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A photo of the Stones of Stenness on Scotland's remote Orkney Islands.

The Standing Stones of Stenness is a Neolithic monument on the mainland of Orkney, Scotland.

Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic

A photo of Diana Gabaldon's book, "Written in my own Heart's Blood".

Photograph courtesy of Delacorte Press

Ashleigh N. DeLuca

National Geographic

Published August 8, 2014

In the first book in Diana Gabaldon's fictional Outlander series, Claire Randall, on her second honeymoon with her husband in Scotland after World War II, visits Craigh na Dun, a make-believe prehistoric stone circle near Inverness, and falls through the stones—and into the 18th century.

Written in My Own Heart's Blood is the eighth—and latest—book in the series. In all, the Outlander books have cracked the New York Times Best Seller list six times and have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide, in 26 countries and 23 languages.

Well-drawn characters and vivid descriptions are part of Outlander's appeal, but Gabaldon's use of historically accurate details—aside from the time travel—also undergirds the plots. Through her writings, she's become an expert in 18th-century Scotland.

Book Talk

The long-awaited Outlander television show premieres tomorrow night at 9 p.m. on STARZ.

Coincidentally, National Geographic's August cover story, "The First Stonehenge," is about recently discovered Neolithic ruins in Scotland's Orkney Islands that, author Roff Smith writes, are "turning British prehistory on its head."

Gabaldon's story lines center on Scotland's ancient standing stones, so we asked her to give us a Scottish history lesson—Outlander style.

Our August story focuses on the Orkney Islands. Have you visited Orkney?

I actually just visited Orkney about 18 months ago. A guide we know in Scotland took us to a number of the places mentioned in the article. We went to Skara Brae and Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar, and all of that. Fascinating place!

When reading the NG Orkney story, did you connect it with Outlander at all?

Oh, yes, indeed. Not with the present book or the one I'm about to start working on, but to a different project. It will be a long time coming, but for a while now I've intended to write a book—or possibly more than one, as these things have a tendency to grow—about Master Raymond. He's the little apothecary Claire meets in Paris in Dragonfly in Amber [the second book in the series].

The moment I looked at Skara Brae, I said, OK, this is it. This book will focus on Master Raymond, and Orkney is part of his story. I don't know what the whole story is yet—I just feel this deep resonating connection with him in Orkney.

What resonated with you the most when you visited the Neolithic sites in Orkney?

The connection the culture had to the landscape. Orkney has the kind of landscape that sort of lends itself to a relationship with the people. I think that relationship is intensified because of its remoteness and the long periods of time when there was no interaction with other cultures.

One structure remaining in Orkney is the standing stones. You use a similar circle of stones as a time portal for your main character, Claire Randall. Why did you choose the stones for a time portal?

Originally, I was just going to write historical fiction, but at about the third day of writing, I introduced this English woman, just to see what she'd do. I loosed her into a cottage full of Scotsmen, and one of the men stood up and said, "My name is Dougal McKenzie, and who might you be?" Without stopping to think, I just typed, "My name is Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp, and who the hell are you?" And then I thought, "You don't sound at all like an 18th-century person." [Chuckles]

I fought with her for several pages, but she wasn't having any of this—she just kept making smart-ass modern remarks. She also took over and started telling the story herself, so I said, "Well, I'm not going to fight with you all the way through this book. Go ahead and be modern. I'll figure out how you got there later." So it's all her fault that there is time travel in these books!

I was doing a lot of research on Scotland at that point because I'd never been there and kept coming across the standing stone circles. Every time I'd read about the stone circles, it would describe how they worked as an astronomical observance. For example, some of the circles are oriented so that at the winter solstice the sun will strike a standing stone. But all the texts speculate that nobody knows what the actual function of these stone circles was. And so I began thinking, Well, I bet I can think of one. [Laughs]

In the Outlander universe, how did you make time travel seem plausible?

If you're going to write time travel stories, you have to sort of figure out how does time travel work in this particular universe that I'm dealing with.

