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Outlander: the real history that inspired the time-slip drama

The historical drama series Outlander, based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, has become a TV phenomenon and – despite its fictional narrative – much of the story is rooted in historical fact. Here, Madeleine Pelling and Rosie Waine explore the real 18th-century events portrayed, and the artefacts that help bring history to life on screen…

The historical drama series Outlander, based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, has become a TV phenomenon. (Image by Outlander/Starz)

The hit TV show Outlander follows its characters from the battlefields of the Second World War to the Jacobite risings of the 18th-century and colonial North Carolina on the eve of the American Revolution. Based on a series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, the drama uses a time-slip narrative – in which its protagonist Claire (played by Caitriona Balfe) moves initially between the 1940s and the 1740s – to play fast and loose with history. But far from inaccurate, the show is deeply interested in the ways we experience and imagine the past. Merging elements of fact and fantasy, it explores many ‘what ifs’ of Scottish history by touching on key events and featuring recognisable historical figures.

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Here, we take a closer look at some of the real events featured in the drama, and separate fact from fiction…

Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), Rupert Mackenzie (Grant O'Rourke) and Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish) in Outlander
Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), Rupert Mackenzie (Grant O’Rourke) and Dougal Mackenzie (Graham McTavish) in Outlander. The show is deeply interested in the ways we experience and imagine the past, write Pelling and Waine. (Image by Outlander/Starz)

The Jacobite Risings

The word ‘Jacobite’ features prominently in the early seasons of Outlander. But what does it mean? Jacobitism emerged in Britain in the wake of the forced abdication of King James II and VII, resulting from the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688–9. James and his descendants lived in permanent exile in Europe, relying on the financial support and hospitality of foreign powers. The crown passed to James’s daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, which eventually lead to the succession of the Hanoverian dynasty to the British throne in 1714 and the complete exclusion of the House of Stuart. Supporters of the exiled Stuarts became known as ‘Jacobites’, derived from ‘Jacobus’, the Latin name for James. While Jacobitism was an international movement, drawing supporters from across Britain and Europe, the military effort to restore the Stuarts was concentrated in Scotland.

Andrew Gower as Bonnie Prince Charlie in S2 of Outlander
Andrew Gower as Bonnie Prince Charlie in S2 of Outlander. (Image by Outlander/Starz)

In Outlander, the show’s heroine, Claire, a Second World War battlefield nurse, slips through time to find herself in the Highlands of Scotland in 1743 amid the early stirrings of the final Jacobite rising. As she settles into 18th-century life, she begins to hear whispers of support for King James’s son, James Francis Edward Stuart, and his grandson, Charles Edward Stuart (popularly known in Scotland as Bonnie Prince Charlie).

A portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. (Photo by National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)
A portrait of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, popularly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. (Photo by National Galleries Of Scotland/Getty Images)

Recalling her history lessons, Claire realises that events have been set in motion that will eventually culminate in the devastating defeat of the Jacobites by the forces of the Hanoverian Prince William, Duke of Cumberland, at the battle of Culloden on 16 April 1746. With the knowledge that the Jacobite cause is doomed to failure, Claire and her 18th-century husband, Jamie Fraser (played by Sam Heughan), set out to change the course of history. Their efforts take them to the hearths of Scottish lairds, the drawing rooms of English aristocrats and even across the channel to the French court, where they attempt to dissuade King Louis XV from financially backing Charles Edward Stuart’s campaign.

Claire and Jamie Fraser in Outlander
In Outlander, Claire and Jamie Fraser travel to the French court, where they attempt to dissuade King Louis XV from financially backing Charles Edward Stuart’s campaign. (Image by Outlander/Starz)

Outlander S1–5 is available on Amazon Prime Video – you can sign up for Amazon Prime here with a 30-day free trial. Looking for something else to watch? Explore our full round-up of the best historical TV and film available to stream right now, or the new history TV and radio airing in the UK this month.

Throughout the show, Outlander evokes a world of Jacobite intrigue that operated just below the surface of 18th-century society: from wine glasses decorated with the Jacobite white rose and secret meetings drumming up grassroots support for the exiled Stuarts, to seditious communications cleverly concealed within the pages of sheet music. While Outlander’s interpretation of Jacobitism owes much to the romantic reimagining of later, 19th-century authors such as Sir Walter Scott, the show portrays the dangers and divisive nature of the Jacobite cause in 18th-century Scotland.

Outlander also explores the pressures faced by the heads of Highland clans in openly declaring their allegiances during the final rising of 1745–6. The question of whether to fight for the Hanoverian King George II or to stand on the side of the exiled James Francis Edward Stuart was a weighty one. The penalties associated with Jacobite treason were severe: execution, loss of property, and the social and financial ruin of one’s family. In the months following the defeat of the Jacobite army at the battle of Culloden, 3,472 Jacobites were arrested, 120 sentenced to death, and more than 900 transported to America and the Caribbean.

Battle of Culloden. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The Jacobite cause suffered a major defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Despite the danger, there were those who attempted to play both sides of the conflict for their own benefit, such as the infamous ‘Old Fox’, Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat. Portrayed in Outlander by Clive Russell, Lord Lovat was a notoriously cunning double-dealer, who frequently changed his allegiances to suit his own interests. In the final Jacobite rising of 1745–6, he refused to personally commit himself to the Jacobite fight, but sent his son, Simon, Master of Lovat, and a regiment of Fraser clansmen to join Charles Edward Stuart. He later claimed that he had taken no part in his son’s actions, in a last-ditch attempt to cement his support for the Hanoverian dynasty. His last deception proved to be his undoing, and he was executed for high treason at Tower Hill in London on 9 April 1747.

