IT is early doors on a Monday morning as Sam Heughan’s face pops up on my computer screen. He is in New Zealand, so technically it is evening there. But here in Scotland the sun has not yet quite come up.

The pre-dawn hue coupled with the glow from my laptop has led to some, err, technical difficulties at my end. My face appears blue. This is not a good look. But the actor kindly waves away my mortification.

“A nice, Scottishy blue tinge,” he jokes. Which is perhaps fitting as, over the course of our conversation, we will talk all things Scotland – from midges to Munro bagging.

Getting sit-down time with Heughan – even over Zoom – is a tricky task these days. He is a man much in-demand, not least between his lead role in the hit TV drama Outlander (returning to our screens this weekend) and filming the new series of travelogue Men In Kilts (the reason he is in New Zealand on this fine February morning when we speak).

Heughan, 41, has a raft of projects in the pipeline, from starring in the romcom Text For You with Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Celine Dion, to a role in upcoming Channel 4 crime thriller Suspect, alongside James Nesbitt, Joely Richardson and Richard E Grant.

He is rumoured to be in the crosshairs in the search for the next Bond (nor is Heughan alone: with Richard Madden, James McAvoy, Dougray Scott, Ewan McGregor and Jack Lowden all said to be in the frame to replace Daniel Craig, the Scots are all over that list).

Away from acting, Heughan has launched his own whisky brand, The Sassenach, and newly debuted a tequila, El Tequileno: The Sassenach Select. He has also co-written two bestselling books about Scotland’s history, clan heritage and culture.

Then there is his wellness programme and charity foundation, My Peak Challenge, which has raised more than $6 million (£4.5m) for worldwide causes.

Like I said. A busy man. So, dodgy lighting be damned. Thankfully this is a magazine article, but if you need a visual for the mind’s eye, picture two faces on a video call: Heughan, all sun-kissed and healthy, and me looking like I am auditioning for a low-budget remake of Braveheart.

First up, we’re here to talk about Outlander. With filming impacted and delayed by the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years, viewers have faced their longest wait between series since the show began in 2014.

Heughan is thrilled that “Droughtlander” – as the fans have dubbed the hiatus – is finally over. “I can’t tell you how excited I am,” he says, palpably delighted.

HeraldScotland: Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser in series six of Outlander. Picture: Jason Bell/StarzSam Heughan as Jamie Fraser in series six of Outlander. Picture: Jason Bell/Starz

While Outlander was initially set against a backdrop of the Jacobite rising of 1745, as the storyline has progressed, the show’s main protagonists – Heughan as Jamie Fraser and Irish co-star Caitriona Balfe playing his wife Claire – have upped sticks across the Atlantic for colonial America.

The action, although still filmed in Scotland, is set in North Carolina as the spectre of the American Revolutionary War, fought between 1775 and 1783, looms large in the near future. The couple and their family are carving a new life on a stretch of land dubbed Fraser’s Ridge.

The sixth series, which premieres on subscription streaming service Starzplay tomorrow, opens with a flashback to Scotland in the aftermath of Culloden. Following the battle, Heughan’s character was held at the fictional Ardsmuir Prison.

The show returns briefly to this period as it introduces Tom Christie, an old adversary of Fraser’s played by Mark Lewis Jones, who is set to bring tension and turmoil to the Ridge.

The opening scenes are striking because the landscapes that surround the prison are instantly recognisable. Is that the majesty of Glen Coe we spy, Sam?

“Yes, well spotted,” he says. “Under the watchful eye of the Buachaille. Interestingly, it was the last thing we shot of the whole season. We had actually shot it at the very beginning indoors and it just didn’t have that scope and Scottish vibe.

“We have a great landscape there. It was also the same location where we stayed at the Kingshouse Hotel and shot for Men In Kilts. So, a lot of memories in that valley.”

READ MORE: Outlander stars Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish share their epic Scottish road trip

When Outlander launched eight years ago there was, in some quarters, a bit of snobbery about the series. It was pigeonholed as a soppy love story with romps among the heather and a twee romanticisation of the Jacobite cause.

The TV show is based on the bestselling books by US author Diana Gabaldon and when her debut novel Outlander was published in 1991, it was pitched firmly at the romance market (“The problem with writing a book that nobody can describe is marketing,” Gabaldon has said).

Regular viewers – a fiercely loyal global fanbase – would argue that the premise is a little bit more complex and nuanced than it is often given credit for, blending together history, issue-based subject matter and meaty plotlines that pack a punch.

The sixth series, says Heughan, will take viewers to some “dark” places as it spans the build-up to the American Revolutionary War, also known as the War of Independence. How much did he know about this tumultuous period of US history beforehand?

