Diana Gabaldon: On superfans, whisky and the ‘miracle’ of Outlander
Snow falls thick and fast on the historic town of Falkland as a group of tourists, wearing puffa jackets and pulling trolley bags through the slush, stop at the Mercat Cross. “We are looking for Diana,” one says.
The group of friends from Barcelona are ‘superfans’ of the hit show Outlander and are in Scotland on a three-day tour of filming locations.
They are staying at The Convenanter Hotel in the town - which features in the very first episode of the show - and have just come from the 16th Century village of Culross, another filming location.
There, word has spread that Diana Gabaldon, author of the hugely successful Outlander books, is out and about in Fife.
As the tourists look on in semi-disbelief, Gabaldon, wearing a long red-hooded cape, emerges from the gates of Falkland Palace and walks out into the snowy street.
The visitors go silent as she walks towards them arm-in-arm with her husband Doug, who guides her carefully over the slippery cobbles below.
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Soon, the biggest superfan of the group, Anna Garcia, 46, who works in mobile phone sales, is gently pushed by her friends into the embrace of the author. The hug, it is certain, is a genuine one and Anna is quickly overwhelmed and starts to cry.
“I feel very emotional at the moment, and very lucky,” says Anna after this extraordinary chance meeting.
“I have read all the Outlander books and I am here to see the locations used in the show. Never did I think I would see Diana too,” she adds.
Soon, a swell of people are out in the streets, having left the warmth of the hotel and their homes to catch glimpse of the visitor in the red cape whose creations have helped to revitalise the town.
One woman has grabbed her old paperback copy of Cross Stitch, the original Outlander novel that was first published 28 years ago, for the author to sign. Another hands her a beer mat to mark.
Falkland doubled as 1940s Inverness in the very first episode of the show. Since then, it has been a favourite stop off of fans on the Outlander trail. It’s impact on the town has been tangible.
“Well, you can’t get parked anymore,” offers resident Anne Rankin.
Another resident, whose house was used in a scene when lead character Claire Randall Fraser appears at a window overlooking the Mercat Cross, adds: “I get people looking up and taking pictures of me eating my breakfast.
“Outlander painted my house brown for the show and then painted it back white afterwards. I was delighted. It saved me about £1,000.”
Back in Culross, photographer Graham Harris Graham, who specialises in Scottish landscapes including Outlander locations, greeted Gabaldon to his gallery and said: “You are the reason I am working seven days a week. Please don’t stop doing what you are doing.”
For Gabaldon herself, the phenomenon of Outlander - and the impact her stories have had on people - remains largely unexplained.
She says: “It is nothing I could have intended or achieved on purpose but the fact that it has happened is something of a miracle.
“It seems to be, as far as I can tell, universally beneficial, I don’t think I have harmed anyone.”
Gabaldon is in Scotland for 10 days and was invited by Visit Scotland, who paid her air fare, to receive a Thistle Award for her contribution to Scottish tourism given the huge visitor numbers, such as Anna Garcia and friends, that have been driven by her stories.
The impact the Outlander story has had on Scotland is perhaps even more remarkable given that Gabaldon chose to write in a Scottish character into the first draft of Cross Stitch after watching an episode of Dr Who, which featured a man in a kilt.
It appears the Scottish connection was almost an accident.
“Oh yeah,” Gabaldon says. “Either that or divine providence, but we’ll never know.”
Gabaldon is relaxed, witty and has an incredibly kind manner, no matter the pressures on her time by fans, journalists and others who realise the immense value of an association with the hugely successful author.
Her schedule is intense given the itinerary surrounding the Thistle Award. Usually, she and Doug like to simply wander around taking in the sights.
A trip to Culloden - ‘to pay respect’ - is always on the agenda. Inverness is a ‘lovely wee town’ and when in Edinburgh, they like to sit in the hotel bar, where Gabaldon enjoys a Lagavulin or nip of Highland Park.
She says: “I am not really a public person. I feel pretty relaxed with people by and large. I was a university professor for 12 years and talking to interviewers and explaining and discussing what I have done, I am quite used to. It is not a problem.
“But I don’t go looking for opportunities to be in the public eye. I get a lot of invitations to be on the board of this and the council of that, and I just try to avoid those.”
But connecting with the Outlander fandom across the globe is an essential part of the Outlander story for Gabaldon, whose creations have led to an almost devotional following of her characters both online and at events across the world.
Does its impact ever feel overwhelming?
She says: “Well when you stop and consider the absolute numbers, then yes but you know you encounter the fans one at a time by and large.
“The first time I had lunch with Sam and Caitriona at a huge fan event, I said to them ‘when someone comes up to you at a book signing it is important to look at them’.
“If they want to shake your hand do it. They want that moment of connection. It may only be 30 seconds and it is important to do that. It does take energy out of you to do that to keep doing that for hour after hour but it is worth it.”
On the magic ingredient of Outlander that has captivated so many, Gabaldon remains unsure.
She said: “I honestly don’t know. They are very honest stories and we don’t shrink away from anything, no matter how emotional or difficult it is.
“People write to me about what they like and they say ‘I love the botanical medicine, I love the fact Claire is a doctor , I love the way Jamie handles people and I love the two of them together.
“At the bottom of it though, they say the people seem real to me and they want to be part of their lives.
“People use the word immersive all the time and say they open the book and are right there in just a few words.”
Gabaldon says she is ‘lucky to have been born a story teller’. After creating software programmes to analysis scientific data, she set up an ran a journal called Science Software Quarterly for eight years before selling it to a publishing house.
This year, Gabaldon will publish Go Tell The Bees That I am Gone, the ninth book in the main Outlander series which is set in 1779 and 1780 as the American Revolution enters its final phases.
Gabaldon says she “sort of” has an idea when the main Outlander series will be complete with two more books to come after Go Tell The Bees.
One will be a prequel and focus on the lives of Jamie Fraser’s parents during the 1715 Jacobite rebellion with the story to be entirely set in Scotland.
But how the Outlander story will complete remains to be seen, Gabaldon says.
“I just follow the characters,” she adds.
“When I start working on a new book I sort of have to stop and reacquaint myself with who these people are at this point because people change as you get older and have different experiences, what is going on with you is different, how prosperous you are is different, what your love life is like might be different.”
On what she will do after Outlander, Gabaldon jokes that she is going to ‘die some day’ adding that she is now 67-years-old.
“I am very healthy and luckily I come from a long lived family, people on both sides of my family go right into their nineties so you know, God willing, I will do for quite a while and I will manage to write some more books.”
Gabaldon now wants to go way back in time and tell the story of Master Raymond, the apothecary who pops up in several of the Outlander books and meets lead character Claire Randall in Paris in season two of the television show.
Gabaldon says: “ I have it in mind to tell Master Raymond’s story. He doesn’t actually come from 18th Century France. I know where he did come from and he has a very interesting story.
So when does he come from?
“Oh about 3,500 BC,” says a laughing Gabaldon
And how does he power himself through such vast spaces in time?
“Oh, that is a secret,” she adds, as the powers of Outlander continue to circulate.
-Diana Gabaldon toured Outlander filming locations with guides from Mary’s Meanders.