imagination, in all its forms, mediums, shapes, and colors. “God is in the rain,” says Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta. In nature, in reverie, in reflection. That’s where God lives for me. Where I can find something of grace, of beauty, of serenity, invigoration, balance. It is my universe. I can touch it, see it, hear it, taste it, examine it, love or hate it, reject or accept it.

We all need ways to shelter ourselves from the certainty of death, at least long enough to invest in our lives and to dream new dreams. The only soul I have to live with is this living, sensing one. I mean to do right by it. Invest in the balance, and then, “wait and hope,” as the Count of Monte Cristo says. And smile.

My new dream? Only one of many: the chance to see how I feel about all this at age 50. What of effort, deepest joy, money, ego, pain, employment, God, imagination, kids, limits, convention, neurosis, the world’s hunger, potential, balance, or wisdom then? I hope I’ll see–and hear those movie lines calling.


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graduate school graduation, age 31, or “ten and 21”

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