The Outlander Effect

The Big Interview

Sometimes, you have to get the name just right.

Would the Beatles have enjoyed as much success with Yesterday if they had stuck to the song’s original title - Scrambled Eggs?

And would there still be such an overwhelming affection for the Bogey and Bergman film classic if Casablanca had been released as Everybody Comes to Rick’s?

Diana Gabaldon laughed at the recollection of how her literary career started with a debate about what her first book should be called.

Her British publishers fancied Cross Stitch, but her American counterparts thought that sounded “too much like embroidery”.

They settled on the title Outlander. And her whole life changed.

More than 30 years on, the impact of Mrs Gabaldon’s time-travel odyssey can hardly be overstated.

The books and ensuing TV series have become a global phenomenon, while the 68-year-old American, who was born in Flagstaff, Arizona, has established a near ambassadorial role in promoting the beauty and intrigue of Scotland.

Even now, she admits to being astonished at the fashion in which Outlander has moved far beyond being just a few books or programmes, but an obsession for many people who scan the books with metronomic precision and travel from all across the globe to visit the sights and locations in her pages for themselves.

Especially since she never planned any of it at the start of her literary career.

“I’m amazed at the reaction —and deeply honoured, to say the least," she explained.

"At the same time, though, it has been rather like boiling a frog.

“You know how that works?  If you put a frog in lukewarm water, he will just sit there happily.

"And if you raise the temperature of the water very gradually, half a degree at a time, over a long time, the frog won’t notice the change, and will die before it occurs to him that he should hop out.

“By which, I mean that I started writing Outlander 32 years ago, as a practice book, just to learn how to write a novel. It, um, worked...!

"I had no intention of showing it to anyone, let alone trying to get it published, but things happened.

‘These have to be word-of-mouth books, because they are too weird to describe to anybody'

“And then they kept on happening, albeit slowly.

"I was lucky enough to get a literary agent before I finished the book, and then lucky again when he sold Outlander and two yet-unwritten novels - all I told him was ‘there’s more’ - on a three-book contract.

“That gave me enough money to retire from [Arizona State] university work. I had been a research professor who taught occasionally in the biological sciences (and she has a PhD in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology), but now I could write full-time—or as full-time as you can with three young children.

“Still, it was 18 months before the book was published, and when it was, it was modestly well received, but by no means an instant blockbuster, partly because it’s impossible to describe the books, in terms of genre. That makes them much harder to market.

”As my beloved first editor used to say to me: ‘These have to be word-of-mouth books, because they are too weird to describe to anybody'.  This is true.

“She was right, though, and while word-of-mouth is slow, it is very powerful."

"I chose Scotland as the setting for my first novel because of a man in a kilt"

Mrs Gabaldon is a droll individual and somebody who has created the literary equivalent of a snowball rolling down Everest.

In the early days, she turned her hand to writing for everything from software magazines to Disney comics.

She also tuned into a few episodes of Doctor Who, which featured a young Highlander by the name of Jamie McCrimmon - played by Frazer Hines - and a grand vision gradually began to form in her head.

Fast forward three decades and there can’t be many people who don’t know the basic premiss of Outlander, which features 20th-century nurse Claire Randall, who time travels back to the 18th century and into the midst of the Jacobite rebellions.

There she finds adventure, romance and intrigue with the dashing Jamie Fraser.



It has cast a spell over millions of global viewers, not least because Mrs Gabaldon has captured the essence of triumph and romance, tragedy and turbulence which has encompassed so much of Scotland’s history, from Culloden to the Clearances, and which left vast swathes of the Highlands virtually uninhabited 200 years ago.

The author knows her stuff and visits Scotland as often as she can, when she isn’t chained to her laptop.

Her trips have led to the creation of fan groups and connections with tourist organisations, but Mrs Gabaldon has a plethora of different memories - on of an incident that brought she and her family to the attention of Tayside Police.

Feeling oddly as though I had come home

She said: “I come to Scotland whenever I get the chance, and usually once or twice a year.

"The first physical impression was standing on the Carter Bar - on the border with England -  looking into Scotland for the first time, watching the green roll away in front of me and feeling oddly as though I had come home.

“Almost everything we encountered on that first trip in 1992 was a delight and a novelty—including travelling in the middle of the night in Dundee, realising suddenly that we were on the wrong side of the road, and having a police car pull up beside us.

