Outlander is the Golden Globe-nominated, £50 million time-travelling TV series set in 18th century Scotland – and it’s partly responsible for a recent boom in tourism to the Scottish Highlands.
And while the award-winning series, based on the best-selling books by Diana Gabaldon, isn’t actually filmed in the Outer Hebrides, I think fans focusing only on the physical filming locations on the mainland are missing out.
The Outlander story follows English WWII combat nurse Claire Randall, who is swept back in time to 18th century Scotland while on holiday with her husband outside Inverness in 1945. It’s here that she falls in love with the handsome head of the Fraser Clan, Jamie, and attempts to stop the Jacobite rebellion that she knows from the history books is doomed to fail.
It may sound far-fetched to some, but Outlander is addictive (I speak from experience!), and has amassed a legion of dedicated fans, particularly in North America where the books were first released, and where the show first aired on Starz in 2014. (It didn’t air in the UK until 2016, on Amazon Prime, although it’s now also available on Channel 4.)
The entire show is set, filmed, and produced in Scotland – where interestingly it still flies mostly under the radar – and has become so popular that fans are travelling to the multiple filming locations used across mainland Scotland.
But the nearby islands of the Outer Hebrides are an equally attractive destination for Outlander fans who want to immerse themselves in the historic world of Claire and Jamie, and here’s why…
The Callanish Stones are the closest thing you’ll get to Craigh na Dun.
The Outlander story begins when Claire is on her second honeymoon near Inverness, when she visits the stone circle of Craig na Dun. It’s here she is suddenly transported through time to Jacobite-era Scotland, where she meets and falls in love with Jamie Fraser.
You could visit the site where these scenes were filmed (Kinnloch Rannoch, near Pitlochry), and many people do – it’s beautiful. But be aware that you won’t find any stones there, as the stones in the TV show were created in the studio.
To see the “real life” standing stones, fans should head to the Outer Hebrides. The Isle of Lewis is home to one of the most striking standing stone circles in Scotland, the Callanish Stones. These Neolithic stones stand upon a hill, visible from afar, and are even more atmospheric up close.
You wouldn’t be the first person to come here and try to get through the stones, either; Outlander fans have already been spotted putting their hands on the tall, central stone, and pretending to “travel through time” to 18th century Scotland.
(And yes, I’m guilty of it too!)
Gaelic is still widely spoken in the Outer Hebrides.
In the time period when Outlander is set, Gaelic was the primary language in the Highlands and Islands, and so naturally, it features prominently on the show. There are no subtitles, however, as the show’s creators wanted the viewer to feel the same sense of dislocation as Claire would have.
If you want to hear people say things like “Sassenach” (Jamie’s pet name for Claire) in real life, then you’ve come to the right place. The Outer Hebrides are the Gaelic heartland of Scotland: more than half the residents on each island still speak it, and for many it’s their native language.
Not only will you hear Gaelic being spoken while you’re out and about, you’ll also see it on road signs, house names, and even on dual-language signs in the supermarkets. Gaelic Medium Education is also offered here, which means children have the option to be taught primarily in Gaelic from nursery onwards.
While I unfortunately can’t promise there’ll be a handsome Jamie Fraser lookalike to whisper sweet nothings in your ear, you are guaranteed to hear locals conversing in Gaelic during your visit.
Harris Tweed will help you look the part of an Outlander character (with a modern twist, of course).
When Claire finds herself unexpectedly thrown into the 18th century, her clothes have to change (1940s skirt suits would definitely raise eyebrows in the Jacobite Highlands). It’s easy to see that Outlander’s costume design is incredibly detailed; designer Terry Dresbach’s costumes have won Emmys, and are almost as much a part of the show as the characters themselves.
So if you want some of that tartan that Claire wears in Season 1 (and that Murtagh, their good friend, can’t quite give up when they find themselves in Paris in Season 2), then where better to get it than the source? While you can’t get Dresbach’s couture creations, the Outer Hebrides has plenty to offer in the realm of high-end textiles.
While you could buy tartan cloth anywhere in Scotland, Harris Tweed is something special. The textile is used by the likes of Chanel and Vivienne Westwood, and by law can only be made by local weavers in their homes in the Outer Hebrides.
Whether you watch it being made in a weaver’s home, buy a length of the cloth to use as you wish, or indulge in a handmade Harris Tweed jacket or bag, you won’t be disappointed in the quality of this material. (I wore my own Harris Tweed blazer when I interviewed Sam Heughan, aka Jamie Fraser, in New York City during Tartan Week).
Some popular spots to invest in Harris Tweed in the islands include Harris Tweed Hebrides and By Rosie in Stornoway; the Tarbert Tweed Shop in Harris; and Made by Modren in Ness.
You can pretend to be in the Clan Fraser and stay in a castle.
Okay, it’s not the castle fans have seen on screen – Jamie’s home castle of Lallybroch is actually the ruined Midhope Castle near Linlithgow – but who’s going to turn up their nose at a night in any Scottish castle?
The Lews Castle in Stornoway reopened in 2016 after a £13.5 million restoration project, and is now home to the local museum, Museum nan Eilean, as well as self-catering accommodation from Natural Retreats.
There’s a café, a bar, and beautifully restored ballroom and lounge that are free to explore, even if you’re not staying overnight. Plus, the views from the Castle out over Stornoway and the Grounds are lovely (it’s a great spot for some photography).
Other Hebridean tourist accommodation options that wouldn’t look out of place in Outlander (from the outside!) include the Gearranan Blachouse Village in Lewis; the Broch at Borve Lodge in Harris; and the traditional thatched cottages throughout Uist, like Struan Cottage in Sollas.
