I finally watched the first four episodes of Outlander last week on a family visit. What fun! Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels continue a tradition of fascination with Scotland that goes back 200 years. It first flourished in the Romantic era, with its love for unfamiliar worlds, high emotions, and the supernatural – the same era that gave us the gothic novel.
In the late 1700s, Scottish poet James Macpherson published a cycle of epic poems he claimed to have translated from an ancient Gaelic bard, Ossian. Ossian became an international best seller. Admirers included Napoleon, Thomas Jefferson, and historical novelist Sir Walter Scott. Scotland was all the rage.
“The Highlanders were mythic, in the public imagination,” University of Michigan Professor Beth Genne told me. “The Scots became romantic figures instead of ‘those peasants’.” Adventuresome travelers toured the scarcely populated Highlands, home of what they considered the true Scots. Mendelssohn composed Fingal’s Cave and the Scottish Symphony after such a visit. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert chose the Highlands for the royal family's holiday home, Balmoral Castle.
In the 1954 movie Brigadoon, a Scottish Highland village rises out of the mist for one day every hundred years. Tommy, who happens on the village and falls in love with Fiona, must decide whether to stay with her or return to the twentieth century. Claire in Outlander faces a similar choice, in a more intricate plot with more attention to historical detail. Both are part of the long, rich tradition of romance in mythic Scotland.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.