Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.


Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:

square-rock-lichen-Nether-Largie-stone_DSCN3484_eds-2017-12-20

Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg


Two weeks later . . .

My eureka moment: Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6–Oh, NOW I Get It! Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots


The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

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.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

Book Review: War and Peace


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 3

In Part 2, we explored the western central and southern sites of Outlander TV series filming, focusing on the Glasgow area and Ayrshire. This time, we head north into the Highlands, starting with Perthshire, also a central region. In an upcoming post, I’ll present our particular trip itinerary for your consideration and discuss existing Outlander-dedicated tours you can book and enjoy in your Scotland travels. To start our journey from the beginning, see An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1.

As for the Outlander sites, this post will take us full circle so to speak from one version of the story’s central plot mechanism—the fictional standing stone circle of Craigh na Dun—to another, with several essential stops in between. We start north of the main cities Glasgow and Edinburgh and take a gradual north-westerly path from there. The climb begins with a tantalizing mystery of the TV show and ends with a point of resonance for Diana Gabaldon’s creation of the books. You may also learn some history along the way.

Dividing a Nation

One thing I noticed in my tourism research was how inconsistently the areas of Scotland are named from one resource to another and over time. To distinguish areas of north central and northern Scotland for this post, and find current, accurate names for them, I finally found a resource that clarifies how Scottish lands are sliced and how they overlap: UndiscoveredScotland.co.uk.

Fully orient yourself to where’s where on their Councils, Regions, and Counties page, which links to breakdowns of those three different types of division. Or, for the simplified tourism approach, see the official Scottish Tourist Board website mentioned previously, VisitScotland.com. Find out more about how the tourism industry, as well as British and Scottish governments, have labeled things; see the first footnote under the heading “Notes on Area Names.” *

In short, it can be confusing, but with quick look-ups, ready resources, and having precise addresses, you’ll find your tailored trip less daunting to plan. If you’re going far less DIY, it shouldn’t matter. I can nearly guarantee you’ll be well taken care of, at least in country. Choice of travel agent or airline in your home country–and now, perhaps, getting home again–is another matter.

From Here on Up

The Highlands, broadly considered, are sort of a mythical, amorphous landscape in some respects, for a few reasons. For a discussion of this issue, see my second footnote section under “Notes on Area Names.” **

Whatever names the land acquires, one of its most distinguishing features are its diverse, ubiquitous configurations of rock and stone, both geologic—hills, caves, coast lines, mountains, tors, volcanic plugs—and man made—standing stones, stone circles, cairns, brochs, crofts, stone fences, houses, streets, castles, and so on. Stone, loch, and green together mean “Scotland.”

The “Highlands” Sites:

Outlander Show Filming, Book Story, and Scottish History by Region or County

My heart is in the Highlands, wherever I go” – Robert Burns

Perthshire, Perth & Kinross council area     →      Outlander film setting

From roughly east to west toward the Great Glen, the areas of general attraction in the glen of Rannoch include Schiehallion, Dunalastair Estate, Kinloch Rannoch village, Loch Rannoch, and Rannoch Moor.

Rannoch. → On a line east of Glencoe and Fort William in the Central Highlands, somewhere on the Dunalastair Estate, they “can’t tell you where,” the Outlander TV production erected their set of Diana Gabaldon’s fictional circle of standing stones called Craigh na Dun. Shown in eps 101, 103, 108, 111, 201, and 213, this set of Claire’s time-travel scenes includes its backdrop—the very real Loch Rannoch and surrounding mountains, including Schiehallion to the southeast.

Lying on a National Scenic Area between the Cairngorms National Park to the north and Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park to the south, Dunalastair Estate sits on 17,000 acres. The village, loch, hills, and moor are accessible to the general public, as are the holiday cottages for booking on estate land. Caitriona Balfe (Claire Randall Fraser) once called this filming location her favorite and noted the magic that seemed to meet the crew each time, and she’s not the only one. Source: Travel+Leisure magazine’s article “The Cast and Crew of ‘Outlander’ Reveal Their Favorite Filming Locations.”

The Dunalastair Estate website features comprehensive details for tourists. It covers area clan history, the estate family, farm, village, wildlife, rare plants, hiking, horse riding, railway, and other recreational options, plus links to websites like that of the Rannoch and Tummel Tourism Association. Source: http://www.dunalastair.com/Dunalastair-Estate

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Rannoch Moor looking west to Glen Coe. Creative Commons image by cosmicherb70, via Buzzfeed.com & Flickr

* * *

Argyll (county), Highland council area      →      Outlander film settings

Glen Coe. This mountain range is in long shots of Scotland. It was all about showcasing Scotland itself. If you’ve seen representative landscape views of Scotland in any form, chances are you’ve seen Glen Coe. One such view has been my blog’s header image in early 2017. The glen is the result of glaciers cutting into extinct volcanoes, creating a broad, sweeping valley of pleasing symmetry from key vantage points.

Glencoe is the name of the village in Lochaber to the west of the picturesque glen, and the two are connected by the umbilicus of the River Coe. Coming from the south, follow the A82 westward from Loch Lomond toward Glencoe Village, Loch Leven, and the Great Glen. There are dedicated viewpoints along the way where you can park and take it all in.

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The Three Sisters of Glen Coe, Season 1, Episode 1, opening shot during Claire’s voice-over. Image by STARZ & Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

* * *

Cairngorms National Park, Highland       →       Outlander film settings

“Cairngorms” rather loosely translated means “pile of blue rocks,” or “blue stone heap.” The Gaelic for this mountain range sounds much better, and Gaelic is often helpfully descriptive. There is also a single mountain called Cairngorm. Covering a vast area of natural beauty, rare wildlife (wildcats, capercaillies, and mountain hares in winter, red squirrels, red deer, and others), scenic vistas, castle ruins, pine forests, lochs, burns, and waterfalls, nature-loving visitors can spend substantial time in the Cairngorms National Park year round and not be disappointed.

