Better Together in Outlander?

Curator's Note

Starz’s Outlander tells the story of Claire Randall, an English nurse living in 1945 who accidentally travels back in time to the Scottish Highlands circa 1743. Claire quickly becomes entangled in the social and political strife of the period as she attempts to return to her own time.

This scene is from the first season’s fifth episode, entitled “The Rent.” At this point, Claire is under the protection of the MacKenzie clan. She accompanies some of the clan leaders as they collect rent from tenants, and notices that they squeeze additional coin from the peasants. She deduces that the MacKenzies are actually raising funds for an armed rebellion intended to bring about Scotland’s independence from English rule.

In this clip, Claire attempts to warn her friend, Ned, that the cause is doomed. Fearing of accusations of witchcraft, Claire refrains from divulging too many details regarding the future defeat of the Scots in 1746 and the subsequent Highland Clearances.

The certainty with which Claire insists that Scottish independence is impossible is strange, given that this is a time traveling series. Her attempts to dissuade the Scots from fighting rest on her knowledge of a history which could be changed by her actions, but she believes Scottish defeat is the only outcome.

This episode aired in the US (but not the UK) just days before the September, 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Two campaigns debated the fate of Scotland: “Yes,” and “Better Together.” “Better Together” raised doubts and fears about an independent Scotland, while the “Yes” campaign argued independence was possible and desirable, given the democratic deficit experienced by Scots governed by a Conservative Westminster administration. Though the “No”’s won, 55% to 45%, significant support for an independent Scotland means that the issue remains open.

Alternate history texts, like Outlander, fascinate because of their ability to imagine possibilities and play with the contingencies of history. The series’ failure or unwillingness to entertain a Scottish victory to an eighteenth-century conflict, which many historians believe could have resulted in an independent Scotland, is noteworthy. Perhaps Outlander suggests that England and Scotland are meant to be together.


Heather Lusty's picture

Zach - I’ll precede my

Zach - I’ll precede my comments with the important disclaimer that I love this series (book and TV). Your note is interesting because it raises some issues most “average” viewers probably don’t generally consider. I think Gabaldon is carried away by the romance of the era, of the possibility of a Romantic, capital R, the Walter Scott-esque type of independence, of the overt masculinity of rebellion. But the particular genre of this series is historical bodice ripper (no judgment) - it doesn’t play to the dystopian genre, whose texts usually reimagine alternate realities and topsy-turvy landscapes to explore the possibilities of different outcomes - like The Man in the High Castle (Dick) or Fatherland (Harris), for example. Perhaps Jacobean history seems “old enough” to be a safe topic - except that it isn’t, because Scotland has spent roughly 900 years as an independent kingdom, and only 400 years as a part of the English crown; the recent referendums on independence pretty clearly show that Scotland maintains a distinct national and cultural identity.

A comment on your final thought, that Outlander suggests England and Scotland are meant to be together - I think, unfortunately, because Gabaldon is American she underestimates the complexities of the historical, cultural, and identity issues at play here? She seems to have a textbook understanding, which of course only looks at real-life results: battles lost, treaties, territorial annexations, etc. Obviously it’s a lot more complicated than that. And it fascinates me that this series is so wildly popular (probably because it caters to middle-aged women’s fantasies about kilts and soul-mates (again, no judgment)) - while managing to sidestep these issues. I think it tries to be sympathetic and fair to the Scots - but I think you’re right about the fatalistic acceptance (and thereby tacit approval of what is essential English colonialism). I get that it appeals to a UK audience, and a German audience. I’m interested in how the Scots view it (headed there for a few weeks in May, so if I come across anything tangle, I’ll forward it).

Zach Finch's picture

Yes, I think you’re very

Yes, I think you’re very right about the differences between the goals of bodice rippers and dystopian science fiction. I’m less familiar with the books, but they (and the show) seem to definitely cash in on the tropes of Tartanry and the Romantic Jacobite rebellion oft portrayed in films like Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) and Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953). This era seems like it has limitless appeal, in part because of a glorious defeat and a lost way of life, no doubt. I briefly talked with a few Scots in Inverness about Highlander and they appreciate the tourism that the series inspires, but I think they generally roll their eyes at yet another swashbuckling Highland tale.

Molly McCourt's picture

Bonnie Prince Charlie

Interesting post, Zach! Have you been able to catch up on the second season yet? I’m wondering what you think about the the ways in which certain historical figures are portrayed, specifically Bonnie Prince Charlie. Your mention of the 1948 film made me think of this, since Andrew Gower’s depiction is far from the dashing prince David Niven once portrayed. In Outlander, Prince Charles seems weak and almost unhinged by his obsession with war and restoration of the crown. Do you think the show’s writers may be attempting to reveal that this “lost cause” of a rebellion was doomed due to poor leadership on the bonnie prince’s part?


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