An Outlander superfan goes in pursuit of Jamie Fraser (with her reluctant family in tow)
Ali Wood discovers that touring Outlander's Scottish locations with your husband and small children isn't exactly romantic – but it's still a lot of fun
I’m racing up a narrow spiral staircase. "Give me five minutes," I call over my shoulder.
"Sure," says my husband, a question mark in his voice. He’s baffled by my new interest in Scottish history – this is our fourth castle in half as many days – but he obliges and takes the kids to the gift shop. Breathlessly, I cross the turret to a quiet spot by the window. I smile, close my eyes and key in 19 on my audioguide. Again.
The minute Sam Heughan speaks, Doune Castle explodes into life (pictured below). I no longer see the car park full of tour buses, but a village of thatched croft houses and animal pens. The American and European accents converge into broad Scots, and I breathe in the smell of wood smoke.
"The front of the castle is where the Outlander team built an entire village," says the actor who plays Jamie Fraser in the hit TV series. "Canisters of smoke created some good old Scottish mist... but when Jamie and Claire rode through the village into the castle courtyard, they didn’t need to make it 18th century. That ride up to the castle was absolutely magnificent."
I open my eyes just a little and imagine Jamie and Claire (played by Catriona Balfe) as they ride up the driveway to Castle Leoch: him in a kilt; her in a pale shift dress.
But just as Sam starts to speak Gaelic, I hear little footsteps on the stone staircase and the discordant whine of "I’m huuungry". My secret liaison with Jamie is over, but it won’t be the last Outlander fix I’ve planned for our family holiday in Scotland.
Rewind two days and we’re at the Bonnie Prince Charlie exhibition at the National Museum in Edinburgh, a great place to start a tour. While the kids explore the life-size mammals suspended from the ceiling, I hum along to The Skye Boat Song, the title theme to Outlander, and read about the exiled prince who plays a central role in the series.
Despite spending less than a year in Scotland, he managed to raise many a Jacobite sympathiser, especially women – as the French ambassador noted. "In general all the young and pretty women are Jacobites and the most of them are only such since the arrival of the young prince."
During his campaign the Bonnie Prince set up court for six weeks at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, which we visit afterwards. As my daughter is asleep in the buggy, a staff member takes us upstairs in the Queen’s own lift and tells us that Prince Charles was there only yesterday with Prince William for the Tattoo. While my six-year-old quizzes her about their helicopter, my three-year-old slips behind and presses the alarm button. I’ve never seen anyone so fast on a walkie-talkie. "Cancel that," she says, then turns to us with a nervous laugh: "We might have been met by the British Army."
We wander back via the cobbled streets of the Royal Mile, pausing at boutiques selling cable-knit sweaters and Harris Tweed, and walking quickly past a souvenir shop blasting out a bagpipe rendition of Radio Gaga. The kids disappear into a fudge shop whilst I nip next door to Hamilton & Young to admire their range of Outlander jewellery. They even let me take a selfie with their cardboard cut-out of Jamie Fraser. It’s as close as I’m going to get to the show’s hero, but had I been in Edinburgh this January I might have seen him for real filming season three.
After leaving the capital, we drive towards Hopetoun House, a lavish 17th-century palace near South Queensferry. The property is so big that parts of it had to be digitally removed for its appearance as the stately home of the Duke of Sandringham. Upstairs is a bedroom that appears in Jamie and Claire’s Parisian apartment. The film crew used the same bed but changed the hangings. Downstairs is the drawing room where the Duke receives Claire, a scene that was witnessed by volunteer guide Ivor Mashford.
"I remember Catriona coming in with her dresser. She walked straight through to the red drawing room, but Simon Callow [who plays the Duke] was chatty, and talking to everyone. He said 'do you think that bust looks like me, and of course, we all said yes, but really it wasn’t very well done as it was only meant to be seen from a distance.'"
When the kids have finished exploring the palace, I leave them at the Ranger’s Room with the hands-on activities (a real bonus for families) while I peek at the cobbled lanes which stand in for the Parisian streets where Claire and Mary are attacked. Afterwards we head to the lawn outside the west facade. I’m sprinting after my daughter, who’s about to pick the biggest mushroom I’ve ever seen, when a distant shot makes me jump. I’m not the only one; a startled deer bolts right in front of us towards the woods. This is where the duel was filmed between Jamie and the head of the McDonald clan, and I half expect to see them emerge from behind the trees.
Later, when I mention the incident to the lady in the gift shop, she tells me they practice clay pigeon shooting nearby. She notices I’m holding an Outlander map and gives me directions to another location that’s not actually on it: Lallybroch, which in reality is called Midhope Castle. Though the building is derelict, it belongs to the estate and a £5 visitor fee applies.