If you were traveling from Rannoch, you would enter the park from the south, taking the A9 which starts in Stirling and flows through Inverness all the way to the far northwest Highland ferry port of Scrabster. The River Spey chases the A9 along the western boundary of the Cairngorms, and soon both find the small town of Newtonmore, just north of which is the Highland Folk Museum.

Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, Cairngorms National Park, Highland. Almost due north of the village of Kinloch Rannoch, this historical outdoor museum recreates 18th-century Highland life every day and aids in Outlander storytelling in a few ways  → in ep101 for the shelter where Murtagh first takes Claire to meet the other Highlanders, the scenes of village folk around the Castle Leoch area in season 1, and during ep105 for rent collections and wool waulking when the ladies sing “Mo Nighean Donn.”

From their website under the auspices of stewards Highlife Highland, “The Highland Folk Museum sits at the east edge of the village of Newtonmore less than two miles from the town of Kingussie. It lies just off the A9 at the west side of the Cairngorms National Park.”

As a preserved 18th-century village, the attraction has a total of 30 time-period furnished buildings, including a 1700s township of six buildings and a section featured as a working 1930s croft. The whole property, fully active up until the 1960s, spans one mile in length and also contains the Shelter, “Am Fasgadh,” housing 10,000 artifacts, plus a research library, conservation lab, offices, meeting rooms, and more.

Source: https://www.highlifehighland.com/highlandfolkmuseum/

The address is , Kingussie Road, Newtonmore, Inverness-shire, PH20 1AY. Currently in winter closure, the site will reopen in April 2017. Visit the official website for more pictures and information.

Tulloch Ghru, Rothiemurchus Forest, near Aviemore and Inverdruie, Cairngorms National Park, Highland, is an area of hilly woodlands spreading north of, but not far from, the Highland Folk Museum. → Featured in the opening credits of each episode and in scenes where Claire and the Highlanders travel from Craigh na Dun to Castle Leoch in ep101, “Sassenach,” it is peppered like Rannoch with ancient Caledonian pines along a western stretch of Cairngorms National Park.

Tulloch Ghru may also serve in parts of ep108, “Both Sides Now,” such as the woods where Claire and Willie wait while Jamie and the others meet Horrocks. (Not sure about this; I cannot find my original source for that idea.) But you won’t find it mentioned on standard tourist websites.

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Tulloch Ghru, maybe –> Claire, Jamie & Dougal talk British ambush risk. Image by STARZ & Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

The Outlander filming sweet spot is somewhere between Aviemore and Inverdruie, southeast of both and not far south of the Cairngorms Reindeer Centre. To start the hunt, follow the sleuthing, with information distinguishing place names in the area (Tulloch to the north vs. “Tullochghru” to the south), diligently pursued and shared at Wizzley.com. An old map of the area appears on that site.

Anyway, such pine forests in Scotland, though few compared to their ubiquity in times past, provide similar atmosphere as each other, and wee Tulloch Ghru may not stand out visually to the Outlander tourist. Generally, woodland film locations are notoriously difficult for the mere mortal to pinpoint once the crew cleans up, though some visitors may prevail. Interested in plant succession and vegetation change in the park since the last Ice Age? Knock yourself out at Cairngorms Learning Zone.

Note: Cocknammon Rock, also featured in this portion of ep101, is a fictional rock formation invented by Diana Gabaldon and created by the show with special effects.

The Cairngorms National Park itself boasts several helpful tourist resources at visitcairngorms.com (supported by VisitScotland.com, the official tourist board of Scotland) and cairngorms.co.uk, among other sites. For an outline map of the Rothiemurchus Forest of the filming site, go to the latter website’s Landscape Areas page and select “Rothiemurchus Forest.” Rothiemurchus is also a woodland estate with an island castle. For a beautiful map of the whole park, see the Cairngorms National Park Map.

* * *

Ross and Cromarty      →      Outlander book and historical settings

To start farther north and work your way southward back to Inverness for the train to Edinburgh or Glasgow and a flight back home, head for Ross & Cromarty. There you’ll encounter the real Mackenzie lands and their seat of power, Castle Leod. 

Castle Leod, near Strathpeffer–Easter Ross or “in the east of Ross-shire” (county of Ross) or in the regional district of Ross & Cromarty, i.e., something to do with “Ross”–seat of Clan Mackenzie.  →  Inspiration for Castle Leoch in the book. The name from the book was then continued by the show. However, shared in Part 1 of my Outlander tourism series, the historical castle itself is played by Doune Castle in Stirling. Castle Leod is a private estate accessed only by prior permission. However, it has been a stop on at least one Outlander tour out of Inverness.

For pictures and official information, see the gallery page at Castleleod.org.uk. This well-preserved Highland castle, billed as one of the most picturesque and romantic by its stewards, can be booked for special events including weddings. The Clan Mackenzie Society of Scotland and the UK was very helpful with information about access and tours involving Castle Leod. The associated Clan Mackenzie Routes also offers tour package options.

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Castle Leod. Image credit: Clan Mackenzie Society at clanmackenziesociety.co.uk/castles

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Castle Leod, “east view.” Image by coltarbt at Tripadvisor.com

Castle Leod will have select open summer days in 2017 in May, June, July, and August, and the grounds also open to the public on August 12th for the Strathpeffer Highland Games, held annually.

