Russell Leadbetter

FOR months now, Outlander, the hit US TV series, has been a little like Nessie as far as Scotland is concerned - the subject of endless speculation but never actually glimpsed in convincing detail.

And whereas Nessie doesn't actually exist, Outlander does - or will, from this week onwards. The first eight episodes of Season 1, derived from author Diana Gabaldon's bestselling books (26 million copies and counting) will be available on Amazon Prime Instant Video from March 26.

Outlander combines elements of historical fiction and sci-fi, adventure and romance. Ignore the cynic who described it as "Brigadoon meets Doctor Who."

The basic premise is that Claire Randall, a war-time combat nurse (played by Irish actor Caitriona Balfe) and her husband Frank (Tobias Menzies) are on a second honeymoon in Scotland in 1945 when she is "mysteriously swept back in time" - to 1743, the Jacobite Rebellion, and a charismatic Highlander, Jamie (Sam Heughan). The £50 million first series made extensive use of Scottish locations and was first screened on the American network Starz last August and September.

Now, finally, Scottish viewers can see what all the fuss is about.


WHAT else are you going to call a Sam Heughan fans online but Heughligans?

The group, formed in July 2013, is dedicated to all things Heughan. It has nearly 24,000 followers on Twitter, though the man himself has nearly 120,000.

Heughan, 34, who comes from New Galloway, Dumfriesshire, graduated from Glasgow's RSAMD, as it then was, in 2003.

The following year, when it was announced that he would star in a film about Alexander the Great, his qualities were praised by Hugh Hodgart, RSAMD's acting head of drama.

"Sam was always an extremely hard working student, very open and very generous towards his fellow actors as a student," said Hodgart. "These are not just nice things about him - they are essential professional qualities that are vital when you are working on a collaborative project such as a film. They are the qualities that can give a talented actor the edge when it comes to getting work."

While at RSAMD, Heughan won plaudits for his performance in David Greig's play, Outlying Islands. It also earned him a nomination for most promising new performer in the Olivier Awards.

Since then, he has appeared on TV and stage, and in a handful of films, too. On the small screen, he appeared in such shows as Island at War, River City, Midsomer Murders and Doctors. His stage roles include Guildenstern, in a Citizens Theatre production of Hamlet.

"When we spotted the athletic, 6ft 2in-framed Heughan and his captivating, sensuous masculine visage, we knew we had found him," said film producer Ilya Salkind when announcing the Alexander the Great project, in 2004.

Eleven years later, Heughan is riding high, thanks to his muscular portrayal of Jamie Fraser, a charismatic 18th century Highlander, in Outlander. When he landed the role he said he was "utterly thrilled", adding: "Jamie is a fantastic character who has so many sides to him - a true gift of a part."

It helps that Diana Gabaldon is an enthusiastic fan. She once wrote: "Oh. My. God. That man is a Scot to the bone and Jamie Fraser to the heart."


AS Phil Miller, arts correspondent on our sister paper, The Herald, tweeted last week: "I've spent morning watching first ep agreeable use of my time. Good to finally see @SamHeughan + @caitrionambalfe in action."

The first season of Outlander has also won an enthusiastic review from The List's Henry Northmore, who wrote: "The Scottish backdrop is an essential component, both imposing and otherworldly, to the tone and atmosphere of Outlander.

"While it does contain some nudity and violence, don't expect the blood, guts, gore and rampant sexuality of Starz' last period piece, Spartacus ... Outlander may lack grit but it's a refreshing change of pace, boasting fantastic production values, solid acting and a strong female protagonist, that should carve its own romantic niche in the TV landscape."

Writing on the Huffington Post Blog last August, after viewing the first episode on Starz, Jessica McNeill Azar wrote: "The extreme efforts that the production/set crew has put into managing the difficult filming environment, and the lengths that the cast has gone to in order capture this excellent material is astonishing, and yields an amazing product for our enjoyment.

"The richness of the first Outlander episode will leave the viewer both sated and hungry for more, regardless of whether they've read the books or not. This series will both delight current fans of the Outlander novel and win over viewers that are completely new to this epic story."

