From MSS to S&M - how TV changed Highlanders from hairy to hot

Sarah Fraser
Opinion - Books 25 January 2017

As Scots and others prepare to celebrate Burns Night, Sarah Fraser reports on how a TV series gave a boost to her and her four-year-old book about a clan chief

In 2012, William Collins published my biography The Last Highlander, about the most appallingly behaved Scottish clan chief. (He had his reasons.) I'm very fortunate. The book received generous reviews, won the Saltire Prize for a first book, and I talked about it all over the place. All that time bent over musty manuscripts had paid off. It sold steadily. I did not expect a miracle, as it was not a subject with clear mainstream appeal south of the Highland line.

Until, four years later, my editor emailed to say The Last Highlander had charged up the New York Times ebook bestseller list. And was sitting at no 12. The print version was selling well also. I was gobsmacked. I could not think what had happened.

TV did it. To be blunt, Highlanders are hot since the Outlander TV series aired, and HarperCollins US had given the book a relaunch to coincide. It was my "Black Swan" moment. The next series will go out this autumn, maybe late August/early September. They are filming up here now. Series three begins with the Battle of Culloden. I will be drawing attention to The Last Highlander shamelessly before it airs.

If I think why my book did particularly well in the US, it isn't because it had the word "Highlander" in the title - although that probably helped. It's because there's a real connection to Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. In her novels, my historical subject - Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat of the '45 - is the fictional Jamie Fraser's grandfather. The fact that, without doubt, Lovat lived an action-packed, riotous life also helped. And then he died, aged 80, with a bang not a whimper. Fantastic to write about, I think he must have been sheer hell to live with.

Outlander fan sites, with tens of thousands of subscribers, chatter daily. They vlog, blog, post their fantasies and artistic reactions - verbal and visual - to the thought of Gabaldon's hero, Jamie Fraser, and the Highlands of Scotland. They trek north, and make days'-long bus tours around the sites, to see where Jamie lived, loved, and lost. They want all things Highland. That includes my book. We watch them file down into the crypt to see where Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat is encased in a lead casket. What's left of him. The casket is split. You can see Lovat is only rusty coloured dust and bits of black bones now.

I have had my arm twisted to become the clan Fraser of Lovat historian - and to sex up the clan website. Thousands of people are visiting it, looking for lively history. It does need a complete revamp. The site is perfectly polite and dull at the moment. The deal is, I get a platform to publicise my books, in exchange for posting both salacious and serious anecdotes from Highland history.

This summer, I am talking at a three-day rock festival near Inverness on "The Last Highlander and the real Outlands". The organisers assure me that Outlander groupies/festival goers in pink neon tutus and wellies will come to enjoy some down time away from the funky fiddles and the cacophony of pipers, to drink in tales about their hero's world. Can't wait. They get 18,000 people attending that festival.

When I think about it, the Outlander effect feels great. It has made the Highlands sexy and mainstream. I did a PhD on bawdy Gaelic verse years ago - now, if those fans really want to know what their hero keeps under his kilt, and what he does with it...

Away from all things Highland, I am preparing to launch my next book, The Prince Who Would Be King (William Collins, May 2017), about the greatest king we never had. Most people know nothing about him. He is Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales, oldest son of King James VI and I.

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