Visiting Scotland with Outlander's Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish

The stars of the hit TV show Outlander get into a campervan - and on a tandem - to explore their native Scotland for a new TV documentary and book. They gave us their tips for our next visit...

9 mins

The Scottish tourist board owes Outlander a lot of shortbread. The TV show has caused visitor numbers to Scotland to increase massively – 200% in some places – through fans keen to discover the reality behind the hit sci-fi/history/romance series. And in 2019, the fans weren’t the only visitors.

Two of its stars, Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish, spent autumn 2019 in a campervan, getting off the beaten track to find out more about their homeland for a new book, Clanlands, and the accompanying TV documentary, Men in Kilts.

We caught up with the bantering pair on Zoom – Sam in Scotland, Graham from his New Zealand home – to find out about their new project.

So how did how did the project begin? 

Sam Heughan: We had a conversation way back in Los Angeles, talking about creating TV shows. Graham had an idea for Clanlands years ago – a history-based show. And I was looking to do something based around Scottish history and it just was like, ‘Oh well, maybe we could work on this together?’

Graham McTavish: Sam suggested that we originally do a podcast, which I didn't know what that was, but I pretended I did. Then he suggested that we use GoPros to film each other, which even I realized was just an impossible idea and then ­– shortly afterwards – Sam said, ‘Look, we should just film it with a crew?’ And before you knew it, they were there: three cameras and a drone, and full crew.

SH: It just seemed to make sense to develop it into a TV show. I guess it was us being a bit naive. I financed it and we went out and shot it. And then we're like, ‘Oh, we actually have to sell this.’

GM: It could have been the most expensive home movie ever made! Fortunately, some other people want to watch it. The book really came about as a result of the show, which we filmed in September 2019. But a lot of this wasn't really planned, it was very spontaneous, and I think that sometimes there's a benefit in really being ignorant about a subject.

The subject of writing books, for instance, was something that both Sam and I were new to. But in being new to it, we sort of threw ourselves into it. And we were lucky that that idea of writing a book coincided with a worldwide lockdown, which meant that we were stuck indoors for four months.
SH: Yeah, I think I think you know that's what makes the book different to others. It was quite organic and it is this back-and-forth banter. It concentrates on the Clanlands road trip, but also, we start to weave in lots of our anecdotes of our history of our careers as actors or Scotsman as well. So it is quite a personal reflection on Scotland, but also on our relationship and on the experience of shooting Clanlands.

© Peter Sandground/Starz Entertainment

© Peter Sandground/Starz Entertainment

Even in the book you somehow manage to talk over each other, which is quite impressive. How do you manage that? And who gets final say?

GM: Sometimes you would think that you'd finished, that I've written some marvellous ending to a particular moment, and because you could see live sometimes, I’d look down and then suddenly there would be this little [mimes typing] just as I'm writing my final line. So then I would have to write something else, so it would go on. It was a book really fuelled by mutual abuse.

SH: But interestingly, actually, so is the audio book. Possibly just an even an extension of that.

GM: Constant abuse.  

What is it about Scotland that made you determined to go back and explore it further?

SH: The country is so beautiful, but there's so much history and it is so tangible so you can literally be driving around and see the evidence of history, of past lives, of things that happened. We were encountering objects, like a pistol or sword that was used at Culloden, or a chair that Mary, Queen of Scots used.

You start to realize that you have all this history around us in Scotland and it really wasn't that long ago that all this happened. You can really feel it – the history, or the ghosts of the past.

GM: The thing about the landscape is Scotland, which I think makes it unique in Britain, is that it really isn't manicured at all. Once you get into the Highlands – especially the north-west Highlands and some of the islands – it's one of the last great wildernesses is of Europe.

And partly because of the geology of Scotland and partly because of what happened there, it's a landscape that is scorched by history. A lot of people who lived there were driven away, so there is a beautiful melancholy about Scotland that I think appeals to a lot of people's romantic sensibilities as well. Mine included.

SH: When you go to Glencoe and you hear about the massacre there, and you hear about individual characters – unique people – and you hear what happened to them during that experience, and it just makes it very much more personal, I think. It's hard not to be moved by this history.

If someone was visiting Scotland for the first time, where would you suggest sending them first?

SH: Edinburgh’s an amazing city with so much culture, history and heritage. It’s a good place to start.

GM: I’d also really encourage people not to overlook the islands. Those ferry journeys – even to the Inner Hebrides, which really aren’t that far – going to Mull, obviously Skye… That’s like a different country.

How did you find the campervan?

GM: Not built for people over 6 foot tall!
SH: I fell in love with the campervan. To be honest, I've never driven one...

GM: Which I didn't know until we started driving away in it, by the way.

SH: Yeah, I realized when I got in there that I couldn't remember how to drive manual, which I hadn’t done for a long time. We decked it out with lots of Scottish paraphernalia to make Graham [who now lives in New Zealand] feel more at home.

GM: And I hate the paraphernalia of course. It was very cute.
SH: And so we became one of those people that drive around Scotland in a campervan.

GM: The good thing about the campervan was we had great conversations there. That was lovely.

Do you have any good campervan etiquette tips?

GM: Get a good map. Not GPS – a proper map because the amount of times that, when we relied on the GPS, Sam would just miss the turning completely. And in Scotland, if you missed the turning, it's another 20 miles before the next one.

SH: Watch out for sheep. They do a Mexican stand-off  – not a Mexican stand-off, more like a Gaelic stand-off. The sheep are pretty hardy up there in Scotland

GM: The sheep are mean. They've been shaped by the climate. They just look at you belligerently and they gang together. They're not ‘herds’ of sheep in Scotland. They’re ‘gangs’ of sheep. Marauding gangs that try and distract the driver.

