How I became part of Outlander's big Geillis Duncan reveal
What's it like to spend a day shooting a big scene on the set of Outlander? Sarah Doran travelled through time to find out...
How do you wake up in 21st century Edinburgh and get to a ball in 18th century Jamaica before lunch?
That’s a question the production team behind time-travel drama Outlander are answering on a cold and windy February morning.
It’s my third visit to the Scottish set of the international smash hit show and I – along with a German journalist, Henriette – have been invited to join the Clan.
Our day begins on a catering bus at 9am, sheltering from the brisk winds battling the nearby Arthur’s Seat with a hot cup of tea in hand. The last of the morning’s extras are having their finishing touches done in hair and make-up here on the unit base, where the team have been working since the crack of dawn.
First stop is the costume tent, where there’s a very fancy dress with my name on it. Having spent the previous afternoon sucking my gut in during my first fitting, I’ve opted for a much lighter breakfast.
It may have broken my heart to turn down that bacon sandwich, but as a very kind woman tightens the strings on my corset I’m thanking my lucky stars.
Each element of the costume – which I’m told was originally used for season two’s Paris scenes and has now been modified – is added layer-by-layer. An under skirt, a bum pad, the outer skirt and then the sleeves and bodice combine to create my rather special ball gown.
`The slippers thankfully fit, just in time for me to waddle (there’s a LOT of material to deal with) across to the hair and make-up tent.
“Shall I tell you where I’m going on my holidays?” I joke as the girls – who are predominantly Scottish – set about putting curlers in my hair and work their magic. I’m fascinated by their craft, and stop just short of asking if they might film a YouTube tutorial so I can try it out at home.
My buzzing smartphone distracts me momentarily.
It seems as though leading man Sam Heughan has heard we’re on set and – as our presence is supposed to be top secret – let the cat out of the bag.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about”, I tweet in reply.
“I’m just here for the rugby,” I claim, referencing the Ireland v Scotland Six Nations match that’s taking place just down the road the following day.
“You’ll have a disappointing weekend then,” teases Heughan, and I make a mental note to have words with him about it later.
While I’ve been busy staring at my phone the girls have been working their magic. Five rather beautiful jewelled pins are placed in a high bun that’s been assembled atop my head. It’s the ultimate Outlander up-do and I’m feeling very much like a time-traveller myself.
Make-up is kept to a minimum with just a dab of fake tan here and there to create the sun-kissed look of an ex-pat on a Jamaican jaunt, and I’m handed a hilarious spotted cap to keep my hair safe from the Scottish wind and rain on our travels.
Now all I need is a set of standing stones…
It turns out they won’t be necessary though, because a silver carriage will take us back in time today. Or should I say a silver people carrier. Henriette and I squeeze in, carefully adjusting our bum pads to make space for each other.
The nearby Signet Library will be our home for the day. It’s playing host to the Jamaican Governor’s Ball, where Heughan’s Jamie will be reunited with Lord John Grey and an old enemy will come face-to-face with Claire and her husband once again.
At about 11am we join a large party of extras in the holding area in the building’s lower library, which is packed with beautiful old books to peruse while we wait. Henriette and I can’t resist a sneaky 18th century selfie, even if we won’t be able to share it any time soon.
After 20 minutes or so there’s a murmur among the crowd and Sam Heughan appears, decked head to toe in his Jamaican finery. “What do you mean I’ll have a disappointing weekend?” I ask, eyebrow raised in mock fury, sharing a few jokes about my home nation (and Caitriona Balfe’s) crushing his at Murrayfield the next day.
He’s soon called away to set and – not long after – we follow, ascending a beautiful old dark staircase and emerging into a glorious ballroom.
We take our place beside one of the room’s grand columns, joining a host of extras in beautiful gowns and servants uniforms. A man carrying a tray of fine glasses pours us a sparkling drink each – it’s ginger ale, not champagne – and hands them over as we await further instruction.
“Shouldn’t it be Guinness in that?” asks a voice from behind my shoulder, and I turn just in time to see Heughan chuckle and walk to his allotted place on the floor.
“Wouldn’t go wrong with whiskey, I suppose”, I quickly shout, before turning back to Henriette to get in the 18th century zone again.
We shoot several takes of a scene in which Claire and Lord John Grey (David Berry) discuss his friendship with Jamie Fraser, before she leaves telling him she’s “seen a ghost”. Balfe and Berry have to be filmed delivering the lines from several angles, so it takes close to half an hour to capture just several moments of the episode.
Henriette and I are then invited to take a seat in the next room, where we can observe what’s being filmed on special monitors while we’re not needed. We’re quite content at this point, having fully enjoyed our transformations and fifteen seconds of Outlander fame, so what comes next is a total surprise.
“Ladies, would you like to come back in please?” first Assistant Director Patrick Conroy asks, placing us on two markers in a new section of the ballroom.
“Are you having a good time today?” asks producer and writer Matthew B Roberts as he comes to say hello and reveals that we’ll now be part of a very special scene involving none other than Lotte Verbeek’s Geillis Duncan.
Verbeek smiles as she strolls through the door in a sumptuous red gown, the skirt of which conceals a pair of very fluffy and comfortable looking boots. It’s safe to say I have serious shoe envy.
We shoot her reaction to Claire and Jamie’s arrival several times, mimicking conversation after conversation as the camera spins around our heads and we’re drawn deeper into the fictional world we’ve found ourselves in.
“That’s it, that’s the one,” a voice from the next room shouts, breaking the spell and calling a halt to proceedings. “Good work ladies,” say the crew, ushering us back out the door where our carriage awaits.
It’s time to bid farewell to 18th century Jamaica and hot foot it back to 21st century Edinburgh, just in time for tea.