The New York Times' verdict? Outlander, it wrote, "has some of ye-olde-time grimy violence and sex of Games of Thrones and a little of the plummy accents and cozy Anglophilia of Downton Abbey." Now there's an image to toy with.


DIANA Gabaldon was watching TV one day when she came across an old episode of Doctor Who, from the late 1960s

She had been casting around for a time and a place to set a work of historical fiction.

In the episode, Patrick Troughton encountered a young Scotsman from 1745. The young man was wearing a kilt, which she thought "rather fetching."

"I found myself still thinking about this the next day, in church," she said this week. "I thought, if you're going to write a book, it doesn't really matter where you set it - the important thing is to pick a point and start it."

Gabaldon initially knew nothing about 18th century Scotland but did substantial research into the period. There is, however, the occasional anachronism, such as the burning of a witch, a practice that in reality had last been carried out in 1722.

At first she was upset that she couldn't include the incident. "My husband said, 'You have a book in which you expect people to think that Stonehenge is a time-machine, and you're worried that your witches are 20 years too late?' "I said: 'You have a point - it does say 'fiction' on the spine.'

Gabaldon believes her main characters have struck a chord with readers because of their "air of three-dimensionality and absolute realism ... they're quite honest about who and what they are."

Once, she was asked by a German journalist to explain the appeal of a man in a kilt. Worn down by a week of media questions about her books, the author pondered the question and heard herself saying: "Well, I suppose it's the idea that you could be up against a wall with him in a minute."


LIKE the Pixar/Disney Oscar-winning animation Brave, Outlander is an impressive calling-card for Scotland's scenic beauty.

Locations such as Doune Castle, Rannoch Moor, Blackness Castle, Tulloch Ghru near Aviemore, the Fife town of Falkland, the ruins of Aberdour Castle and Newtonmore's Highland Folk Museum became known to millions through their exposure in the Outlander TV series.

A purpose-built facility in a former factory at Cumbernauld was also used.

VisitScotland has had some 175,000 visits to its Outlander page since its launch last August.

VisitScotland chairman Mike Cantlay says: "Outlander has a massive fanbase, particularly in North America, and audiences have been captivated by the TV show's blend of stunning Scottish scenery, its romance and its history.

"But with the domestic market accounting for more than 80 per cent of visitors to Scotland, there is a real buzz around the fact the series will soon be available to viewers in the UK. Scotland is the land that inspired Outlander and we are delighted to see that tourism businesses in this country are beginning to reap the rewards of the show's popularity.

"With 40 per cent of visitors to the UK inspired to come here after seeing a location on film or on television, a major TV series being shot on location in Scotland carries huge potential benefits for the tourism industry."

One Chicago woman, who badly wanted to visit Scotland after reading the books, applied for a British Airways credit card so that she could build up points for a trip. It took her five years, but it finally paid off.


MORE than a decade ago, tour-guide specialist Alastair Cunningham was working in the Highlands when he noticed that many of his clients were asking him about Gabaldon's Scottish-set novels.

"I knew nothing about them at the time," he says, "but I did some research, and got in touch with the author, and put together a tour which has proved to be most successful over the last 10 years."

His Hawick-based company, Clans and Castles, has welcomed large numbers of Outlander enthusiasts from abroad. Many are from the States - California, Iowa, Seattle, Texas - but others live in Australia, Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Denmark.

Cunningham's next tour, on May 1, visits such Outlander-inspired locations as Culloden battlefield, Culross, Beauly and Doune Castle. The aim is to put Gabaldon's books into context and explore what life was like in the Highlands in the 18th century.

"We've increased the number of people on our Outlander tours significantly but we also have a lot of people doing self-guided tours, and they are inspired by Outlander," Cunningham says.

British TV audiences will finally watch Outlander from next week, but, speaking for his own company, Cunningham isn't necessarily expecting an upswing in visitor enquiries similar to that experienced already.

"People in England, even if they are interested in seeing where the series was filmed and in getting behind the history of the story, might not need the sort of tailored holiday we have been offering to fans from other parts of the world," he said.

In any event, he approves of the TV series. "I was dreading it slightly, because I thought the books might be massacred, but I think it is extremely well done."