An Outlander Tour in Scotland: Looking for Nessie and Finding So Much More
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This Outlander tour in Scotland started innocently enough. I was anticipating 10 very quiet days in Inverness since I figured touring the Scottish Highlands wouldn’t take much time. I mean, the area’s biggest attraction is a mythical creature, right?
Wrong! Plan plenty of time to explore when visiting the northern Scottish hills because there is so much to see while touring the Scottish Highlands, and so many legends to learn, songs to sing, and glasses of whisky to drink!
Let’s dive in!
Stories, Music and Whisky Fuel this Outlander Tour in Scotland
I was wandering the streets of Inverness when the clouds opened up, drizzling another Scottish rain on me. Suddenly the live music behind the steamed-up windows of MacGregor’s Bar sounded pretty good.
I listened to the guitarist mix classic rock with Scottish folk music while warming up over a local brew and a bowl of soup with chicken and spiced lentils.
Then the bartenders told me that I should come back the next evening for a special program called the Highland Malt Whisky Experience. And I thought…well, when in Scotland!
That was a good decision. It is impossible to recommend the Highland Whisky Experience enough.
Not only did I learn that I like whisky – at least the really good stuff – I learned so much about the history of the Highlands through music and beautiful storytelling that I was inspired to visit some of the places that I heard about that evening.
Here is what I learned:
The History of the Highlands Needs to Be Heard
Over a glass of Dalwhinnie Winter which, though made in the coldest part of Scotland, has a way of warming the insides, my Whisky Experience host, Davy Holt, struck a chord in my soul with more than his guitar.
He told us that it’s common to be unfamiliar with the history of the Highlands. Even many Highlanders are unfamiliar with the history of the Highlands because lessons and education plans were set by London until the newly established Parliament of Scotland first met in 1999.
Before that, the northern hills of Scotland were overlooked in education plans.
The Highlander in Battle
Davy spoke of the many battles throughout history in which Highlanders were placed on the front lines. This was, in part, due to the legendary Highland Charge, which filled the hearts of opponents with fear as they faced a charging mass of clansmen who, wielding broadswords, joined their voices together in a shrill cry that echoed across the hills.
It was a fitting story to hear over a taste of The Dalmore 15, which boasts a stag as its emblem in recollection of the moment that the chief of Clan Mackenzie saved King Alexander III from a charging stag in 1263.
(The king granted the clan the right to use the Royal Stag on their coat of arms, a tradition that continues today with each whisky bottle of the Dalmore!)
An Outlander Tour in Scotland: Culloden Field
We moved on to our next whisky and onto a story a little more familiar to me. I’m a fan of the Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon and the first book covers the Jacobite Rising of 1745 that culminated in the Battle of Culloden when “Bonnie Prince Charlie” lost the fight – and ultimately his bid for the throne – to the Duke of Cumberland.
I now know there is so much more to the Battle of Culloden than covered in Outlander.
The Jacobites marched through the night and then stood, exhausted, on Culloden Field. The Duke of Cumberland positioned his men on the other side of a muddy bit of land, thereby ensuring the charging Highlanders would be – literally – bogged down in the mud. Perhaps most lethal of all, the Duke instructed his men not to fight the man charging straight on, but, rather, to stab the man to the right where the sword and shield left a bit of flesh exposed.
It was a massacre. To this day, the Duke carries the nickname the “Butcher of Cumberland” both for his methods on the battlefield and for his strategy of ensuring no further rebellions after the battle.
First, he instructed his soldiers to kill the wounded men who lay on the battlefield.
But the Butcher of Cumberland didn’t stop there.
The Suppression of the Highland Culture is Covered in this Outlander Tour in Scotland
Fans of the Outlander series will remember that The Jacobites who lived were rounded up and systematically shot at Old High Church in Inverness. I visited the church to see the musket ball marks that can still be seen in the tower wall.