You can retrace Bonnie Prince Charlie’s steps on the Isle of Eriskay.
Season 2 of Outlander centres on the build-up to the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Claire knows that the Jacobite army are going to be defeated by the British army, so she and Jamie do everything they can to persuade Bonnie Prince Charlie – who comes across as conceited and delusional – out of his doomed plan.
For a real bit of Scottish Jacobite history, it’s worth visiting Prince Charlie’s Bay on the Isle of Eriskay. It was on these sands that Charles Edward Stuart (the ‘Bonnie Prince’) first set foot on Scottish soil in 1745, when he arrived from Europe to claim the throne for his father, James Stuart.
The Bonnie Prince returned to the Outer Hebrides in the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden too. Locals helped hide him from the authorities in locations throughout Benbecula and South Uist, before Flora Macdonald – whose birthplace is marked by a monument in the village of Kildonan – helped him escape over the sea to the Isle of Skye.
The islands’ distilleries mean you can enjoy a dram of whisky just like the Outlander characters do.
The characters are constantly drinking whisky in the show – even at breakfast, it seems! – and you can get plenty of the uisge beatha right here in the islands.
Abhainn Dearg is the first legal distillery to operate in the Outer Hebrides since 1829, and has been making whisky since 2008. It sits on the banks of the Abhainn Dearg (Red River) in Uig, just minutes away from some of the most spectacular beaches in the islands.
If gin is more your style, though, fear not. You can pay a visit to the Harris Distillery for some of their famous Isle of Harris Gin (the whisky is still a work-in-progress), or buy a bottle of the newly released Barra Atlantic Gin from Barra Distillers.
Whatever drink you choose, you’ll be able to raise a toast to Outlander, the show that brought you here in the first place!
For these reasons and more, Outlander fans making the journey to the Highlands should seriously consider exploring the Outer Hebrides, too.
Add the islands to your travel list, and I’ll see you at the standing stones…!
Are you an Outlander fan? Would you like to visit the Outer Hebrides to experience the world of the show, or have you ever visited a destination after seeing it on the screen?
Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!
Want more Outlander stories? Read about the time I met “Claire and Jamie” in NYC, or check out my article on the behind-the-scenes team who keep the show running. And for more inspiration on visiting the islands, take a look at my Outer Hebrides guide!
Love your article, thanks! I first learned of the Outer Hebrides during grade school (1960’s) and for some reason it stayed with me through the years. I am thrilled that during an upcoming trip to Scotland, we will be travel to Lewis and Harris. Your article gives us good insight for the visit.
Katie MacLeod says
Glad you enjoyed it, Karen! If you’d like more ideas on what to do in the islands, I’ve got a resource page right here in the blog – you’ll find it in the sidebar 🙂 And if you’d like any more tips, feel free to get in touch! I hope you have a wonderful visit!
It sounds like I need to give this show a shot now that GOT is over for now!
Katie MacLeod says
Yes, do it Erin! It’s been described as “a feminist Game of Thrones,” and it’s been helping the Scottish film and tourism industry in the same way GOT has done for Ireland. One friend of mine loves Outlander just as much as GOT, so there’s a good chance you’d like it!
Outlander is awful! I’m a fluent Gaelic speaker and can barely make out a single word they are saying. They’d be as well speaking Mongolian.
Katie MacLeod says
Well, we all have different tastes in TV and film 🙂 I come from a Gaelic-speaking family, and I have a lot of friends who are native Gaelic speakers who love the show too – the Gaelic is definitely not perfect, but I wouldn’t expect that from non-Gaelic speakers. Either way, I think it’s great that Gaelic as a language is getting a lot of attention from fans of the show. The more the merrier!
We have just been to Harris and Lewis and stayed at the Broch at Borve Lodge!!
We stayed for three nights and wished we had longer!
Such a fabulous Island and accomodation !!
Katie MacLeod says
How wonderful, Heather! I adore the Broch at Borve Lodge – I had such a relaxing weekend when I stayed there. Glad to hear you enjoyed it too!
Renate's Travels says
I absolutely love Outlander, and I am sooooo looking forward to the new season! The show has also made me want to go back to Scotland so bad, and since I’ve never been to the outer Hebrides, I would love to go. I definitely have to make time for a new trip to Scotland next year. 🙂 Thanks for the read!
Renates Reiser says
Haha, this is funny. I just came across this article again after having just visited Lewis & Harris, and I though “man, this article is awesome, I should leave a comment” – and it turns out I already had! I absolutely loved the islands. They have a unique atmosphere that is hard to describe (even for someone from remote northern Norway like myself). Now I’m just dreaming of going back again, and seeing even more of the outer Hebrides. 🙂
Katie MacLeod says
I’m so glad you enjoyed the Hebrides (and that you came across this post again 🙂 !). They really do have a unique atmosphere, and it can be hard to describe to someone who hasn’t been there. I hope you get to visit again!
LOVE THIS! I agree with everything haha. Love the Outer Hebrides so much!
Katie MacLeod says
Me too 🙂 (Although of course I’m biased haha!)
Susan Alford says
I will have to add this to my place to visit when I see Scotland in August of 2020..Thank you so much for the post. I really enjoyed it. I Love the Saga of The Outlander…..The Books are Outstanding as Well As the Saga…..So, looking forwarded to the continuing Series. Sam Heughan and Caitriona are truly an Awesome pair….Have a Good Day..
Will be visiting in September and Lewis/Harris is on my list, along with Skye and Mull. Will it be easy to visit all three? I know we can drive to Skye but I’m assuming we’ll need to take a ferry for the other two? Oh dear I’ll have to remember to bring my seasick pills! ?