In a valley alongside the Peffery Burn, the castle property is NNE of Strathpeffer off the A834, and the closest town immediately northeast is Auchterneed. Bottacks is also nearby. The address of Castle Leod is .

Loch Garve, west of Castle Leod, Strathpeffer, Easter Ross → The loch mentioned as the home of the water kelpie (water horse; no, not the same species as Nessie) in the fireside tale Rupert tells before the rent party is attacked by members of Clan Grant in ep 108, “Both Sides Now.”

My online search for “Loch Garve” one day brought up the legend of the water kelpie; the story is indeed a long-held Scottish fixture.

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Falls of Rogie. Image by EvaMarina2015 at Tripadvisor.com

Between Loch Garve and Castle Leod are the Falls of Rogie, a series of sought-after waterfalls on the Black Water River, where salmon can be seen jumping the “ladder” and where you can walk across the river on a suspended bridge. Also within this area is the Strathpeffer Heritage Village and Victorian spa resort.

Down from the Northwest, we reach the Great Glen and Scotland’s most famous loch.

* * *

Inverness-shire    →     Outlander book, film, historical, and inspirational settings

Inverness is an interesting case for its lack of interest, perhaps. At least that’s what my friend who recommended I read Outlander said about their Outlander tour with Inverness Tours. I’m not sure if it was the pedestrian passerby on the highway shouting up to their double-decker tour bus “Inverness is sh*te!” that influenced her thoughts on this, but she basically told me there isn’t much besides the river views worth seeing in Inverness itself.

To say Inverness has little tourist value is not strictly true, but as a fellow Outlander fan with other priorities, I decided to follow my friend’s lead on this one. As a result, my personal experience of Inverness is limited to navigating traffic, scenes of the River Ness (mainly in pouring rain) and Moray Firth, parking beneath the Inverness Castle hilltop, and eating at two fine city restaurants.

Known as the capital of the Highlands, there are indeed attractions worth visiting in the city. I’ll tell you about a less beaten path we took for ourselves, along with other charms Inverness afforded us, when I share our full itinerary in a future post. Incidentally, my first pick of an Outlander tour was through Inverness Tours, but they were booked for our time frame when I finally made my decision, so plan many, many months ahead! We took instead Slainte Scotland‘s Firth of Forth and Fife area Outlander day tour, which was wonderful.

When you focus on the book and TV show, it is equally true that nothing in particular makes Inverness an Outlander tourism city. Rather, its proximity to sites of story interest is what really recommends it. You may decide it’s a nice central location for lodging. Below are some of those story-related sites around Inverness that complement those in Ross & Cromarty.

Loch Ness (and Urquhart Castle), south of Inverness, connected by the River Ness, extends on a roughly north-south line for more than 20 miles. Featured in the book but not in the STARZ series, Gabaldon uses Loch Ness to bolster the mysterious, supernatural element of encountering a mythic beast, presumably either “Nessie” or one of her ancestors, collectively known as the Loch Ness Monster.

North of Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle and west of Inverness is the town of Beauly, seat of the Fraser clan of Lovat, kin of our story’s hero Jamie Fraser. A distinctive treasure awaits in the heart of town.

Beauly Priory, a truly “beau lieu” (French) or “beautiful place,” presents its ruined self in full splendor and grace. The names Fraser and Mackenzie appear frequently on the tombstones within and around the priory.    In the book, this holy place is where Claire meets Maisri, the seer who works for Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, infamously known as “the Old Fox.” Both the clan chief and his wise woman appear in ep208, “The Fox’s Lair.”

Technically not in Inverness-shire but also not far from Inverness to the west, Beauly Priory is free to enter and open 1 April – 30 September. Check for closures at all Historic Environment Scotland sites: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/check-for-closures/. The address is .

After Beauly Priory’s enchantment (all above images by C. L. Tangenberg), last and perhaps best are two very important sites just a short trip east of Inverness.

Culloden Battlefield, aka Culloden Moor, Inverness-shire.  →  “The Outlander action is all leading up to the bloody Battle of Culloden in 1746. More than 1,200 men were killed in the defeat of the Jacobite clans.” Source: photo caption excerpt http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland/page/14. 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.

The most prominent inclusion of Jacobite Rising history in the Outlander series comes in the form of weaving its facts throughout the story. To her fans, Diana Gabaldon’s research prowess is legendary, and the show has followed her lead with excellent historical accuracy and detail, in everything from herbs to weapons to period architecture to literal embroidery on costumes (with a few intentional nods to the 1940s in Claire’s 1740s French dresses) and furnishings.

Plot elements such as an inside look at the rebel cause in series 1, discussions and decisions by Clans Mackenzie and Fraser in both series about political loyalties, mention and depiction of the battles of Prestonpans and Falkirk, and Claire and Frank’s talk of Jacobite history both on and off the battlefield in the 1940s all merge into that complex tapestry.

In 1743, smiling after Claire’s joke, Jamie casually mentions the Mackenzie rent party’s approach to Culloden Moor. Triggered by this, Claire suddenly recalls her sad visit there with Frank, circa 1945. “What of these Mackenzie men? How many [would] die on that bloody moor?” Having begun to bond with them over the past few weeks, she now fears for their lives, with a growing sense of helplessness.

The must-see visitor centre combines access to the field with a state-of-the-art, immersion museum experience, complete with dozens upon dozens of primary accounts conveyed in both textual and audio commentary and a four-wall motion picture re-enactment of the battle itself. The museum is designed for the visitor to receive and absorb a robust before, during, and after depiction of Scotland’s last war for freedom, before stepping outside for the most fundamental evidence of its high costs.

