Outlander: History vs Fiction

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As I mentioned last week, in my introduction to “Outlander”, the historic events in 18th century Scotland were decently researched by the author. With my profession I do however sport a certain interest in history. I don’t however, want to nitpick the facts: the Outlander Saga is a historical fantasy, not a reference book.

The Jacobite Rising

In our Saga, Claire finds herself in Scotland, 1743, two years before the third Jacobite Rising. After James VII (James being “Jacobus” in Latin) of Scotland was deposed and his throne usurped by his daughter Mary, there was a series of uprisings to restore the Stuarts back to the throne of England and Scotland.

The War of the Austrian Succession drew Britain and France into open hostility in 1743. The Jacobite’s plan was a surprise attack with troops marching from their winter quarters to hidden invasion barges which were to take them and Charles Edward Stuart (later known as Bonnie Prince Charlie) from France to Maldon in Essex. This first plan failed however, due to harsh storms sinking Bonnie Prince Charlie’s fleet. His army of 10.000 men, his weapons and goods never reached Scotland and on February 28th 1744 Stuart was informed that the invasion had been cancelled.

Bonnie Prince Charlie by John Pettie
Bonnie Prince Charlie by John Pettie

Not all hope was lost yet however. In July 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie set sails for England again. Only the small frigate transporting the Prince himself reached the island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides on August 2nd 1745.  The Clans in Scotland were not really happy about being called to arms, since the Bonnie Prince arrived without soldiers, without weapons, practically a beggar. Clan Cameron however committed to the cause, and – inspired by the huge initial success – many other Clans followed.

Edinburgh was virtually taken without opposition, and after the success at Prestonpans, Scotland was under Bonnie Prince Charlies control. Charles Edward assured his commanders that his loyal english subjects would join them and that massive military aid was forthcoming from France. When it turned out that those were mostly empty promises, the Scots were in danger to be cut off from Scotland. At Derby, Charles Edward’s military council forced a retreat. Commander Lord George Murray managed this successfully, and at Falkirk he won the battle against superior governmental forces.

The disagreement between Charles Edward and Commander Murray lead to the decline of the Rising, and to the horrible events at Culloden. After the failure of a surprise night-attack on the government forces, the Prince insisted on taking command. He chose the most unsuitable battlefield possible and Hanoverian artillery cut the Jacobite troops to pieces. The battle of Culloden was a slaughter and the Prince turned the hunted fugitive. Charles Edward, “Bonnie Prince Charlie” died in 1788.

This much about the historic background. And I was very, very pleased that the books (and so far the TV series as well) kept very close to this background.

Clothing

In the books, the clothing is described rather well. In 18th century, men in Scotland did wear Kilt and Plaid, the Plaid being pinned to the shoulder with an iron pin or bodkin. Another common garment was the trews, a kind of pants that were usually worn by men wealthy enough to own and ride a horse. Knee breeches (like those we see Dougal wearing in the TV series a lot) were known, but very rarely worn. Shirt, a short waistcoat and a bonnet, completed the outfit. Most men wore a sporran, a kind of belt designed to hold the commonly worn weapons at that time. Thus, the Men’s outfits are totally ok and once again are rather close to the historical examples.

Scottish Arisaid
Scottish Arisaid

Women’s clothing however is a trickier subject. While the undergarments depicted in both the books and the series are really good, the regular clothing deviates a bit from the historical clothes actually worn at that time. The chemise (a long, sleeveless shirt) and a stay (a form of a corset) were the most common undergarments at that time. Another variant, the jump, a rather loose-fitting thing for a corset, would be worn to be comfortable at home. The most common piece of female clothing however was the arisaid, the female form of the plaid. This was brighter in colour, with more distinct patterns. The arisaid was worn like a shawl, with large silver brooches fastening them at the breast. At some point, women also started belting their plaids around themselves, very much as men did, pinning both upper ends of the plaid on their breast.

Outlander 2014
Jamie and Claire – Clothing

The female clothing depicted in the books and the series is leaning much more towards what a “fashionable” woman would have worn. This once again is depicted rather well, but the way Claire is dressed would not have been the norm for most Scottish women.

And last but not least – the Tartan. The Tartan is the colour and pattern the plaids and kilts are woven in. In contrast to the books, the colors of the Tartan did not denote a specific Clan. They fit the mood of the wearer, and some colours were easily available in some regions and harder to get in other regions. So while the colours of the Tartan could be used as a subtle hint towards regions, it was not until mid 19th century that the Tartan was specific for just one Clan.

The British uniforms are depicted really well – both in the books as well as in the TV series. This is not overly surprising however – military clothing is rather easy to research due to a vast amount of pictures that can be used as sources. It still is not standard procedure, especially not for movies or TV series, to really try to depict something close to history. And while the British military uniform is not 100% historically correct, it is much closer to the original than in many other productions.

Medicine
Leeches and Laudanum - 18th century medicine
Leeches and Laudanum – 18th century medicine

With Claire being a nurse and a healer, herbs, other natural drugs as well as medical procedures play an important role in the books as well as the TV series. We are introduced to a few obscure recipes from Leoch’s healer (the one before Claire that is). Claire mostly is dependant on herbs and natural cures. In rural Scotland, most “modern” methods of medicine were not available, and thus the depiction of the healer once again is rather well presented. While there was electricity available in urban England, Scotland was dependant on old-fashioned knowledge. Still the 18th century was not as “medieval” as many might think. The first vaccinations were explored back then. Electricity was used to cure mental diseases (with varying success), as well as the first defibrillator being developed in late 18th century.

This makes the depiction of Claire as a healer fair, in a very rural area, but later on in the books, during Claire’s and Jamie’s stay in Paris especially, there would have been much more “modern” treatment methods available than those described in the books. Generally, 18th century was a time of huge scientific progress on the one hand, while the “four humors of the body” were still up to date. In my opinion the very modern side of medicine, of raging new developments and ground breaking research is a bit under represented in the books as well as the series. What is described however, is very well researched herbal cures and procedures. Trust me – I looked up every single herb Claire is using in the books, and she is using them right!

All in all the historical facts about 18th century Scotland have a huge influence on the books. Many things are very well researched by the author, and this of course leads to a really great background going on in the books. There is attention to details, and with those details being close to historical facts, the books and TV series have a great atmosphere, really managing to capture the attention and drawing you into the story.

 

 

 

 

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Dani Gutsch
Dani studied human biologies and majored in biochemistry, microbiology and tumor pharmacology. In 2008 she started working as a scientific assistant for Marburg University as well as starting her then "secret" career as an artist. Since 2012 she is fully working as an self-employed medieval bathing maiden, firedancer, stilts-walker, musician and writer.