Outlander: A Story for Historians

Outlander: A Story for Historians

While heading out for a quick lunch last week, I found myself in the elevator with a colleague from my department. I invited her to come eat with me if she had time, and she proceeded to give me a sheepish yet excited look. “I would, but I just started book 1 of the Outlander series, and I have to go home and read.” “Say no more,” I told her. “I get it.”

Outlander has been in print since the early 1990s, but its author, Diana Gabaldon, has not yet finished what will ultimately be a 9-volume epic adventure. She has legions of fans already, and will no doubt gain an enormous number of new ones this year with the airing of the critically-acclaimed companion television series, which just wrapped up its first season on the Starz channel.

'Should't you be writing' meme
Ignore him.

Nursing Clio friends and fellow historians, I’m here to tell you why reading and/or watching Outlander should be on your Summer 2015 to-do list.

If you’re here, then chances are you are already interested in some aspect of the history of sex and gender, women’s health, women’s rights, and medicine. Outlander has it all, in spades. As author Gabaldon puts it in on her website, her books include “history, warfare, medicine, sex, violence, spirituality, honor, betrayal, vengeance, hope and despair, relationships, the building and destruction of families and societies, time travel, moral ambiguity, swords, herbs, horses, gambling (with cards, dice, and lives), voyages of daring, journeys of both body and soul.”

In other words, for us nerdy types, it’s an academic gold mine, wrapped nicely in a package of bodice-ripping, romantic adventure. Because, yes, there’s a romance at the heart of the story, and as Claire would say, Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, there’s a lot to unpack about it.

On the set of Outlander
Excuse me, while I pin this to my Pinterest board. Note to my Stitchfix stylist: find 1940s style coat. (Amber Linfield Photography/Facebook)

Outlander is principally about characters Claire Randall, an English World War II nurse, and Jamie Fraser, an eighteenth-century Scottish Highland warrior. In the late summer of 1946, Claire is on holiday in Scotland with her husband, Frank, who is about to begin a historian position at Oxford University. (I’ll pause while all the historian graduate students reading this laugh hysterically. Or maybe sob a little).

Both recently retired from their respective posts in the British Army, Claire and Frank hope their vacation will help them rekindle their marriage after the disruption and chaos of war.

But through an accidental encounter with powerful and ancient magic, Claire suddenly finds herself catapulted back in time to rural Scotland in the year 1743, where she meets Jamie Fraser. Various British military and Highland clansmen hijinks ensue, and they are forced to marry each other against their respective wills.

Because they are both really, really, really good-looking …

Outlander characters Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser facing each other
Pretty people.

… they ultimately find they actually like each other. Thus, despite Claire’s guilt over being married to two men at once – two hundred years apart, no less – a lot of sex ensues. With kilts!

(Which the TV show has portrayed in ways that has feminist critics cheering. One has called it “the best sex on television.” Game of Thrones showrunners, TAKE NOTE. Harrumph. I’m still mad at you for what you did to Sansa Stark).

If you’re interested in reading more about the critical reception of the TV show, check out here, here, and here for some insightful debates about the genre-bending series’ cinematic portrayal of gender and feminist issues.

From the standpoint of many Nursing Clio readers, Outlander is also equally fascinating for its portrayal of medicine and medical history, as Nursing Clio co-founder Carolyn Herbst Lewis pointed out in last year’s excellent post on the accuracy of the medical history depicted in the books.

Claire’s medical training (as both a nurse, and later in the books, a medical school graduate) takes center stage in the plot. Her skills as a nurse are a major part of her character development, and influence how she sees herself, as well as how others see her. When it comes to medicine and healing, Claire is a baller, and she knows it. Not infrequently, her 1940s sensibilities clash with the early modern period’s views of women.

Outlander still frame with Clair holding a bottle in a bloddied apron
Claire holding a bottle of wine.