Inside, you learn about the Jacobite Rising of 1745 from its inception, with dual-corridor pathways providing both the government and Jacobite perspectives leading up to the war, along with intricate Battle of Culloden statistical and social details, and a comprehensive portrayal of the prolonged aftermath. This is one of the best places to learn a substantial amount about Bonnie Prince Charlie in particular. The centre has also taken pains to ensure Gaelic language representation throughout the museum and on field kiosks.

A dark hallway allows you to hear what each side had to say about the failed Night March before the battle. After viewing the graphic re-enactment film complete with sound effects (think 3D Saving Private Ryan cinematography), don’t miss the excellent aerial-view digital model of troop movements with audio narration. The same room displays artifacts that were found on the battlefield and examples of swords, pistols, rifles, dirks, mortars, and cannons used in the fight.

Next, you can walk the moor, view the memorial cairn, grave stones, flags, and other battlefield features, and better imagine what it must really have been like. Pay your respects at the Clan Fraser memorial stone, which resides directly opposite the memorial cairn, among a series of clan memorial stones. More often than not, many of these will be graced with flowers and other tokens of remembrance.

The land is relatively flat but expansive, so budget your time for the trek. Go early if you intend to add another attraction on the same day, but I recommend light, short, and upbeat follow-up–something purely entertaining and relaxing or mostly physical, such as a beach picnic, river cruise, whisky tasting, tea time, train ride, horseback ride, or bagpipe show.

Actually, you might want to make a firm plan for the whisky. The Culloden historical experience, though fascinating and engaging, is a top-notch example of the ultimate sobering agent. However, despite one myth, birds do indeed sing on the moor–I made a point of listening for them after reading that somewhere. Our visit also featured two beautiful horses grazing the moor and watching over the fallen.

In getting there, keep in mind that several places in the area bear the name “Culloden”: the town of Culloden, Culloden Moor, and Culloden Battlefield, which is technically on Drumossie Moor, as well as the Culloden Inn. The town named Culloden is a bit removed to the northwest, and the namesake moor is immediately northeast of the battlefield. Culloden Inn restaurant is very close to the visitor centre, between Drumossie and Culloden Moors.

Murtagh mentions Kildrummie Moss in ep212, “The Hail Mary,” as well. This is actually farther northeast in Nairn-shire, closer to Nairn, where the British General Cumberland’s camp celebrated his birthday on the eve of their march to Culloden.

Regardless of your degree of interest in Outlander, war, or formal museums, no first visit to Scotland would be complete without at least half a day at Culloden. Be sure to include it.

Address: Culloden Battlefield visitor centre, Culloden Moor, Inverness, Highland IV2 5EU. Tel: 0844 493 2159. Visitor Centre, Restaurant, Shop: open 1 Sept – 31 Oct, daily 9 – 5.30. Battlefield open daily, all year. Price: Adult £11.00. Hire of battlefield tour PDA is included in admission price. NTS members in free.

Clava Cairns, Inverness-shire, is a set of circular piles of stones (chambered and kerb cairns), and standing stone circles (monoliths) around those cairns, along the River Nairn, near Inverness. Perhaps sharing features of the stone circle Gabaldon pictured as Craigh na Dun for her story, “the 3 cairns were burial sites about 4,000 years ago, although the remains have long since been removed. Standing stones surround the cairns, but they haven’t seen any mysterious disappearances or reappearances lately—that we know of, anyway.” Source: photo caption http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland/page/5

As part of her answer to the question “Are all the locations used in the books real?”, Diana notes in her website’s FAQs section that she had not been to Scotland when she wrote Outlander but would not be surprised if a place like the one she describes for Craigh na Dun actually existed. She found the standing stones at Castlerigg, Lake District, England, to be “very like” her imagined site once she finally did travel to Britain.

She mentions Clava Cairns and Tomnahurich Cemetery Hill as possibly being similar, but she states she had not been to Tomnahurich, which is supposed to be a “fairy’s hill.” It was not clear whether she had visited Clava Cairns by the time of her answer’s posting on that particular page, but I am fairly certain she has been there since, and I know she has visited Culloden as well.

Source: http://www.dianagabaldon.com/resources/faq/faq-about-the-books/#locations

Remember: Numerous examples of cairns, standing stones, stone circles, brochs, volcanic plugs, glacier-carved valleys, caves, and other spectacular rock formations define the landscape of Scotland’s mainland and islands. You’re likely to find one example to be as interesting as the next. This one is special in part for its very close proximity to Culloden Moor and its being part of Inverness-shire.

Just across the River Nairn to the southeast of Culloden Battlefield and visitor centre, the address of Balnuaran of Clava, or the Clava Cairns, is . It is free and open to the public.

* * *

As you have seen through descriptive detail and vivid images, Outlander highlights abound in the Highlands as much as in central and southern Scotland. As I hope you have also seen, Scotland deserves exploring in its own right. Its beauty, culture, history, and adventure are matched by impressive hospitality.

Now that I have oriented you–in part 1, part 2, and part 3 of this series–to the places throughout the land of Scots that can fascinate and delight the Outlander tourist, part 4 will present my specific model for putting it all together. I’ll show you how I approached planning our trip as a do-it-yourself traveler, our full bespoke (that is, “custom-made” for you non-UK folks) itinerary, and how we adjusted it along the way. I’ll also provide further guidance about dedicated Outlander tour options, more filming locations and book story sites, as well as general travel tips and recommended resources.

Footnotes and a list of sources mentioned in this post can be found in the sections below. While I’m on that subject, remember: The information presented in these posts is not exhaustive, errors are possible, and facts change, so be sure to do your own checking when you’re ready to set a Scottish excursion in stone.

