Get ready for Outlander S4! The ultimate road-trip from Edinburgh to Inverness
Where is Lallybroch? What really happened at Culloden and just how many more castles can the kids take? An epic family road-trip through stunning Scotland
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 on my audioguide, key in 19. Again.
The minute Sam Heughan speaks, Doune Castle explodes into life. 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 stone steps, 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.
Castle Leoch, otherwise known as Doune Castle – where visitor numbers have trebled
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. Whilst the kids explore the lifesize 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.’
The Bonnie Prince in Edinburgh
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’s 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. Whilst 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 the 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 whilst filming season 3.
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) whilst 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 practise 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, or Midhope Castle to be precise. Though the building is derelict, it belongs to the estate and a £5 visitor fee applies.
The 15th century Midhope Castle is a world apart from Lallybroch
By the time we arrive at the 15th century castle which doubles as the exterior of Jamie’s family home, the kids are asleep. My husband stays in the car, and I walk along a nettle -fringed track to the house that two centuries ago housed 10 families of estate workers, including gamekeepers, foresters and carpenters.
The doorways are tacked with ‘Danger keep out’ signs, and the windows covered in Perspex. As I creep past they reflect the movement of the trees, and I feel like I’m being watched. I peer through the slats on a doorway, and can just about make out a pile of rubble and a gnarled tree stump growing through the floor. All that remains of the upper storeys are a few wooden joists. It’s nothing like the jolly Fraser farm in Outlander full of tapestries and fruit bowls.
As I turn to leave a crow caws, the sky darkens and I feel a heavy drop of rain on the back of my neck. It’s as though I’ve stumbled into an Alfred Hitchcock set, not Jamie’s beloved home (which was actually created at the studios in Cumbernauld).
On returning to the car I’m cheered by the sight of six pheasants waddling past, only to learn from the car-park attendant they’ve been released from pens for the hunt that takes place tomorrow. Though what he tells me next makes me smile:
‘Are you an Outlander fan?’
I shrug, unsure as to the correct answer.
‘You know, they filmed season 3 here.’
‘But I don’t want to ruin it for you...’
‘Ruin away’, I say, after all I’ve just seen the real Lallybroch.
He leans forward, as though the pheasants might be bugged, and nods towards the woods.
‘Over there, next to a stream, is a ledge where the film crew hung a black blanket. In the books, Jamie hides in a cave, but there aren’t any caves for miles around so I reckon they made one right here.’
I take a closer look and can see how with the help of CGI the mossy ledge could easily be made to look like a cave.
‘But that’s just my theory,’ he admits, adding that he hasn’t actually seen Outlander nor read any of the books.
Next stop Stirling
The kids sleep all the way to Stirling, which is where we base ourselves for the next couple of days. There are a dozen Outlander locations around here, but we start with a visit to Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway, which was transformed into the wartime London station where Claire and Frank say their goodbyes. Unfortunately we miss the last steam train, but the kids spend a good hour exploring the museum, a lofty depot full of vintage trains that smell of old leather and diesel. The boys play on the Royal Mail train whilst I try to imagine the destinations behind the beautiful hand-painted signs; romantic-sounding places such as Corgi Junction and Plains.
The next day we travel further back in time to the Royal Burgh of Culross. Every building in this cobbled village – including the palace, the pub and the electricity substation – dates to the 18th Century or before. In Outlander it doubles as Cranesmuir, where Geillis lives, and where the young lad has his ear nailed to a post. The ‘nailer’, I’m told on good authority, is actually one of the volunteers at Culross Palace. I mention this to the boys with the hope they’ll be better behaved this time. At least there are no lifts.
With its maze of warmly furnished rooms and wooden painted walls, Culross Palace is enchanting. It’s easy to see why the Withdrawing Room was chosen for Geillis’s parlour. The garden also makes an appearance as Claire’s herb garden at Castle Leoch.
Very little in Culross was altered for filming, I learn from one of the guides (who sadly is not ‘Brian the nailer’). The only thing that changed was the Mercat Cross area. Here, the buildings were painted a dull brown. I ask him why and he hesitates before miming ‘s**t brown’. I must look confused, so he explains that in the 18th Century the streets were open sewers and the buildings suffered from ‘splashbacks’. At least the set designers used paint. I guess even in Outlander there’s a point when authenticity becomes impractical.
Culross Palace where you'll find Geillis's parlour and Claire's herb garden
The kids explore the palace rooms with delight, stopping to dress up as lairds and make flowers in the craft room. Though they’ve never seen Outlander they’re fast becoming its youngest fans. In fact, as I stand in the Kings room, which makes an appearance as one of Jamie and Claire’s bedrooms, I make a mental note to add a pin to our Netflix account.