Flora MacDonald: a real Claire Fraser?

From King Louis XV and Bonnie Prince Charlie to George Washington, the storyline of Outlander routinely references the lives and deeds of real historical figures. While the show’s take on history is sometimes fantastical, its plotlines resonate with the personal experiences of real past individuals.

One of the most prominent figures in this period in Scottish history is Flora MacDonald, whose life bears many similarities to Gabaldon’s characters. Despite her family’s outward support of the British government during the 1745–6 rising, MacDonald aided Charles Edward Stuart in escaping capture after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden.

A portrait of Flora MacDonald
A portrait of Flora MacDonald, whose life bears many similarities to Gabaldon’s characters. (Photo by Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

MacDonald had been visiting the island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides when the Stuart pretender arrived there with a handful of supporters, fleeing the aftermath of the battle and being hunted by the forces of the Duke of Cumberland. Risking her life, MacDonald organised passes for the group and sailed with Charles, disguised as a maid named Betty Burke, to the Isle of Skye. The escape became a celebrated moment in Scottish history and was commemorated in ‘Skye Boat Song’ – a popular ballad that was later reworked as Outlander’s theme tune.

MacDonald was later caught and imprisoned at the Tower of London for her role in Charles’s escape, before eventually being freed under the Act of Indemnity of 1747. Following her time in captivity, she married AllanMacDonald, a captain in the British Army. The pair emigrated to North Carolina, mirroring the location of Jamie and Claire Fraser’s eventual settlement in a later series of Outlander.

The Fraser family in 'Outlander'
The Fraser family find themselves caught up in the Regulator movement in series five of ‘Outlander’. (Image by Starz)

The journey to the Americas

It was not uncommon for Scottish people to journey to America in the 18th-century, with North Carolina becoming a popular destination. Scottish-born Gabriel Johnston served as governor of the state from 1734 until 1752, with the first large influx of Scottish immigrants arriving in 1739. By the early 1770s, over 4,000 Scottish men, women and children were settled along the Cape Fear River.

Life on the frontier was tough. It also brought Scottish colonists into contact with new communities and saw their proximity to, and implication in, the violent systems of empire. As depicted in Outlander, many of the estates granted to settlers in North Carolina relied on the forced labour of enslaved people brought from Africa and the West Indies to produce cotton and tobacco. By the end of the 18th century, the US census recorded 133,296 enslaved individuals held in the state. The region also witnessed a turbulent relationship between white settlers and local Native American tribes. In 1763, George III issued a Royal Proclamation that prohibited Anglo-American colonists from settling land acquired from the French after the Seven Years’ War, during which time the British fought against the French and their Native American allies.

The Proclamation drew strong criticism by Anglo-Americans who felt that they were being controlled by a distant British monarch. As Outlander explores, calls for revolution soon followed. Much like Jamie Fraser, Flora MacDonald’s husband, Allan MacDonald, was responsible for raising a local British-loyal militia in 1775. A few months into the American War of Independence, he was captured and taken prisoner. Flora was evicted from their home. The pair eventually made their way back to Scotland, where Flora died in 1790.

Flora MacDonald’s husband, Allan MacDonald, was responsible for raising a local British-loyal militia, much like Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) in S5 of Outlander. (Image by Starz/Outlander)
Flora MacDonald’s husband, Allan MacDonald, was responsible for raising a local British-loyal militia, much like Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) in S5 of Outlander. (Image by Starz/Outlander)

Materialising the past

From weaponry and clothing to medical equipment and paintings, Outlander uses props and costumes to present a tangible historical world. But the show is not simply interested in showing the past onscreen. It’s also interested in the spaces and ways in which we tell our histories. Museums and archives appear throughout.

When Claire escapes the aftermath of the battle of Culloden and returns to the 20th century, she visits a fictional museum built near the battlefield. Perusing the objects on display, many of which she has already experienced in the 18th century, she complains to a fellow visitor that the museum has misinterpreted events to present Bonnie Prince Charlie as a tragic, romantic hero.

Outlander's Andrew Gower, who played Charles Edward Stuart, photographed with a silver canteen that once belonged to his historical counterpart. (Image courtesy of Neil Hanna)
Outlander’s Andrew Gower, who played Charles Edward Stuart, photographed with a silver canteen that once belonged to his historical counterpart. (Image courtesy of Neil Hanna)

The show’s investment in museums and the power of their collections to reanimate the past goes beyond the plot itself. Location filming took place at a reconstructed 1700s township at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore in 2014. Cast member Andrew Gower visited the ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites’ exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland in 2017, where he was given a tour of objects associated with the real-life historical figures depicted in the show. Gower, who played Charles Edward Stuart in the second and third seasons of Outlander, was especially drawn to a silver canteen that once belonged to his historical counterpart. The canteen, which consists of a wine taster, spoons, a corkscrew and nutmeg grater, travelled with Charles Edward Stuart during the 1745–6 rising. It fell into the hands of the Duke of Cumberland when Charles was forced to abandon his baggage train in the retreat from Culloden. Replicated by the show as a prop, the canteen appears onscreen in a scene depicting a council of war held on the edge of the battlefield. The real canteen is now back on permanent display at the National Museum of Scotland, where it can be viewed alongside other historical objects associated with the Jacobite cause.

Dr Madeleine Pelling is an art historian at the University of York. She specialises in 18th-century Britain and its depictions onscreen. Dr Rosie Waine is the William Grant Foundation Research Fellow at National Museums Scotland, specialising in late 18th and early 19th-century Highland dress and Jacobite material culture

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Seasons 1–5 of Outlander are available to watch now on Amazon Prime Video. You can sign up for Amazon Prime for £7.99 a month with a 30-day free trial