I am delighted that you’ve followed me on the journey so far. Head on over to part 4, where I help with some tough choices and prepare you to plan your itinerary and book transport for that Scotland trip you’ve been dreaming about. . . .

Tìoraidh an-dràsta! (CHEER-ee ehn DRAH-steh) Ta-ta for now!


A recap of the 1st three posts in An Outlander Tourist in Scotland series:

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

If you’re more well-versed in Outlander tourism than the series assumes, you might jump ahead to part 6, a handy travel guide to Scotland, with a comprehensive gamut of resources and suggestions based on our trip experience.

But if you’re still deciding on a specific Outlander tour option, you won’t want to miss “part 5,” “Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources.”


Notes on Area Names

* Go to Council Areas Since 1996 for a numbered map and linked list of all 30 council areas, such as Clackmannanshire, Renfrewshire, East Ayrshire, and Perth and Kinross. The island chains of Orkney and Shetland are listed and linked separately as not shown on the map. Subdivisions into registration counties, used for land registration in Scotland, have persisted since the 1990s.

Regional divisions are a little more complicated and involve subdivision into districts between 1975 and 1996. For that fascinating history, see Regions and Districts of Scotland from 1975 to 1996, the names of which are relevant for the tourist mainly because areas are often still described in these terms.

Finally, counties go back even farther in time and were replaced by the two-tier region-district system. Scottish Counties from 1890 to 1975, like much of Scottish history, retain their footprint on the land.

Beyond these official, politico-historical categories, there appears to be a common understanding among UK and Scottish tourist service organizations and tour guidebook publishers as to which labels are most helpful to tourists. VisitScotland.com, Fodors, DK, Scotland.com, and Scotland.org are among those that blend variations of regions, council areas, and descriptive phrasing to focus tourists on optimal zones for their adventures. Examples include “Aberdeen and Grampian,” “Hebrides” (islands), and “Glasgow and the Clyde Valley.”

** The Highlands, broadly considered, are perhaps a mythical, amorphous landscape in some respects, for a few reasons. For one, this northerly expanse hardly has a monopoly on height and also seems to be synonymous with “the North.” Even the Lowlands are bordered to the south by “Southern Uplands” (Dumfries & Galloway area), and Europe and other continents boast far larger mountains.

Second, culturally and politically, the Highlands were long considered a region of backwardness, even barbarity, by their southern neighbors the English, and sometimes by Lowland or city Scots. The region could in that way be thought of as anything north, island or inland, a certain distance from Edinburgh.

Third, the geological Highland Boundary Fault line has set in stone (sorry) that once vague sense of division, officially distinguishing “up there” from “down here.” This fault zone runs from the isle of Arran and Helensburgh on the west coast, west-northwest of Glasgow, through Loch Lomond and Crieff to the northeast, parallel to the east coast on the North Sea, terminating immediately north of Stonehaven, at Garron Point, just south of Aberdeen. Visual learners, consult the map. 😉

As the line climbs to the northeast, it traverses Stirlingshire, Perthshire, and Angus, southeast of the Cairngorms. To see the topography and current place names, visit Gazetteer for Scotland and zoom out on the map. For geology lovers, here’s George Barrow’s sketch map from 1912.

Scottish Natural Heritage further explores “the five distinct foundation blocks which make up Scotland” geology; examples are Southern Uplands, Northwest sea-board, and Northern Highlands.


Key Sources (in order of presentation in this post)

Highland Boundary Fault information was drawn from Wikipedia and Gazetteer for Scotland.

Gazetteer: http://www.scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst7728.html

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Highland_Boundary_Fault

Travel+Leisure magazine’s article about Outlander cast/crew’s favorite filming locations: http://www.travelandleisure.com/culture-design/tv-movies/outlander-cast-and-crew-favorite-locations

Dunalastair Estate: http://www.dunalastair.com/Dunalastair-Estate

VisitCairngorms.com: http://visitcairngorms.com/

Highland Folk Museum: https://www.highlifehighland.com/highlandfolkmuseum/

About Tulloch Ghru at Wizzley.com: STARZ Outlander Scottish Filming Locations

Castle Leod: Castleleod.org.uk

WelcometoScotland.com provided information about Loch Garve and the Falls of Rogie in Ross & Cromarty:

Loch Garve: http://www.welcometoscotland.com/things-to-do/activities/fishing/north-highland/loch-garve

Falls of Rogie: http://www.welcometoscotland.com/things-to-do/attractions/nature-reserves/north-highland/rogie-falls

Learn more about Historic Environment Scotland sites including Beauly Priory: https://www.historicenvironment.scot/visit-a-place/check-for-closures/.

TravelChannel.com‘s Outlander sites photo gallery

Culloden Battlefield: Source: photo caption excerpt http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland/page/14.

Clava Cairns: Source: photo caption http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland/page/5

Diana Gabaldon’s website FAQs: http://www.dianagabaldon.com/resources/faq/faq-about-the-books/#locations


An Outlander Tourist in Scotland

The Complete Series

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1
introduction and Central Lowlands filming sites (Edinburgh and environs), featuring the show’s Fort William, Castle Leoch, Crainsmuir, 1940s/1960s Inverness, and Lallybroch

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2
Central Lowlands filming sites continued (Glasgow and environs), featuring L’Hôpital des Anges and the Bois du Boulogne of Paris, exterior for Culloden House, Outlander Studios in Cumbernauld (home of most interior sets), and some in the Southern Uplands such as Reverend Wakefield’s house and the Duke of Sandringham’s second home

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3
introduction to the Highlands plus Highland filming and book sites from Perthshire & Glencoe northward, including the show’s Craigh na Dun, the real Fort William, Loch Ness, landmarks of the Frasers of Lovat and the Mackenzies, and Culloden Battlefield

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4
our planning process and sample itineraries, all that went into making our trip great

Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources
all about our Outlander day tour and all you need to plan your own, including a list of 40 book and filming sites used as of end 2017

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6
a comprehensive, experience-based travel guide to visiting Scotland and the UKSave

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn. A pressed post.

