Full spoilers for Outlander continue below. There was never any doubt in my mind that Outlander would show the shades of grey to fighting a battle like Prestonpans. This is a show that has impressed upon us time and again that nothing in life is without complexity, be it sex, love or violence.
In a field not far from the Gleneagles golf course, Highlanders in full regalia train to fight. It’s a sunny day in central Scotland. A collection of tents, campfires and animals dot the open grasslands, and men dressed in clan tartans do a shoddy job of lining into formation. They’re a collection of farmers and common soldiers, not a trained military ready to face off against bayonets with much more than pitchforks and a Highland charge.
Nearby stands a woman who knows they are destined to fail.
After spending half of Season 2 in Paris (shot on location in Prague and in studio sound stages), Outlander — which was just renewed for both Season 3 and Season 4 by Starz — has returned to its Scottish roots. Claire and Jamie Fraser headed home to Lallybroch in last week’s “The Fox’s Lair” after an attempt to change the course of Charles Stuart’s Jacobite uprising that can only be described as “disastrous.”
Now the Frasers have joined with the Scotsmen who have volunteered to be a part of the Jacobite army that fights the British. Claire is cursed with the knowledge of how devastating the Jacobites’ defeat is on Scottish culture. Her instinct is for she and her husband to flee the impending war. Jamie, by contrast, wants to stand and fight to save his people.
Things are just beginning to ramp up.
The crew of Outlander has missed shooting on location in Scotland, but after a week of terrible rains that turned the massive farm they’re shooting on into a muddy mess, they welcome the sunlight and balmy weather. It’s the perfect weather for Sam Heughan’s Jamie Fraser to train these wannabe soldiers how to use the weapons they’ll be fighting the British with.
“It feels like things are just beginning to ramp up,” Heughan told me later in his trailer after he’d wrapped for the day, sipping a glass of Laphroaig, his favorite whisky. “The first half of the season there’s a lot of talk about this great battle, about Culloden, about how we know this whole people and culture are doomed. Ultimately Jamie realizes that he can’t [stop Charles Stuart from raising the army]. He has to join them and has to help.”
In person, Heughan is open and charming, as quick to joke and small talk as he is to earnestly discuss the show. But across a shaded field, surrounded by silent crew members observing him train Highlander soldiers how to battle the Redcoats’ muskets, he becomes Jamie Fraser. He takes on a stronger Scottish lilt than his usual tones, voice echoing through the valley as he barks commands. Moving through the motions of disarming the enemy, he becomes a Scottish hero of the people.
Jamie has had a difficult Season 2, but back on his home turf, it’s clear he’s regained his confidence. He and his wife Claire are fighting to change the future by aiming to defeat the British at the upcoming Battle on Culloden Moor, and Heughan plays Jamie fully confident that Charles Stuart’s army can win.
“I think that’s why he throws himself into training these people,” he explained. “Best thing to do, if they are going to have to fight, is to learn to be a modern army. That’s what he’s doing here. He’s training them to be more than just Highland warriors.”
Adding a wrinkle to Jamie’s plan to train the Scottish volunteers is that a familiar face has come to challenge him for command. I duck into a small barn to avoid appearing on camera as Jamie greets his uncle Dougal — the character’s first appearance in Season 2, and actor Graham McTavish’s big return to the series.
The first words out of Dougal’s mouth after he says “hello” to Jamie are an acknowledgment of his nephew’s rape at the hands of Black Jack Randall in Season 1. Dougal clearly believes his arrival means he’s in charge, and his disrespect of Jamie is intentional. He just doesn’t know how much James Fraser has changed since their last encounter.
“He’s not the person that they thought he was,” McTavish later told me. “Suddenly Dougal’s on the back foot, which is a very interesting place.”
That day of filming ends up being the first 10 or so minutes of Sunday’s episode, “Je Suis Prest.” Dougal reunites with the Frasers and Murtagh over and over as the camera shoots them from multiple angles. Duncan Lacroix trains the recruits for several takes, repeatedly yelling “what are you laughing at, bastard!” in one extra’s face. Heughan walks through training sequences with the volunteers as the stunt coordinator advises him between takes.
As the day wears on, some of the extras sit down in the Highlander camp out of the camera’s view. This day of filming is just setup for the big sequences yet to come: the battles at Prestonpans and, later, Culloden. During one break, I heard one extra turn to another and ask, “You looking forward to the battle stuff? The way I’m imagining it in my head, I hope it comes out.”
That enthusiasm for the fight sequences was a repeated refrain on set. Outlander is building up to a fictional recreation of two battles key to Scotland’s history. Heughan, who learned about Prestonpans and Culloden repeatedly during school, was excited to bring these key scenes to life. But he also was aware how important it is that Outlander get them right.
In Scotland, history’s always around you somewhere.
“Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert the Bruce, William Wallace: these are all stories that you grew up being surrounded by. In Scotland, history’s always around you somewhere. The place names and the music and the people, but it’s mostly the landscape. You walk around and you go, ‘Oh, there’s the site,’” Heughan said. “We’re not far from Prestonpans. It’s all there. When we come through Stirling, there’s a great battlefield just there. It’s just like, it’s all there. It feels great to be given that gift of bringing it to the screen.”
Adding authenticity to the depiction of these scenes is the fact that many of the extras are played by members of the Clanranald Trust, an educational organization that strives to bring awareness of Scottish culture through recreations of the past. The men from Clanranald would arrive at 4 a.m. each day of filming, sleep together in a big church they built and work together like a clan. That dynamic translated to the screen. Their real-life hierarchy appears in the show when the leader of Clanranald plays the man who helps Jamie train the recruits in several sequences.
“It is all good fun, and we’re having a great time doing it, but you have to remember that you’re respecting a group of people that were real and that this really happened,” McTavish said. “So, yes, it’s very alive for us particularly, because we’re doing this. You want to make sure, for [the Clanranald extras] as well, that you’re treating it with respect and you have a responsibility to the memory that those people went through.”
You have to remember that you’re respecting a group of people that were real.
In real life, the Battle of Culloden was disastrous for the Jacobites who fought in it. Not only was it a devastating defeat, but the uprising caused a crackdown on Highlander culture; those who rebelled were put on trial for high treason and many were killed, Britain made a point to absorb Scotland even more, and wearing Highland tartans was outlawed. This was a key turning point for the nation, the repercussions of which are still felt today.
Outlander is bringing fiction and magic into a hugely significant moment in Scotland’s history. Claire and Jamie are trying to change fate, but the Starz series has already made a point to let viewers know the Frasers are poised for failure: theopening scene of Season 2 shows Claire back in the 20th century learning that the British won at Culloden. But don’t expect the end of the season to be predictable just because the outcome seems to be unchangeable.
“Ultimately the show has always been about relationships. Not only is that the climax of history, but it’s also the climax of the relationships that are happening at the time. It’s all doomed, and we can’t stop history from happening,” Heughan said of the upcoming finale. “[Season 2] certainly has a climax. [Showrunner Ron Moore] has also got some surprises.”
Outlander airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.
Terri Schwartz is Entertainment Editor at IGN. Talk to her on Twitter at@Terri_Schwartz.