Her strong sense of herself as both a medical professional and modern woman causes initial trouble in her marriage and new life. In fact, fans of Outlander already know how a major plot point develops precisely because Claire’s medical skills clash dangerously with early modern conceptions of witchcraft and evil.

When she time-travels to 1743, her nursing knowledge is regarded with admiration and even a little fear. Claire is able to identify in her new community the various diseases and conditions of the villagers and Highland clansmen, everything from Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome and smallpox, to ordinary influenza. She even tries to teach them about germs, infection, and hygiene, though, of course, she must learn to use terms that eighteenth century people will grasp. One of the first scenes in which we glimpse her expertise put to use is also the first time she meets Jamie. His shoulder is badly dislocated and he’s suffering from a gunshot wound.

Outlander still frame of Clair bandaging Jamie's arm
As Roxanne Gay puts it. “I volunteer to take Claire’s place on weekends. I volunteer as tribute.”

Still not entirely sure where she is or what year it is, Claire demands iodine, merthiolate, or diluted carbolic to cleanse the injury while the Highlanders look on blankly. Later, we see her call upon her field nursing skills and knowledge of herbs, as she learns to ask for items like plain alcohol, garlic, witch hazel, and cherry bark to disinfect wounds and act as painkillers.

Eventually, Claire’s skills as a healer become well-known, but as she finds out, the term “nurse” does not exist. Indeed, the Highlanders think she means a breastfeeding “wet nurse” when she mentions the word. It also would have been unheard of for a woman to be a physician in this period, as British historian Helen Dingwall points out.

Claire has stepped into a moment of transformation in Scottish medical history. The cities of Glasgow, Aberdeen, St. Andrews, and Edinburgh would have offered the latest in medical school training at the time, with “detailed and comprehensive curricula and examination regulations” (Dingwall, 116). This was in keeping with the influence of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on acquiring secular knowledge. Yet these new standards and regulations for training were slow to take hold in areas outside the major urban centers, and trained physicians mostly attended to wealthy clients who could pay for their service. Dingwall notes that not only did the poor and working classes have little chance of accessing qualified medical services no matter their location, but the persistence of belief in folk and herbal remedies in rural Scotland often rendered physicians’ services unwanted in any case.

This continued reliance of rural people on ancient knowledge, coupled with the fact that Claire is a woman, eventually raises some dangerous circumstances for her. Dingwall points out that in the mid-eighteenth century, women’s roles were becoming increasingly “restricted, prescriptive, and ritualized” with the rise of the middle class. She writes, “If the Enlightenment in Scotland and elsewhere gave intellectual freedom, the appearance of social class did little for the women of Scotland…It [was]… a key factor in the exclusion of women from the professionalizing process and the increasingly exclusive sphere of the professions” (143).

Knowing this historical context prepares us to better understand the dynamics behind a key plot development in the first book (and in the first television season) – Claire’s witchcraft trial. The drama begins when Claire makes friends with another woman, Geillis Duncan, who also has a local reputation as a healer and herbalist. After Duncan’s wealthy, older husband dies under mysterious circumstances, the two find themselves accused of witchcraft, and carted off to a dark, damp, underground jail cell to await their fate.

It’s not overly simplistic to state that Claire and Geillis are simply victims of rural ignorance and superstition, caught up in the witch trials that were a common feature of life in early modern Europe between about 1450 and 1750. At their height, it has been estimated that perhaps 60,000 people were put to death during the “witch craze,” with some estimates arguing that 80% of that number were women.1

Yet both the books and the show also accurately illustrate how women’s sexuality was often the key issue during witchcraft proceedings. Historians often point to the publication of the Malleus Malificarum or “the Hammer of Witches” in the mid-1400s, which argued that women’s lust could not be controlled and they were thus liable to have sex with the Devil if the opportunity presented itself. Indeed, Geillis Duncan is carrying another man’s child – a fact she finally reveals at the end of the trial in dramatic fashion, shouting that it’s the child of the Devil.