A post linked at bottom from the blog http://memoriousmag.wordpress.com, companion to Memorious: A Journal of New Verse and Fiction, has moved and intrigued me. It also intersects with my own blog’s areas of poetry, nature, travel, art, and reviews.

Sara A. Lewis reviews Matthew Thorburn’s book-length poem Dear Almost and presents Leslie Harrison’s interview with the poet. An epistle in four parts parallel to the four seasons, the book is about the loss of Thorburn’s unborn daughter to miscarriage.

Some of the review and discussion’s elements that caught my especial attention and urged me today to pursue the book:

  • a cultural tradition unfamiliar to me – classical Chinese poetry and Chinese language (Mandarin) through wife Lillian’s family and their 3-year-old son learning Chinese
  • the notion of the “season suite” – A book-length poetic form brewing for Thorburn (though not consciously as a form) found its subject, and the book was born.
  • the raw, peculiar experience of loss and grief for a forming but unborn child her father will never meet – This recalls for me actor Caitriona Balfe’s deeply affecting performance as Claire Fraser in episode 207, “Faith,” of the Outlander STARZ TV series (series 2 based on Gabaldon’s 2nd book Dragonfly in Amber), when Claire learns her first child, a daughter, was stillborn.
  • Thorburn’s relationship with Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, a favorite poet of mine – a coupling of attentiveness with deep, restrained emotion
  • using haiku as bookends to a longer poetic passage
  • the interviewer’s incisive sophistication and the poet’s elegant thoughts

The interview is a bit of subtle theater emulating the kind they finish it discussing–how epistolary works hold readers at bay as the audience overhears a conversation between others.

Matthew Thorburn’s fourth full-length collection, Dear Almost, has recently been released by Louisiana State University Press. A book-length poem broken into sections that correspond to the four se…

Source: Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn |

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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An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2

Last time, I showed you Outlander-related tourism destinations in Central Scotland, specifically the Edinburgh and Firth of Forth areas. In that post, I also laid out my plan for this series: (1) introduce the site options, (2) share my husband’s and my Outlander tourism goals and results, and (3) lend some advice and resources for planning your own Scottish Outlander tour. The process continues with (1) site options in Central Scotland.

For Part 2 of this series, we travel to Glasgow and environs, home of the Outlander Studios, and then we’ll dip southward to Ayrshire and then Dumfries and Galloway, birthplace of actor Sam Heughan, our beloved Jamie Fraser. Remember you can go on VisitScotland.com for regional maps to follow for context, including the one for Greater Glasgow & The Clyde Valley.

This collection mixes the easily accessible with the off limits and forbidding. Glasgow is a tourist city, Troon a resort town, the country estate of Drumlanrig Castle visitor friendly, and Dumbarton Castle an underrated attraction. By contrast, Hunterston House is closed to the public, Torbrex Farm is private property, Outlander studios are tightly secured, and the treasures of Finnich Glen are guarded by dangerous pathways.

Tourism can take many forms, however, including the virtual. Therefore, I do not exclude the beautiful and interesting just because they shy before visitors.

The Central Sites (Continued):
Show Filming and Book Story by Region or County

City of Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Stirling, and North Lanarkshire

City of Glasgow      →      Outlander Settings

George Square, in the city centre of Glasgow, saw the filming of Frank’s surprise proposal to Claire → the Westminster Register office, a flash back to the future at the start of ep107, “The Wedding.”

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Claire and Frank in “Westminster.” Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, courtesy Outlander-Online.com

Glasgow Cathedral, on the east side of town, accompanied by its Necropolis, a vast cemetery on a hill. → Interiors served in the scenes at l’Hopital des Anges, the hospital where Claire volunteers her nursing skills in 1740s Paris, eps 203, 204, 206, 207. This beautiful church is a magnificent tourist attraction in its own right.

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Claire nurses at l’Hopital des Anges. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

Pollok Country Park, south of Glasgow’s city centre → The park doubled as the grounds of Castle Leoch and the area where Claire harvested mushrooms when she met Geillis Duncan, ep102, aptly titled “Castle Leoch.” Later, the show used it to stage the duel between Black Jack and Jamie in ep206, “Best Laid Schemes” (an homage to Robert Burns’ poem “To a Mouse,” which I analyzed in another post). The setting for that was the Bois du Boulogne of Paris. Pollok Country Park was used in episodes 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 107, 109, and 206.

Pollok House and the Burrell Collection are popular tourist attractions on the grounds. There’s a playground, a lake, some sculpted gardens (also used in filming), a golf course, and pasture of Highland cows as well. Several bicyclists roamed the park on the rainy day we went there.

* * *

Stirling (SW)     →     Outlander Settings

Finnich Glen, a.k.a. the Devil’s Pulpit, near Drymen (pron. DRIM in) just south of the Trossachs National Park in southwest Stirlingshire → St. Ninian’s Spring, a.k.a. the Liar’s Spring, where Dougal takes Claire in ep106 after he stops Black Jack’s brutal interrogation of her. Visitors to the site note that it is difficult to access but worth the effort. For important safety notes about the area as well as directions, see this TravelChannel.com page. For precise location details and map coordinates, go to the Finnich Glen profile at Gazetteer for Scotland.

