Romancing Clio
Becoming a Scot and Cross-Cultural Marriages in <em>Outlander</em> and the Early Modern British Isles

Becoming a Scot and Cross-Cultural Marriages in Outlander and the Early Modern British Isles

Catherine Medici

If you’ve heard about any historical romance, then you’ve probably heard of Outlander. The popular series by Diana Gabaldon follows Claire Beauchamp Randall, an English nurse who falls through time when visiting standing stones in the Scottish highlands in 1946. Transported to 1743, she is picked up by a band of Scots highlanders and falls under suspicion as a traitor by an English Army captain, Jack Randall. Eventually, to keep her safe from Randall, the leader of the highlanders hatches a plan to marry Claire to one of the Scots, Jamie Fraser. In other words, Claire and Jamie marry in Outlander because to protect her, the highlanders need to turn Claire into a Scot.

This issue of a marriage of mixed Scottish and English nationality comes up repeatedly throughout the first Outlander book in the Scottish context, but these relationships also posed a major concern in early modern England. The transfer of nationality and cultural influence between English men and women and their Scots or Irish spouse was an issue of legal debate, policy, and cultural concern, particularly as England exerted increasing power over Scotland and Ireland from the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Outlander provides an opportunity to explore the issue of transferring legal and cultural status through marriage.

In 1707, the Acts of Union united England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain. A Scot was a subject of the British Crown as was an Englishman. By 1743, the Scottish highlands were supposedly just as British as London or Yorkshire, but in reality, Scotland remained a very different place. The Highlands where Outlander takes place resembled a distant territory or colony more than a co-equal part of the nation. Scotland even retained some separate laws, including their marriage laws, which were based in the medieval Gaelic tradition.

The cast of the Starz adaptation Outlander. (Lois Matthews/Flickr)

It is this difference in law that joins Jamie and Claire. After freeing Claire from a rough interrogation by Jack Randall, Dougal McKenzie, leader of the band of highlanders, states “Scots law and English law are verra similar … but no’ the same.” Dougal informs Claire that “The only way I can legally refuse to give ye to Randall is to change ye from an Englishwoman into a Scot.”1 As an Englishwoman, Claire is subject to English law and Randall has rights over her. However, he cannot remove a Scot from their clan lands or compel them to submit to questioning. In other words, the only way to keep Claire out of Randall’s hands would be to somehow transform her into a Scot – and the way to turn Claire instantly into a Scot is to marry her to one. Conveniently, Dougal’s unmarried nephew Jamie is available.

In early modern Britain, it was commonly understood that a woman took on the nationality of the man that she married. This was largely based on the understanding that a woman’s identity was subsumed by her husband upon marriage. However, national identity did not flow the other way. In other words, an English woman who married an Irishman did not make him English, but instead lost her own status as English. This understanding of the transference of nationality could lead to a great deal of consternation by English leaders in the territories they governed when English women married local men.

Early modern Scotland and Ireland shared a Gaelic culture, and there was a great exchange of people and ideas between the regions. Both saw the English exert increasing influence and control in their territories in the course of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. In the second half of the sixteenth century, as the English government sought to impose their direct rule over the clans of Ireland, marriages between Irish clan leaders and English women became issues at the highest levels of government. One Irish clan leader, Shane O’Neill, repeatedly offered to marry an English woman to prove his loyalty, increasingly offending the English with his desired choices. The English Bagenal family served the English crown in Ireland and for two generations, their letters to the highest governing body, Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council, show the tensions that arose over intermarriage. In 1567, Sir Nicholas Bagenal wrote to the Council that the Irish clan leader Turlough Luineach wished to prove his allegiance to the English by marrying Bagenal’s sister-in-law. Instead of seeing this as an act of loyalty, Bagenal was horrified, writing that he “would rather see her burned.”2 Sir Nicholas’ response illustrates the negative view that English officials and nobility had of the Gaelic lords and distaste for marriage between them and Englishwomen.

Bagenal’s Castle, Castle Street, Newry, County Down, Northern Ireland. (Ardfern/Wikiamedia Commons)

The next generation of the Bagenal family more vividly illustrates this conflict. In 1597, Sir Nicholas’s daughter Mabel snuck away in the night to marry Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, an Irish clan leader. Her brother Henry was the leader of the English army in Ireland and complained to the Queen’s Privy Council. Henry wanted the marriage invalidated based on a claim that O’Neill’s divorce from his first wife under Gaelic law was not legal; he also claimed conflicts between English law and Gaelic law regarding his sister’s future inheritance. Henry’s immediate response to the President of the Privy Council was to deny any participation in the marriage, writing that “his grief is unspeakable, that the blood which in his father and himself has often been spilled in repressing this rebellious race should now be mingled with so traitorous a stock and kindred.”3