Outlander still frame of Clair with Geillis Duncan on trial.
Claire and Geillis

The two women’s knowledge of plants and herbs as medicines, their youth and beauty, as well as Claire’s mysterious proficiency as a diagnostician, all prove dangerous in a circa 1740s Scottish court of law. The judges and townspeople wonder out loud whether their knowledge is a result of the “devil’s work” and the women are sentenced to burn at the stake.

We also learn how women played not only a central role as the accused, but also the accusers in witchcraft trials. In the story, Claire and Geillis’ arrests are the result of another woman’s jealousy over Claire’s marriage to Jamie. Again, Outlander gets the history right even if it doesn’t explain specifically to the reader or viewer the significance of this point. As scholars Heide Wunder and Robert Thurston have found, women were the biggest accusers and agents of the trials because they often used them to mediate interpersonal conflict.

It’s these small but fascinating historical bits that make the series so intriguing for those of us who do history for a living.

Meme of historian with text 'Of course. I'm an academic. We know things.'

For the political and military junkies, I’ve not even begun to talk about the plot point involving the Jacobite risings that animates much of the larger Outlander storyline – the restoration of a Catholic ruler to Scotland. Claire and Jamie’s arranged marriage and his inheritance of his ancestral home, Lallybroch, may fuel the imaginations of English legal historians. Historians of sex and gender can have a field day with the series’ depiction of homosexuality, sadism, and rape. Those who work on the Atlantic world will find much to discuss in terms of race and slavery, as later books expand the story into the Caribbean and colonial America.

On the other hand, maybe you’ll want to forget taking the time to argue about what Outlander gets right or wrong about history. Maybe you’ll just want to think about how good Sam Heughan looks in his kilt.

Outlander still frame of Jamie in a kilt next to a hay wagon looking very serious
Scene from Outlander Season 1

Further Reading

Dingwall, Helen M. A History of Scottish Medicine: Themes and Influences. Edinburgh University Press, 2003.

Hamilton, David. The Healers: A History of Medicine in Scotland. Pelican Publishing, 1981.

Robisheaux, Thomas Willard. The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.

Thurston, Robert. The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch Persecutions in Europe and North America. Routledge, 2013.

Thurston, Robert W. Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose: The Rise and Fall of the Witch Hunts in Europe and North America. Longman, 2001.

Wiesner, Merry E. Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

Wunder, Heide. He Is the Sun, She Is the Moon: Women in Early Modern Germany. Harvard University Press, 1998.


  1. Merry E. Wiesner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe, 3rd edition (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 253-254. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Actors Sam Heughan (left) and Caitriona Balfe (center) with author Diana Gabaldon (right) at 92nd Street Y for the New York premiere of the first season of the TV series Outlander. Wikimedia.

Lauren MacIvor Thompson is a Faculty Fellow in the Georgia State University College of Law's Center for Law, Health, & Society. Her research centers on the forces of law and medicine, and their role in the early history of public health and the birth control movement. She has a background in Public History and before returning for her doctorate, worked for various history museums and state agencies on historic garden preservation, public history projects, and Section 106 federal and state historic resource protection.

2 thoughts on “Outlander: A Story for Historians

    • Author gravatar


      i really enjoyed your post. I enjoy the Outlander books as well, particularly for their focus on medicine, herb lore, and Claire’s experiences as a physician in the 1700s – although I am not a follower of the show. I do find the sex a little over the top. But whenever I read them, I find myself looking for more information about the period – Culloden, witchcraft, natural remedies. I have always had a passion for historical fiction, and the Outlander series fits that bill nicely.

      Thanks for sharing!

      • Author gravatar

        Hi Thanks so much! The books and show offer so much food for (historical) thought – I’m really looking forward to seeing how the show handles the next part of the story regarding the machinations of the French court before the Revolution. So glad you enjoyed the post!

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