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Claire and Dougal, at “the Liar’s Spring,” discussing her fate, ep106. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com.

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Finnich Glen. Image 10 of 15 in the Outlander tourism gallery at TravelChannel.com.

Torbrex Farm, Stirlingshire. Domick Hill, Stunt Coordinator,
 says of it, “Being the Stunt Coordinator, my favorite location was a large tent in a very wet field, near Torbrex Farm, which is a few miles from the studio. The reason being that it’s where we filmed the majority of the Battle of Prestonpans—not very glamorous, but we had a lot of fun in that smoke filled, muddy marquee!”

Source: http://www.travelandleisure.com/culture-design/tv-movies/outlander-cast-and-crew-favorite-locations 

Dunmore Park  Falkirk, Stirlingshire →  The bombed-out hospital in ep101 where Claire, in flashback, treats the wounded on V-E Day, the end of World War II. Source: http://www.travelchannel.com/interests/arts-and-culture/photos/get-inside-outlander-on-a-tour-through-scotland

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Claire, Allied hospital, post surgery, V-E Day, May 1945. Image: STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

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UK cheers V-E Day, 1945. Image: STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

* * *

West Dunbartonshire     →     Outlander Setting

Dumbarton Castle in West Dunbartonshire, overlooking the Clyde River just west-northwest of Glasgow, is a medieval stronghold and center of the ancient Strathclyde kingdom. “Sam [Heughan] was photographed there on set by Just Jared magazine, published on August 5th 2014.” Source: https://wizzley.com/starz-outlander-scottish-filming-locations/. West Dunbartonshire, a local council area of its own, also “borders onto Argyll and Bute, East Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire, and Stirling.” Source: Wikipedia

The Dumbarton Castle address is Castle Road, Dumbarton, Dunbartonshire, G82 1JJ.

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Dumbarton Castle. Image by Historic Environment Scotland

See the rest of the gallery on the Historic Environment Scotland site of Dumbarton Castle. Learn more at VisitScotland.

* * *

 North Lanarkshire          Outlander Settings

The Outlander studios are situated in the area of Cumbernauld (5th largest town in Scotland) & Kilsyth, North Lanarkshire, to the northeast of Glasgow. The sound studios reside in a warehouse complex where most of the indoor settings and scenes in Outlander are constructed and filmed. The official address of the studios is LBP Outlander Ltd. (Left Bank Pictures), 2 Wyndford Rd, Cumbernauld, Wardpark North, Glasgow G68 0BA, UK. It is the site of the former Isola-Werke factory. Security is tight, but you can drive by and stop briefly at the labeled gate.

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Signed gate at Outlander studios. Image by C. L. Tangenberg

* * *

The Southern Sites: Show Filming by Region or County

North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway

North Ayrshire      →      Outlander Settings

The Hunterston House interiors  the Reverend Wakefield’s Inverness rectory in eps 101, 108, 201, and 213. This is where, in 1945, Frank Randall and Reverend Wakefield talk genealogy; Claire has her tea-leaves and palm read by Mrs. Graham; the Reverend Wakefield, Graham, and Randall convene along with wee Roger to search for the missing Claire; and where Frank and the Reverend discuss matters upon Claire’s return in 1948, including the shot of Frank running down the stairs after hearing her biggest news.

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Frank and Claire at the Reverend’s, 1948. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

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Frank and Reverend Wakefield, his study, 1948. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

It is, of course, also where we meet adult Roger Wakefield and Brianna Randall at the end of season 2. The site is closed to the public, but they have an ample gallery on their website. Exteriors were filmed elsewhere. Go to the Hunterston House website for more information. Their address is Castle Avenue, Hunterston, West Kilbride, KA23 9QG, Ayrshire.

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Roger, Reverend’s funeral, in his study, 1968, start of ep213. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

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Roger Wakefield, Claire, Brianna, foyer, Reverend’s house, 1968, ep213. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

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Roger and Claire talk living through loss, ep213. Image by STARZ/Sony Pictures Television, via Outlander-Online.com

* * *

South Ayrshire     →     Outlander Setting

Troon, coast of Kyle, South Ayrshire. Troon is a resort town on a headland at the north end of this council area and of Ayr Bay, about 35 miles southwest of Glasgow. Coastal shots where Claire, Jamie, and Murtagh depart for France, ep116. You can learn more at VisitScotland.com and Gazetteer for Scotland.

* * *

Dumfries and Galloway     →      Outlander Setting

Drumlanrig Castle, Thornhill, Upper Nithsdale, Dumfriesshire Season 2 filming location for the estate at Bellmont, England, the Duke of Sandringham’s last residence. Ep211, “Vengeance is Mine,” script written by Diana Gabaldon.

Contact address: Thornhill, Dumfries & Galloway, DG3 4AQ, Scotland

Come back for Part 3‘s review of Highland tourism sites for Outlander filming, book story, and Scotland fans.


The first three posts in An Outlander Tourist in Scotland series, sorted by region:

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

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland

The Complete Series

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1
introduction and Central Lowlands filming sites (Edinburgh and environs), featuring the show’s Fort William, Castle Leoch, Crainsmuir, 1940s/1960s Inverness, and Lallybroch

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2
Central Lowlands filming sites continued (Glasgow and environs), featuring L’Hôpital des Anges and the Bois du Boulogne of Paris, exterior for Culloden House, Outlander Studios in Cumbernauld (home of most interior sets), and some in the Southern Uplands such as Reverend Wakefield’s house and the Duke of Sandringham’s second home

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3
introduction to the Highlands plus Highland filming and book sites from Perthshire & Glencoe northward, including the show’s Craigh na Dun, the real Fort William, Loch Ness, landmarks of the Frasers of Lovat and the Mackenzies, and Culloden Battlefield

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4
our planning process and sample itineraries, all that went into making our trip great

Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources
all about our Outlander day tour and all you need to plan your own, including a list of 40 book and filming sites used as of end 2017

An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6
a comprehensive, experience-based travel guide to visiting Scotland and the UKSave

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Nothing I Own: Original Poetry

And your deep thought from Philosofishal today? An anti-Thanksgiving sort of excerpt from my poem “Nothing I Own” (2010). Inclusion neither constitutes nor forbids endorsement.