There are lines of geomagnetic force running through the Earth's crust, and most of the time these run in opposing directions—forward and backward. In some places they deviate and will cross each other, and when that happens, you kind of get a geomagnetic mess going in all different directions. I call these vertices.

Essentially, it could be possible to have something like this nexus of crossing lines to create a little time vortex. And if you could have a person whose sensibility to geomagnetism is sufficiently advanced so that they can not only detect this but enter into it in some way, then you have a plausible way of time travel.

So if prehistoric people noticed that every so often when people crossed that particular patch of grass, they disappeared, it would cause considerable consternation, and they might think it worthwhile marking that spot. So that might be the reason why the stones are there, and why they're set up the way they are, as in, "People tended to disappear on the winter solstice when they step over here, so don't do that!"

I will have to do a write-up called the Gabaldon Theory of Time Travel. [Laughs]

How much research have you conducted for the Outlander series?

I'm not sure how you would quantify that. I've been doing research practically nonstop since I started writing. I do the research at the same time as I write, and it kind of feeds off itself. I would say I've been in a constant state of research for the past 24 years.

Can you give us a quick rundown on what history you have covered in your plot lines so far?

The story traces the political and physical revolution from the Jacobite rising all the way through the American Revolution. And on the other side of the time travel, we're dealing with World War II, and Claire's occasional flashbacks and knowledge of that war.

We began in 1743, just before the Jacobite rebellion and traced the climactic confrontation at Culloden, which crushed the clan system and all but destroyed the Highlands for a hundred years. We move on from there, as the Scots did, to America. That's because in the 1730s a large number of the Highland Scots had already immigrated and settled along the banks of the Cape Fear River [in present-day North Carolina]. By the late 1740s most of these earlier immigrants were settled and fairly prosperous, and kinship being what it was in the 18th century, you went where you had relatives.

A lot of Scots ended up settling in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. And of course, these people were ideally placed to be in the middle of the American Revolution, and that's where Jamie and Claire are at the moment. At the time of the revolution, one in three colonists came from Scotland and, in fact, there were Scots fighting on both sides with great ferocity.

Was there ever a time when you purposefully wrote something you knew to be historically inaccurate?

Yes—only once that I can think of, and that was in Outlander [the first book]. I wanted to have a witch trial, but looking into it, I could see that the last witch trial in Scotland took place in 1722. So I was telling my husband that I'd really like a witch trial, but it doesn't fit. He looked at me and said, "You start right off with a book in which you expect people to believe that Stonehenge is a time machine, and you're worried that your witches are 20 years too late?" [Laughs] So I did stretch that point. I figured that possibly this witch trial was an ad hoc affair that didn't make it into the record. That's the only place where I can remember I deliberately moved something that I knew was not quite there.

Claire Randall goes back in time through the standing stones and immediately meets a band of Scottish Highland warriors. What was the clan system like in Scotland?

The clan system was very tribal. It was composed of extensive family units, and as it grew larger, the clans became political entities. And you didn't have to be born to a clan, you could come in and swear allegiance to your clan chief, and you'd become a MacKenzie or a Grant or whatever, and then you'd change your surname. People usually did this as a trade of armed service or farm service in return for food or land.

If the clan chief decided to declare war on someone, you had to bring whatever you owned in the way of a weapon. These tactics worked on a small level, but get in with the British army and you were in trouble.

The level of the clan chieftain was different than the system in England—it wasn't  hereditary. The son of a chief might have the inside track, but the next chieftain was elected by consent of the senior clansmen present. So they sometimes got better leaders than the British did on a hereditary system.

That said, the system was good for the clan, but it wasn't necessarily good for Scotland. The way the clan system evolved was cellular: You had very strong people who couldn't lead more than their own clan without a lot of trouble.

Out of all the Highland clans, why did you choose Clan Fraser for the beloved character Jamie Fraser?