“It is not something that is really taught in Scottish schools,” he admits, referring to his teenage years in Edinburgh. “But it is a fascinating period. We are touching on a lot of key moments in the build-up to this war. It is a seismic moment and the creation of the modern America as we know it.”

HeraldScotland: The cast of Outlander as the hit TV show returns for a sixth series. Picture: Jason Bell/StarzThe cast of Outlander as the hit TV show returns for a sixth series. Picture: Jason Bell/Starz

Although recent series of Outlander have been set in North Carolina, the Scottish scenery remains a major star of the show.

The cast has spoken in the past about the challenges that the weather can bring while shooting on location, yet Heughan would be the first to attest that it still gives him goosebumps – the good sort he assures me – and huge pride to film Outlander here.

“It is tough because we can’t always show it off,” he says. “It has to look like America sometimes, but it is amazing that Scotland can do that and look like North Carolina in the 1700s. When I was shooting [in Glen Coe], I kept looking up at that mountain with the snow on top of it. I had this yearning: ‘I want to get up there’.

“There are the moments with the midges where they drive me mad, or the snow and the cold. It was such a cold winter and we were out there in all conditions. We had thundersnow which was mad. But the beauty of Scotland never fails to impress me. It does give the show that epic scale.”

READ MORE: Gird your loins: A journey behind the scenes of hit TV series Outlander

Ah, the dreaded midge. Has he found a way to keep the biting beasties at bay? I imagine vats of Avon Skin So Soft are never too far from hand …

“Nothing works,” says Heughan, with a rueful smile. “You can’t use Skin So Soft because I have got so much make-up on that it just runs off. I have to spray the inside of my wig because that is where they love it the best.

“They love to live in there because it is nice and warm. It is literally torture. You are trying to do a scene and all you want to do is scratch your head. It is making me want to scratch now.”

That’s the thing about midges; if they like you, there is little escape. Those who don’t get bitten can’t understand the hell. Heughan gives a wry chuckle. “It is so unfair. There are certain people that just don’t get touched. And I am being driven mad by it.”

HeraldScotland: Sam Heughan with Outlander co-stars Sophie Skelton and Caitriona Balfe. Picture: Robert Wilson/StarzSam Heughan with Outlander co-stars Sophie Skelton and Caitriona Balfe. Picture: Robert Wilson/Starz

When we speak Heughan, who is originally from Balmaclellan in Galloway, has been exploring landscapes which feel eerily familiar yet are thousands of miles from home.

He has been on a road trip around New Zealand with fellow actor Graham McTavish – who played Dougal MacKenzie in Outlander and Dwalin in The Hobbit movie trilogy – as the duo make the second series of Men In Kilts.

The debut eight-part programme showcased Scotland’s history, food and culture. In this next instalment, the adopted homeland of Glasgow-born McTavish will take centre stage.

READ MORE: Outlander star Sam Heughan shares his favourite place in Scotland

Throughout series one, Heughan devised increasingly fiendish and amusing ways to push his co-star out of his comfort zone. Now, though, he is on McTavish’s turf. Is revenge being exacted? “I guess you will have to tune in and find out,” says Heughan.

“I feel so lucky we are here. In Covid times, we were working out the best place to shoot. At the time when we planned it, we thought this would be the best place.

“There is so much heritage and Scottish heritage as well. We have been exploring that. There is a lot to do and see. I have definitely been testing his abilities and he has tested mine. Hopefully people will enjoy it. It is probably bigger and more action-packed than last season.”

HeraldScotland: Graham McTavish and Sam Heughan are making a second series of their travelogue show Men In Kilts. Picture: Peter Sandground/StarzGraham McTavish and Sam Heughan are making a second series of their travelogue show Men In Kilts. Picture: Peter Sandground/Starz

People often remark upon the similarities between Scotland and New Zealand’s scenery. Is Heughan seeing that? “Oh, it’s crazy. To go halfway round the world and it looks exactly the same? It is incredible. There are parts that look like the Cuillins on Skye.

“You have the sheep farming here and I saw Belted Galloways the other day. Only a few generations ago there were Scots who came here. There is this sense of weird … it feels very familiar yet very different.”

The outdoors is a big passion for Heughan. He is a keen Munro bagger – what is his tally up to? “Hmm. Probably about 30 now. I did something very recently. A wee secret project that I will be talking about later in the year.”

Outlander has opened many doors. Entrepreneur is one avenue that Heughan is pursuing. “I could talk about it for hours,” he enthuses, when asked about his ventures in the drinks market.

His whisky – The Sassenach – takes its moniker from the affectionate nickname that Heughan’s Outlander character uses for his English wife (last year he lost a trademark dispute with Sasse, a German distillery, over the name).