And she said to me,
“I would give nothing
That I own, if asked.”
Appalled, I then realized,
Mine is worse, or no better, 
for I would own nothing
So as not to feel obliged.

copyright © C. L. Tangenberg

Looking at just this part of the poem with fresh eyes and new cultural context, I think I’ll file it under Nativism–in all senses of the word. Or Socialism or Communism. Or just re-title it. Or maybe False Freedom. Relativity? Solipsism? Extremism? Bald-faced Sin? Excuses? Seeds of Evil?

But, well . . . how to choose?

Does the first speaker mean she would give only when NOT asked? I.e., it has to be her choice, her original idea? Or, does she really mean she’s keeping it all to herself always?

Is the second speaker, because she is the “I,” the person whose perspective the poem is most squarely about? That would seem to indicate which title fits best.

And yet, can we trust her statement? Are the motivations we claim to have really those we hold? Are the ones we actively claim really the most active among our reasons? How much does social pressure shape our response?

Can there be light, as in true enlightenment, without closely examining the darkness?

Not recalling the rest, can I really analyze only part of a poem, even my own poem, with any authority? How much does context matter? Some say it’s everything. I don’t go quite that far, but it is significant.

So, in order to know what’s at the heart of the art, what message might emerge from the words, you really have to read the whole thing and, in so doing, seek to learn things like:

  • What else was said? What was happening? What is their history? Who are they?
  • Are they both speaking freely or under duress, or is one dominating the other?
  • Is the speech itself merely an instrument of a different, hidden purpose? Is that better or worse? Does she like or dislike her audience?
  • Is it a contest to see who is worse? Americans are generally pretty attached to those.
  • Do they mean what they say, or are they just afraid somehow to be honest?
  • Which is speaking–the authentic self or the wounded inner child?
  • How mistreated do you have to be to feel the need to avoid others at all costs or reap punishment for self-absorption?
  • Is this their way to ensure they get nothing themselves, a sign of self-hatred?

I know. You’ll say I’m reading too much into it, but I’m not really seeing one conclusion or another at all. It’s been too long since I read the whole poem. I’m asking. Because I don’t have the answers. It’s an examination of a small corner of the possibilities of human psychology, social morality, and subjective truths.

So how can I judge? How can you? What can we really know?

If we don’t know what to conclude, there seem to be two active responses open to us. (I’ll get to the passive ones farther down.)

  1. Find out more in order to judge properly, if possible, or
  2. Simply be more open to revelations and to getting it wrong, more tolerant of the lives we are not living in the skins that are not ours, and withhold judgment, learning from the outcomes in the process.

This second option may seem passive, but it is active when it takes skill in self-control to achieve openness, humility, tolerance, and restraint, greater skill than it takes to shout our precipitous verdict from on high.

I try to do the first–investigate–when I can and when I feel it is important to, but I know the effort is often fruitless, takes a lot of time and thought, and rarely aligns with the personal goals that matter more to me, where my energy is better spent. Which leaves the second way.

The active withholding of a decision when you know you’re missing vital information to make it wisely is actually rather wise.

So if it’s not our literal job (yes, literal meaning actual earning of an income to feed oneself and one’s family) to judge something, or if it is our job to know what the heck we’re doing, then what legitimate basis (let alone right) do we have to label someone, to declare a just course, to say what should or should not be done, when knowledge is nowhere to be found?

True freedom is to be measured by what we allow other people in our midst to be and do, not by how free the judging of them makes us feel. A free society must evolve from citizens freeing one another. But do we love liberty or each other enough to evolve into that society? Or, do too many of us prefer the hollow promise of equality and the illusion of government protection to a freedom that demands more individual responsibility?

People seem to love to claim they are holier than thou, which belies any claim to love equality. All claims require basis in fact to be true. And what fact do you know about yourself that cannot be legitimately disputed by those who know you relatively well?

Think about it. All the things we’re most sure of about ourselves–the ones that aren’t patently obvious and therefore unimportant–are often the most objectively questionable. So “Let he among us without sin be the first to condemn” actually means “How dare you condemn, you hypocrite!” There should be no “first” because there is none without sin.

A passive response to not knowing what to make of things, whether it takes the form of forever ignoring a fundamental life question or choosing an arbitrary answer, is more unconscionable to me than the highly visible sins being judged in the first place.

So it has to be either judge wisely or don’t judge, but can such a non-judgmental approach work for everyone, in every role in life?

Can a president, for instance, afford to suspend judgment or be uncertain–ever?

Sure, they have to project a strong front to ward off threats to the country. Frankly, though, and yes, in ironic judgment, I find a publicized persona of sustained high confidence–along with rote, platitudinous rhetoric–in political leaders to be a sign of idiocy and incompetence, not to mention dishonesty. Verdict read. So apparently, the only people I judge harshly and permanently are the judgmental, or those who seem to have more confidence than I. 😉

But in all seriousness: However covertly or discreetly displayed, without actual humility and openness, meaning the capacity to learn, improve, and course-correct, a leader is lost. And what does that make the leader’s country?

Your thoughts?