SH: Make sure that you don't have a sound man hidden in the toilet. There are quite bumpy roads and poor guy got thrown around. Always have a stash of whiskey, like an emergency stash. Snacks for Graham. Make sure they’re close to hand and you probably have to replenish them every two hours.




There have been so many times, you know you're doing a take or whatever and they’re just eating you alive

How did you find the midges?

GM: Well, the midges found Sam!
SH: Yep! On Outlander we have to deal with them a lot. We've discovered is that midges like warm places that are slightly moist – they love to get under my wig and then your life is hell. They just live in your wig, which is pretty nasty. But on this shoot it was possibly even worse. I think they saw us coming. But Graham seems to be curiously not affected at all.

GM: I think just my sheer rage was enough to deter them. But they feasted on Sam. I mean, I would look around and there would be this cloud around his head – sometimes look like he was having a fit

SH: I feel like that’s partly the reason why I was semi-drunk the whole time.

GM: Nobody talks about the midges in Scotland. It's like this secret. You know when they're showing the beautiful vistas of Scotland on TV, the camera lenses are covered in clouds of midges.

SH: But if the secret gets out of then no-one will come, right?

It would probably defeat some of the romance of Outlander if everyone’s just itching the whole time…

SH: Yes! There have been so many times, you know you're doing a take or whatever and they’re just eating you alive and you're trying not to think about it or react. As soon as they call cut, I've seen myself and my co-stars just go crazy. It's like, ‘Argh!’

You mentioned enjoying a drink on the way. Which distilleries would you would you recommend?

SH: I personally would say visit them all because I'm a great fan. I love that that in each different part of Scotland, the whisky has different unique, characteristics. We do touch on whisky in the book – it gets a whole chapter! I would be remiss of me not to plug my own brand Sassenach, which will be available in the UK in November.

GM: We had a wonderful whisky tasting: six cask-strength whiskies at 9:00 in the morning. They were amazing, but that was the end of the driving that day.

SH: A good start the day, I thought. But in the book we talk not only about you know the process of making whisky, but the history of whisky. It really is part of Scottish culture. But we touch on all those things you know. We learn more about these traditional sort of Scottish stereotypes, about clans, about tartan, and dig into it a bit more as well.

Any good tips for riding a tandem bike?

GM: I have one: No. Just no. If they offer you the tandem option, say ‘No thanks. I'll go with the single…’ Especially if it's a tandem just made of cast iron, with sort of rudimentary breaks. And don't let Sam Heughan be sat behind you.

SH: I thoroughly enjoyed the tandem. It’s one of my great joys in life is to wind up Graham, and this was key. Also, it’s interesting to see how a man who claims to be a great cyclist…

GM: I am!
SH: He's seems to be very particular about the type of bike that he is allowed to ride…

GM: You know, it's those old-fashioned things like brakes that work, a saddle that doesn't actually cut your arse in two and that doesn't weigh more than you do. Those are the three things I go for in a bike.

© Peter Sandground/Starz Entertainment

© Peter Sandground/Starz Entertainment

If our readers were thinking of travelling in Scotland with a bike, maybe not a tandem, where would you recommend?

GM: I've cycled a lot in Scotland – all through the Outer Hebrides and all over the place – but one I haven't done is the North Coast 500, which has got some fearsome hills. Monsters. But
beautiful. That very far north is pretty special. I've actually suggested it to Sam that we try to do it together. Although I may live to regret that.

SH: I used to mountain-bike a lot. Down near where I was born [Galloway] is a great mountain-biking area and it’s actually being developed right now. I think they’re even going to build a chairlift for Graham to get up.

Outlander’s done big business for Scottish tourism. Did you see any fans on your trip? Were they surprised?

GM:  Yes, they were very surprised. ‘Why are they on a tandem together?’ Yeah it was pretty baffling, I think, but they always are very respectful and very, very sweet.

SH: Outlander’s been amazing for a lot of the historic sites. I think we shine a spotlight on a few more locations. It was interesting to see when the fans spotted us. I think they were bemused and confused.

GM:  I'd be delighted if fans took our book and used it as a guide or inspiration to do their own trip and take it with them and explore some of the places that we explored, but also to use those as a starting point to go to other parts of Scotland – that would make me really happy.

What did you learn about each other while touring Scotland?

GM: Sam never seems to suffer from Hangovers.
SH: Well, that's not true…

GM: But you disguise it very well.

SH: I was so excited every day. Being on the road with my good friend and out and about ­– it wasn't like work. We were actually on a road trip, there just happened to be a camera crew with us. So, I discovered that Graham is a great traveling companion, although he also has run up the largest hotel bills with fine dining.

GM: Outrageous! Yes, I like my creature comforts. This is true. But that was the thing I discovered: How much fun it is to go on holiday with Sam, here. And that's not something I would have thought when I first met him. Those aren’t the thoughts that go through your mind when you're first on set: “Wouldn’t it be great to go on holiday together?” At the [cast] read through of the script: “Sorry to interrupt, but do you want to go on holiday together…”

SH: “…on a tandem?”

GM: “…I've got a campervan parked outside. Let's go, yeah?”

In an ideal world, where would be next for you two?

SH: I’ve always wanted to go to Nepal and see Everest Base Camp. I know it’s become a bit touristy, but I’d still like to go.

GM: But is there barista coffee there..?

SH: There's no snack bars nearby for Graham. No coffee shops…
GM: I’d go there. I love Japan – it was truly unique. So yes, those would be high up on my list.

Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other by Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) is out now. Keep an eye out for a release date for Men in Kilts.

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