Jacobites were hunted for years and the Highland culture was suppressed by the strict enforcement of bans on the kilt and the Gaelic language.
The Skye Boat Song (“that Outlander song”)
As we sipped our next whisky, our host picked up his guitar and struck another chord. He told us that there was more behind “that Outlander song,” the theme song of the Outlander TV series on Starz (adapted from the books). Our host launched into the familiar tune but used the original lyrics to what is called the Skye Boat Song.
The familiar music is even more haunting when matched with the original words that tell the tale of Prince Charlie being smuggled across the water to the Isle of Skye while his men are left behind to die. It is the last bit of the song that Davy says tells the story most poignantly.
the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Cullodens field.
Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye
Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.
The men really thought the Bonnie Prince would return, but Charlie never came back to the Scottish Highlands, leaving his men behind to face what amounted to genocide. (Click here for more on the haunting truth behind the Outlander theme song.)
Despite the cold reality of the story, our host warmed the cozy, candlelit room with another pour and another story of the Highlands using two of the best storytelling tools in history – music, and whisky.
After the whisky experience, I went with Davy and a few others to Gellions Bar, the oldest pub in Inverness, to listen as Davy took to the stage for a full set of Scottish folk music. By the time I left that night, I had many new friends with whom I spent the next week singing, dancing, and learning about the “Highlands and the Islands” that had so completely won my heart.
Quick Facts for Touring the Highlands and Taking an Outlander Tour in Scotland
How do you get to the Scottish Highlands?
I took a train from London. It was a long, nine-hour ride, but a beautiful one. It takes about the same time to drive or it’s a two-hour flight from London.
Inverness is a three-hour drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow.
Where should you stay in the Scottish Highlands?
I adored Inverness. It’s small enough to be a quiet getaway, but there is a lovely book store, tons of bars playing live music, a castle to explore, and a riverwalk to wander. By the time you leave, you will know all of the musicians and bartenders in town!
Should you take a guided tour of the Scottish Highlands?
I like to stay somewhere for a long while and book a day tour or an overnight adventure. It is a great way to meet people and to learn more about a place from an expert.
While I didn’t plan to do this in Inverness, I’m really glad that I did. Especially since, as an American, I would have been distracted from the sites by trying to stay on the correct side of the road!
I loved the Happy Tours Outlander tour, which focused on the battlefield at Culloden and the stone circles that inspired the novels.
I booked two separate day tours with Happy Tours. The second was the Isle of Skye Tour, which provided a beautiful overview of the Highlands and Islands and all of its castles and hills.
The days were long (11 hours!) but included so many sites and stories that it was well worth it. I still think back on my time in Inverness and the Scottish Highlands and Islands with great fondness. I know you will too.
If you like liked this story, please save it for later. And check out my other stories on travel and history.
If you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you’ve read the Outlander series, but here is a list of the Outlander books in order if you’d like to purchase from an Independent Bookseller. If you haven’t read the books, please visit this post about the 7 reasons that you should absolutely read the Outlander book series.
About the Author
Hi! I’m Jen!
I’m a freelance writer and travel blogger who quit my nine-to-five after my fiancé, Jeff, died of cancer at the age of 40. When he died, I realized that life is just too short to delay our dreams. Since my dream was to travel and write, I now travel and write full-time. Today I wear hiking boots instead of heels and collect experiences instead of things.
Love this post! Thanks for explaining the history behind the lyrics.
I’m so glad you liked it! I hope you also enjoyed the season finale. I’m waiting in anticipation for the next book to drop. And…for the next trip to Scotland. Fingers crossed!
Thank you, I travel the world through your eyes and your magical ability to paint a story with words. Thank you, Thank you so very much!!!!
I’m retiring soon and my bucket gets heavier through Jen’s eyes. I can visualize places and atmosphere. And the feeling of awe
Thank you for following my travels Marilyn! And thank you for your review on Facebook. I can’t wait to meet you in person one of these days! (Maybe Philadelphia in June??)