The brand, launched in 2020, has become something of an industry hit, winning a clutch of gold medals on the international awards circuit. His recently unveiled custom-blend tequila, a collaboration with Mexican distillery El Tequileno, looks set to enjoy similar success.

READ MORE: Outlander stars Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish share their epic Scottish road trip

Heughan cottoned onto the magic of the latter tipple while visiting the town of Tequila in Jalisco, Mexico, a few years ago.

“I went back to the UK and realised we don’t understand tequila,” he says. “We still do that crap stuff where you have a lime, it tastes disgusting and you do it almost as a dare because it is so bad. Whereas the tequila that people drink in the US or Mexico involves incredible craftsmanship and is delicious.”

It was this which inspired the creation of El Tequileno: The Sassenach Select – a double wood reposado – produced under the umbrella of Heughan’s Great Glen Company. Nor do his ambitions stop there. “There are always other plans,” he says, cryptically.

Philanthropy is another growing part of the Sam Heughan story. The star has enjoyed success (“lucky” and “grateful” are words he uses a lot) and there is a genuine sense of him trying to give something back and do good in the world.

Last year Heughan established a scholarship to fund three places at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, where he studied to become an actor. He also created Write Start: The Sam Heughan Creative Commission, an annual award that provides financial support and mentoring.

HeraldScotland: Sam Heughan has established a scholarship to fund three places at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, where he studied to become an actor. Picture: Robert McFadzean/Royal Conservatoire of ScotlandSam Heughan has established a scholarship to fund three places at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, where he studied to become an actor. Picture: Robert McFadzean/Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Heughan’s own career involved a decade-long slog as a jobbing actor rather than overnight fame. Alongside small parts in Midsomer Murders and Rebus, he played a footballer in River City and starred as Hugh Tennent in a series of tongue-in-cheek commercials for the lager brand.

The potential was always there, however. Among those whose eye he caught early on was playwright David Greig. Heughan’s first acting job, while still a student, was in Greig’s 2002 play Outlying Islands, which saw the actor nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award as most promising performer.

READ MORE: Sam Heughan on why Nicola Sturgeon and Billy Connolly are his dream dinner party guests

Theatre remains a big love. Heughan’s eyes light up when asked if we might see him treading the boards again. “I would love to,” he says. “I have spoken to a number of different theatre companies and the National Theatre of Scotland. It is about scheduling and finding the right project.”

His soaring profile has seen him sought out for movie roles which Heughan squeezes into the breaks between filming Outlander.

In recent years, he has racked up parts in sci-fi action film Bloodshot alongside Vin Diesel, as well as adventure comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me with Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. Heughan played Special Forces operative Tom Buckingham in SAS: Red Notice, adapted from the Andy McNab book.

HeraldScotland: Sam Heughan as Tom Buckingham in SAS: Red Notice. Picture: PA Sam Heughan as Tom Buckingham in SAS: Red Notice. Picture: PA

Heughan has a knack for comic timing. Is comedy a genre he fancies exploring? “The film that is coming out with Celine Dion and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, that is a comedy – or supposed to be,” he says.

“We will find out if people think it is funny. I really enjoyed it. It is a completely different skill. But yeah, just trying different stuff. I love playing bad guys. I enjoyed Bloodshot. I would love to go back and do some theatre. I am excited for new projects as well.”

Jamie Fraser is a dashing hero. Would Heughan love to play more villains? “Absolutely. In Bloodshot I got to play a very angry man. I play a character in the Channel 4 drama [Suspect] and I would say he, well, you will have to decide for yourself … Those kind of parts are interesting.”

The longevity of Outlander is something he is often asked about. The sixth series is based on Gabaldon’s novel A Breath of Snow and Ashes. What happens when the author eventually wraps her book series?

READ MORE: Gird your loins: A journey behind the scenes of hit TV series Outlander

“I think she said 10 books,” says Heughan. “Then she is talking about other stuff as well. She is writing a prequel. Who knows where she will go with that? Diana has also got her other book series, Lord John Gray. She is wonderful and has an incredible ability. But, no, I very much have to go season by season. It is too much to think ahead.”

Heughan has been living and breathing Outlander for the best part of a decade now. With production on the seventh series expected to commence imminently, does he get much chance to pause and take stock of everything?

“It is hard to step out of it,” he admits. “This job is constant and if we are not on screen, we are doing other stuff for the show. It is always on in the back of your mind.

“But yeah, I am so grateful. It has changed my life and career and I can’t believe it has been that long. I remember talking to my driver on the first day and saying, ‘I don’t think it will go longer than one or two seasons.’ And here we are going into season seven.”

Outlander series six will premiere on Starzplay tomorrow (March 6). Catch up on all five series now​