One of the few modern additions to the village of Culross is the lovely children’s park, which is where I deposit my husband and kids whilst I pop into the gallery to see the Outlander photography exhibition. On the way back I ask a man for directions to Geillis’s house, without even thinking to explain who she is.
‘Right there behind you,’ he says from his garden.
I spin around to see that it’s covered in scaffolding and undergoing restoration.
‘That’s where the nasty folk carried her away when she was accused of witchcraft,’ he adds. ‘In fact, it was quite funny because in one of the scenes they were trying to create mist. Just as they did so my neighbour was testing out his new chimneys and the entire lane was filled with thick smoke. The director was saying “Cut! Cut! I didn’t ask for that much!”’
Loch Katrine to Inverness
After Culross, my family plead for a day without castles, so we head for the picture-book hills and lochs of the Trossachs where Roger Mackenzie takes Claire’s daughter Brianna for a spin. We take the steamer across Loch Katrine, sipping hot chocolate and listening to stories of Rob Roy and Sir Walter Scott, then we stop at the Lodge Forest Visitor on the way back. Unfortunately the kids are too young for the zipwire (one of the longest in the country), but we do have plenty of fun damning the stream on the Waterfall Trail.
In just under a week we’ve seen eight locations linked to Outlander and Bonnie Prince Charlie, but the most important – on both counts – is yet to come. Just outside Inverness is Culloden, where the prince’s campaign to restore the Stuarts to the throne ended in tragedy. On this windswept plain in 1746 over 1,500 men were slain, two thirds of them Jacobites.
The story is told in the visitor centre, which has a harrowing video recreation, but a great cafe where we comfort ourselves afterwards with coffee and shortbread. Once fortified, we step back out onto the moor where the start positions of the armies are marked by blue (Jacobite) and red (Government) flags. I tag on to a tour group halfway through, at the point when the battle is lost and Bonnie Prince Charlie is escorted from the battlefield.
The guide waves her hand towards the road. ‘Many of the men fled in that direction, but the Government army gave the order to “give no quarter”, which meant the wounded were bayoneted and those fleeing shot by musket fire.’
We continue towards the memorial stones, where the hum of distant traffic mingles with American and Scandinavian accents. I’ve yet to hear a Scottish one.
‘The battlefield was closed for three days to prevent anyone tending to the wounded,’ the guide continues. ‘Then the locals were invited to bury the dead, but by now they’ve been stripped and looted and no-one knows who they are.’
Everyone is silent.
As we reach the memorial stones, the sun pierces the dark sky, turning the grass a luminous green and casting a brief spotlight on the gravestones. There’s ‘Donald’, ‘Cameron’ and ‘Maclean’; some have cellophane wrappers full of wilting carnations; others are laid with sprigs of heather. Some stones simply say ‘mixed clans’. Over by the monument is the Fraser one. I recognise it instantly as the spot where Claire weeps for Jamie, believing him to have died at Culloden.
Each of these graves contains up to 200 men, I hear the guide say, but the headstones were laid 135 years after the battle, so no-one knows who was actually buried where. There’s a stone for the ‘English’, too, but there’s a problem with that, she says.
‘A third of the Government army were from Scotland. This was a civil war; to decide which king should be on the throne. It’s a common misconception that it was a battle between the Scottish and the English but that’s just not true.’
For a while after we leave Culloden I’m still mulling over what the guide said. I think back to evil Black Jack Randall and noble Jamie Fraser – the English Redcoat and the avenging Scots warrior – and I’m not sure Outlander has done much to quell that misconception. Still, one thing I can’t accuse the show of is being dull. As we drive through the Highlands, past heather-cloaked mountains and pinewood forests, I’m grateful to the series that introduced us to this beautiful country. It’s sparked a new family interest in castles, and left me (and countless women all over the world) with a fondness for curly haired men in kilts.
Where we stayed
Chester Residence is a block of elegant and spacious period apartments in Edinburgh’s West End with a guest lounge and reception where families are made very welcome. Breakfast is available on request. A deluxe 2-bedroom apartment costs from £328.50 per night. www.chester-residence.com
Oakside is an idyllic open-plan stone cottage, with an aga, wood-burning stove and hot-tub. Built on farm land near Stirling it’s a short drive from Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, and is an ideal base for visiting many of the Outlander locations. The 4-bed Oakside cottage costs £1,050 for a week. www.carratfarm.co.uk
For more information on visiting Scotland and locations featured in Outlander, visit www.visitscotland.com/outlander