The conflict included the testimony of two Bishops who said Bagenal had refused to allow the marriage “doubting how Her Majesty and your Lordships would conceive of the matching of his sister to so great an estate of the Irishry, and considering the incivility of the Earl’s country not agreeing with his sister’s education.”4 Bagenal is clear that the mixed marriage will be a stain on his family and there was an attitude among English leaders that discouraged such intermarriage. O’Neill wrote an extensive letter to the Council complaining of Bagenal’s slander and military aggression and action against his clan. He also explained in detail how his own marriage took place and was based on mutual love and consent.5 The legal and political conflict lasted for months, but in the end, the marriage stood. However, Bagenal’s personal feelings against O’Neill increased hostilities between the Irish leader and the English, and Bagenal died in military action against O’Neill in 1593. The Bagenals highlight the concerns that cross-nationality marriage raised for the English, and exemplify the debates among the English officials at the highest levels about intermarriage with their Gaelic subjects.

Alongside the legal principle that a woman’s status followed her husband’s, there was also a belief that a woman’s nationality or culture could influence her husband. This effect could be useful to the colonial project or impact a husband’s political power. Transference of nationality or culture also appears in Outlander as it shapes Jamie’s status. Because Jamie has married an Englishwoman, the McKenzie clan will never accept him as their Laird, or leader. Jamie explains this to Claire in the days after their wedding, and it arises again when seeking assistance from his uncle Colum, the current Laird.6 Gabaldon emphasizes the point as well in her companion guide to the book.7 This puts Jamie and Claire on equal ground in a number of ways. Both lose something in the marriage, Claire any freedom she had as a single widow and Jamie the possibility of future power as Laird. Additionally, each finds protection in the marriage, Claire from Randall and Jamie from his uncle Dougal, who does not want Jamie to be Laird. As in the case of Hugh O’Neill, Jamie’s claim could be contested, as O’Neill remained one of the most powerful Irish clan leaders with his English wife. However, it does follow with early modern ideas about women, and wives especially, as carriers of culture. In their early efforts at colonization and imperial control, the English noted the role women played in instilling Englishness in communities and among people, both English and colonized. They encouraged women to participate in certain ventures to ensure the rooting of English culture. Jamie’s experience losing his role as potential Laird shows how this could be viewed from the other side, that Claire’s Englishness had the potential to influence or lessen Jamie’s Scots identity.8

Cross-cultural marriage raised legal and political questions that rose to the highest levels of the British government and could lead to tensions on the borderlands. Outlander’s Jamie and Claire are never far from turmoil and drama, and as the history shows, in early modern Britain, a cross-cultural marriage was a sure way to achieve both.


  1. Diana Gabaldon, Outlander, (New York: Delacourt Press, 1991), 161. Return to text.
  2. Nicholas Bagenal,“Sir Nicholas Bagenal to Lords Justice Weston and Fitzwilliam and Council, 2 Dec 1567,” Calendar of State Papers, Ireland, Tudor Period, rev. ed., ed. Bernadette Cunningham, vol. 1: 1566–1567 (Dublin: Irish Manuscript Commission, 2009), 240. Return to text.
  3. Henry Bagnall, “Sir H. Bagenall to Burghley Aug. 13 1591” in Calendar of the State Papers relating to Ireland, of the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth, 1509–[1603], ed. Hans Claude Hamilton, vol. 4: Aug 1588–Sept 1592, (London: Longman & Co, 1885), 409. Return to text.
  4. Adam Loftus, “Lord Deputy and Council, viz., Bishops Loftus and Jones, to the Privy Council, Aug. 21, 1591.” Calendar of the State Papers relating to Ireland, vol. 4, 415. Return to text.
  5. Hugh O’Neill, “Earl of Tirone to the Privy Council, Oct 31 1591,” Calendar of the State Papers relating to Ireland, vol. 4, 433. Return to text.
  6. Gabaldon, Outlander, 193. Return to text.
  7. Diana Gabaldon, The Outlandish Companion: The First Companion to the Outlander Series (New York: Delacourt Press, 2015) 6, 7. Return to text.
  8. Marissa Martinelli, “How Outlander Keeps Getting Tangled Up in Real-Life U.K. Politics,” Browbeat: Slate’s Culture Blog, July 14 2016; Katherine Trendacosta, “Is the UK Missing Out on Outlander Because of the Scottish Referendum?,” i09, September 18, 2014. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Scottish Highlands. (Courtesy Steven Penton/Flickr)

Catherine Medici is a lecturer in Humanities in Medicine and Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Nebraska. She has a PhD is early modern European and women's and gender history. Her work focuses on women, gender, and chronic illness in the past and present.