Through the course of my research, Jamie was just called Jamie Blank for a long time. I took Jamie from the name of a "Dr. Who" character who originally caused me to choose Scotland as my setting. I was reading a book for research called the Prince in the Heather, by Eric Linklater, which described what happened after Culloden. It said that, following the battle, 19 wounded Jacobite officers took refuge in the farmhouse by the side of the field. There they lay for two days with their wounds, unattended in pain. At the end of that time they were taken out and shot, except one man, a Fraser of the Master of Lovet's regiment, who survived the slaughter. And I was thinking that if I expect Jamie to survive Culloden then his last name better be Fraser.

A referendum on Scottish independence is coming up. Do you have thoughts on that because of your connection with your characters?

There's a line of philosophy in the events in my books to the events happening in Scotland now. That said, I'm very careful not to take a public view on it. It's not my country, so its not my business to be telling them what I think.

I have a number of Scottish friends from the Outlander TV show, all of whom are on the "yes" side. I was talking to them once, and I said, "You know, this is all well and good, democracy, etc., and it's a romantic idea too. But I've read a lot of Scottish history as of late, and you guys have never been able to cooperate about anything for longer than ten years at a stretch. You think you're going to do it now?"

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Read other interesting stories in National Geographic's Book Talk series.

11 comments
Sharon Becker
Sharon Becker

I love this series.  I have seen the first season of the TV series and am now reading book four.  I too feel part of the story and step back in time with Clair and Brianna.  I love the strong characters and the historical content.  I am of Irish and American Indian descent and these books touch me very deeply.  I lived in Wales for five years and feel a real kinship with these characters.  Bravo for excellently written books that are captivating. 

Janet Reedman
Janet Reedman

I am interested in seeing this series. Many of my friends love the books but I haven't read them; I guess as a prehistorian I just can't warm to the idea of the stone circles being some kind of 'time portal'. They were built by people, and not some 'vanished mysterious race' either; in my job I spend a lot of time trying to get across to folk that the builders of these monuments are the ancestors of millions of us. There are three constants you see in almost every stone circle--a relationship with death/burial, celestial events and a connection with nearby water (or sometimes an unusual landscape feature.)

I myself have written two novels set in the era of Stonehenge, Stone Lord and Moon Lord. The Orkneys and their monuments are mentioned in the second book.

Carol June Wallen
Carol June Wallen

Have been an Outlander fan since book 1 in the 1990s.  Love the story, characters and the history.  

Martin Rivers
Martin Rivers

Just to make one thing clear, the political union that joined the kingdoms of England and Scotland happened in 1707 when the Acts of Union ratified the 1706 Treaty of Union and merged the parliaments of the two nations, forming the Kingdom of Great Britain. Ergo the Scots were also British at this time and therefore a distinction needs to be drawn between English and British in this context "they had better leaders than the British did". The Jacobite rebellion was a struggle to reinstate the Stuarts as Monarchs for the whole of Britain. The clan risings were just a part of this. Therefore, it was not a Scottish war of independence as implied in this article. Having said all that the piece about the standing stones was very informative and enjoyable.

Judy Gargone
Judy Gargone

I get lost in your books and have to shake myself back to reality.  I truly feel that I go thru the stones (physically) with Claire.  Keep on writing. Thank you!

Jeni Berkebile
Jeni Berkebile

The series premieres tomorrow, 8/9, not tonight. And Claire was on her 2nd honeymoon and fell through the stones in the Outlander, not in the newest book.

Colie Van Blaricum
Colie Van Blaricum

@Martin Rivers I think D.G. is referring more or less to the clans themselves, not the whole of Scotland. For, while the entire country was under British rule, as part of Great Britain, the Highland clans were also led by their chieftans, who had more of an impact on everyday life than a faraway monarch. Like a mayor or governor, who leads a local/state gov't under the auspices and rules of the federal gov't.  

Leigh Barth
Leigh Barth

@Jeni Berkebile I just read the same article after watching the premiere episode on STARZ, something I've been waiting for more than 20-some years  Here are the words I copied and paste]d from where you supposedly read (or misread) them: In the first book in Diana Gabaldon's fictional Outlander series, "Claire Randall, on her second honeymoon with her husband in Scotland after World War II..."  D.G. (aka Herself) seldom makes mistakes or tolerates anyone who does, with her books.

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