Writing the past: Outlander, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites

It’s almost twenty years since I discovered the first Diana Gabaldon book in the Outlander series. I was returning from a holiday in Venice and having finished the book I’d taken with me, was looking for something to read on the flight home. Marco Polo airport was smaller then, with a tiny bookshop. There were six books there in English. I pulled out the thickest one, only to discover it was set in the Highlands of Scotland. Believe me, back then that was a find!

I bought it, read it and loved it. My home village is Carrbridge, south of Inverness, and I was impressed by what I felt was a great depiction of that town, now city. I decided to search for the author and try and get in touch to congratulate her on this, and emailed her. To my surprise and delight she wrote back and thanked me. She also said that when she’d written the first book, she’d never been to Scotland, which impressed me even more. I knew then I had encountered a researcher, a writer that could combine fact and fiction seemingly effortlessly, yet as someone who attempts the same with forensic fact and fiction, I knew how tricky that can be to get right.

Eight books later (I’ve just read the most recent Written in my Own Heart’s Blood), I received an email asking me if I would consider being in conversation with Diana at the National Museum of Scotland, where she would be appearing on 18 May, in advance of the fabulous Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites exhibition, which opens on 23 June 2017. To say I whooped for joy would be an understatement.

Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites
Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites runs at the National Museum of Scotland from 23 June – 12 November 2017.

A similar reception greeted Diana’s entry to the Moffat Auditorium last month, filled as it was with ardent fans keen to hear the story behind the characters, the books and of course the hugely successful TV series Outlander.

Diana Gabaldon and Lin Anderson
Outlander author Diana Gabaldon in conversation with Lin Anderson.

We chatted in some detail about the Jacobite setting, her research, and the origins of her characters, and with a view to the oncoming exhibition, how Diana managed to deal with the portrayal of Bonnie Prince Charlie, an iconic figure in Scottish history.

Diana’s research throws up possibilities all the time. She doesn’t start with a plan for the book but lets her characters lead her… a writer after my own heart. She, like me, would be bored if everything was decided before she started writing. Research can send you off on a different and fascinating path and the characters themselves often dictate what should happen next.

Lin Anderson and Diana Gabaldon in conversation at the National Museum of Scotland.
Lin Anderson and Diana Gabaldon in conversation at the National Museum of Scotland.

On first reading Outlander, I was strongly reminded of our own master storyteller Robert Louis Stevenson and his novel Kidnapped. Set around 18th-century Scottish events, notably the ‘Appin Murder‘, which occurred near Ballachulish in 1752, it portrays the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The political situation of the time is described from multiple viewpoints, and the Scottish Highlanders are treated sympathetically – something which is equally true of Diana’s books.

The Jacobite story has an enduring appeal, both in Scotland and further afield, in particular the USA, Diana’s home. The Outlander series has encouraged people to know more about that turbulent time in Scottish history, the truth and the misconceptions.

If you didn’t manage to make it to Diana’s event at the Museum there’s plenty of time to plan for a visit to this major exhibition (23 June-12 November 2017) where you will ‘discover a compelling story of loyalty, loss, rebellion and retribution’.  Which is also a perfect description of the Outlander series of novels.

You can listen to a recording of Lin’s interview with Diana here:

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