“We were panicking, when the car window rolled down, and this pleasant Scottish voice said: ‘Are you by any chance Americans?

“Yes!’ we all chorused.  ‘We’re sorry!’

“He then replied: ‘Aye, well, just be careful, then.’

“We went to Edinburgh and the Royal Mile, where a lot of the 18th century is still present and then on to Loch Ness and the Great Glen.

Now, I’m sitting here getting choked up over somebody who doesn’t even exist.

"We visited the Clava Cairns, where there were still clooties (rags) tied in the trees. And, of course, we went to the battlefield at Drumossie - Culloden.

“No one walks that field unmoved and I was telling my husband [Doug Watkins] as we walked round the paths where the incidents I described in the book occurred.

"There was the Well of the Dead and the Prisoners Stone.  Then we came to the Clan stones and sat down in silence for a while, contemplating the scene.

“Suddenly, my husband said to me: ‘Where’s Murtagh?’ He was a Fraser clansman from the books and was Jamie Fraser’s godfather.

“Over there,’ I said, and pointed at the Fraser stone.

"We sat a little longer in silence, and then my husband said: ‘Yesterday, we were standing on the spot where a real person, David Rizzio, who was Mary, Queen of Scots’s advisor was stabbed to death, and I wasn’t bothered at all.

“Now, I’m sitting here getting choked up over somebody who doesn’t even exist.

“Maybe not,” I said. “But there were a lot of men who did exist - and they’re still here.”

Mrs Gabaldon has absorbed the lessons of the past on her journeys to Scotland, but she knows that nothing lasts forever.

At the moment, she is steeped in the latest Outlander volume, but she accepts the end is nigh for this special chapter in her life.

That explains why she is already looking ahead to new challenges and tackling fresh pursuits, including a closer involvement with television.

It’s a natural progression for somebody who has a keen interest in how programmes evolve from page to screen.

She said: “I’m writing madly at the moment, and in the final phase of the ninth Big Outlander Book, called Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone.

“I recently wrote an episode for season five of the TV show and am talking with the producers about their future plans, in which they’ve been kind enough to include me.

“Once all the kerfuffle of production - getting a book from manuscript to shelf - is done, there’s the promotion of book-tours, conferences, speaking engagements, and so on.

“But I really never stop writing, so will probably be choosing among book 10, the next Lord John Grey novel, a prequel novel involving Jamie Fraser’s parents, and perhaps beginning the story of Master Raymond (a minor but important character from the main books) and whatever the television side of things turns up.

“Luckily, I normally work on several projects at once. It keeps me from getting writer’s block.”

It’s a long time since Mrs Gabaldon first dipped her toe in the literary water - no frogs were harmed in the process - and switched from academia to best-selling author.

But there has been nothing outlandish about her remarkable success story.

The Outlander Effect

Diana Gabaldon has been showered with accolades for the “extraordinary” boost her work has given tourism in Scotland.

The Outlander books, which have been made into a TV series, have inspired thousands of tourists from around the world to see some of the locations featured, to the extent that Mrs Gabaldon was honoured at the Scottish tourism Oscars last year.

Visit Scotland research, meanwhile has highlighted and quantified the impact of her time-travelling tales.

The Outlander Effect and Tourism paper found locations used in the programme led to visitor numbers soaring by 67% since 2013, from 887,000 to 1.5 million.

Doune Castle, which doubles as Castle Leoch in the series, gained the biggest surge in visitor numbers – up 226.5%, from 38,081 to 124,341 – followed by Blackness Castle (181.7%), which features as Black Jack Randall’s headquarters, and Glasgow Cathedral (66.8%), which played a French hospital.

I was enchanted to discover a country and a people like no other

The romantic adventures of Second World War nurse Claire Randall, who travels back in time to 18th century Scotland where she meets and falls in love with Scottish Highlander Jamie Fraser, were introduced to readers in 1991.

The Outlander books have since been published in more than 40 countries and in 39 languages, selling more than 35 million copies worldwide.

Mrs Gabaldon said: “I was deeply honoured at being given the Thistle Award.

“To be quite honest, I chose Scotland as the setting for my first novel because of a man in a kilt, but upon looking into things more deeply, I was enchanted to discover a country and a people like no other.”

Malcolm Roughead, chief executive of Visit Scotland, said: “The impact of Outlander on Scotland has been extraordinary.

“It has been amazing to see the global reaction to Diana’s stories.”