It’s May but it feels like July, as I hit the road from Inverness’s implausibly wee airport. “I don’t bother to check the weather forecast, it changes by the minute,” says Andy, my kilted driver and tour guide.
Sunshine lights up the heather and gorse. A pair of buzzards flank our route like feathered surveillance drones. The sound of a Red Hot Chilli Pipers CD fills the dead air between historical anecdotes (they’re the most famous bagpipe band on the planet, apparently).
And so begins my tour of locations used in series two of Outlander. Terminating in Edinburgh, it’s a 150-mile road trip slicing through the heart of the Highlands, taking in the Cairngorms National Park and some of the UK’s most dramatic scenery.
5. Culloden Battlefield
Barely ten minutes’ drive from the airport is Culloden Battlefield, the site of the last big hand-to-hand battle fought on British soil, 250 years ago. Culloden is a major theme in series two, as Claire struggles to prevent the conflict she knows will decimate Jamie’s Jacobite rebels.
Given the site’s importance, it’s not surprising that scenes from the battle (which are actually set to appear in series three) weren’t filmed here. Instead, they were shot in Cumbernauld, north-east of Glasgow.
Still, for a dash of historical context the recently revamped, National Trust-owned Culloden visitor centre is worth a look. Its centrepiece is a 360-degree “Battle Immersion Film”, where projections on all four walls chuck you, Saving Private Ryan-style, into the thick of the action.
4. Clava Cairns
It’s a short drive from Culloden to Clava Cairns, the Bronze Age burial site that stood in for the Standing Stones: Claire’s gateway between the centuries. There’s no fancy visitor centre here, but the place has an aura of mystery about it. I arrive at the “golden hour”, just before dusk, when the grass sparkles ultra-vivid green under the sun’s soft glow. It looks like Hobbiton on steroids.
The passages leading into the two stone burial cairns align with the mid-winter sun, and anthropologists reckon prehistoric people used them to mark the winter solstice. Whether any of them got sucked into a temporal vortex and ejected into another century is yet to be confirmed.
3. Drummond Castle Gardens
I bypass a village called Dull (twinned with Boring, Oregon) en route through the Cairngorms towards Drummond Castle Gardens. Maybe the night life’s dull here, but the scenery certainly isn’t.
I admit to some scepticism on hearing that the gardens, near Crieff, replicated Versailles in Outlander, where Claire and Jamie are holed up for much of series two. But the view from the castle grounds very much feels like the French palace’s gardens in miniature; a symmetrical patchwork decorated with red-leaved maple trees and manicured bushes, bisected by a long, straight pathway leading your eyes into the horizon.
The caretaker leads me to a greenhouse at the sloped edge of the south-facing garden, where they grow tomatoes, grapes and figs. Grapes and figs in Scotland? Do they have climate teleporters as well as time machines up here? She tells me that Outlander tourism, especially from America, has seen visitor numbers rocket. “You see these white lorries with the studio name on the side and you think, there goes Outlander,” she smiles.
2. Culross Palace
The shortbread-tin-pretty village of Culross, on the banks of the Forth estuary near Edinburgh, doubles in Outlander as Cranesmuir – where Geillis Duncan and her husband Arthur live. On its edge lies Culross Palace.
The gorgeous pale honeycomb colour on this 16th century merchant’s house’s wouldn’t look out of place in Tuscany. I’m shown several Outlander spots: Claire’s Mediterranean-style herb garden; a kitchen which was redesigned as an English tavern; and the Jacobite meeting room where Claire extracted a woman’s tooth.
But the ghost stories outnumber the Outlander anecdotes. “We’ve got loads of spirits here, and they’re all good,” I’m told.
1. Duncarron Medieval Village
Duncarron Medieval Village is the surprise highlight of the tour. I’m met at the gates by Malin, a flame-haired Norwegian lady dressed Lara Croft-style in combat trousers and a vest. I suspect she’s got the combat skills to match the look, but resist the urge to ask if she’s a Viking.
She tells me about their work of Clanranald, their charitable trust, which teaches kids about the earthy, warts-and-all side of Scottish history. “Its much easier to learn about something when you can touch it, eat it, smell it,” she says. “Our dream is to build a working medieval village. We know how the nobility lived, but this is a working-class village for ordinary people.”
The fort they’re building is 70 per cent finished. It’s been funded by the film and TV projects they’ve been involved in, providing costumes and extras to big-budget films — an incredible 245 of them over 15 years.
Malin rattles off a list: Gladiator, Thor, Captain America… I give up trying to write them all down. “We beat each other up in front of the camera,” she says. “It’s safe violence. For Outlander we’re baddie redcoats, getting shot, blown up and ridden over.” Nice work if you can get it.
I’m trussed up in a tartan plaid, given a claymore and shield (see photo, above), and ushered into a wooden hut. There, I’m fed a three-course banquet of pea and ham soup, beef with vegetables, and honey oat cakes with stewed fruit — all served in wooden bowls and washed down with a flagon of ale. It’s the best meal of the trip. If this was anything like Claire’s experience of 18th-century life, I’m not surprised she was reluctant to leave.
Outlander series 2 begins on Thursday 15 June, More4, 9pm. See the Visit Scotland website for an interactive map of Outlander destinations