Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, And A Scottish Adventure Like No Other

In 2019, Outlander stars Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish set off for the Scottish Highlands in a questionable campervan keen to examine more of the country they grew up in. From Glencoe to Culloden and innumerable lochs and castles in between, Clanlands is a chronicle of their adventure filming what eventually became the Television series Men in Kilts.

Heughan (young, daring, terrible driver) and McTavish (older, crankier, bon vivant) make for an engaging twosome. Clanlands is divided between Heughan’s account of occurrences and McTavish’s adding to their story with a substantial heap of Scottish history. The comradeship (though often masked behind zingers and ripostes) and their mutual love of and captivation for their home country is, for me, the highlight of the book.

Sam and Graham eat, sleep, and breathe the Highlands on this epic trip. Clanlands grabs your interest right from the start. Who doesn’t want to imagine themselves being alongside a raucous road trip? It’s a wild ride around Scotland by campervan, boat, kayak, tandem, bicycle, and motorbike.

It is a quintessential adventure story. We gain insight into the authors’ experiences on the Outlander set, become introduced to fellow countrymen who share the love of history, and the unguarded repartee that only accentuates the serendipitous friendship between Heughan and McTavish. Mix in a bit of whisky (OK a lot, but they had a spare driver) and some (at times) risky adventure and you are left with hours of enjoyment. I felt the take home import from reading this book is plain: be spontaneous and open-minded and embrace the exhilaration of the unknown.

The stories of Jacobite insurgencies and clan feuds are competently dealt with rendered in an entrancing and accessible way. Tilting naturally towards a layman’s perspective of history, it hardly is a deep-plunge study. But that’s not the gist of the book, so it is no worse for it. There’s plenty of eccentric characters scattered around the imposing landscapes, historical and otherwise, and both Heughan and McTavish have an aptitude for realizing a personality and making them come alive on the page.

We are told Clanlands first came about with Sam rekindling Graham’s long held passion to make a TV show delving into Scottish history. At first they considered a podcast, which grew and grew into a book, and then into a TV show. I think the book gives a revealing, behind-the-scenes look into the Men in Kilts show. There’s a lot of sharing how they made the show which is entertaining and in that sense adds depth to the TV experience.

The name-calling doesn’t stop with each other. Graham states, “For reasons best known to Sam our modern form of transport (of which there are many) seemed to have been chosen for their impracticality and general clapped-outness.” He goes on to provide us with a litany of names for their Fiat campervan….The Blunderbuss, Fiat Turd, the Fiat Fiasco, Fiat Farce, and the Oversized Fridge. The antics in the campervan, the give and take between driver and navigator, a standoff with an Audi (or was that a BMW? ) driver on single track road, holding up runners in a marathon, Sam’s gear crunching and wild driving….are all very funny.

What do we learn about the men themselves? Both go into quite a bit of detail about their early lives and their acting careers (maybe a little too much thespian gossip.) They share a love of Shakespeare (especially Macbeth.) They have much in common with their Scottish childhood which adds a nice human interest aspect to the book.

Towards the end of the road trip Sam and Graham share an emotional day on the Culloden battlefield where in 1746 the British vanquished the Scots and squashed the Jacobite uprising to reinstate the House of Stuart on the Scottish throne. Graham notes, “Culloden was the battle to end all battles and the clans themselves.”

I originally purchased a hard copy of the book, then realized the audio book was narrated by Sam and Graham. I highly recommend following along in the book while listening to the authors. The two of them put so much of their personalities into their narration that by listening you’re treated to their squabbling and comedic moments in a way that the book alone does not capture as well. But don’t go it alone with just the audio if you have a hard time following their Scottish accents. For the fullest experience follow along as they narrate.

So did I have an all out love affair with Clanlands? Yes and no.

The writing style leaves something to be desired. It almost feels like (a chaotic) transcript of a podcast with each man intruding on each other’s segments to poke fun and make jokes. Of course this could work even if a joke is dead on arrival if it wasn’t for the way the book is configured. Sometimes italicized sometimes not, sometimes speech marks sometimes not, it’s a disconcerting series of decisions that lacks cohesion, and added to the ever shifting tenses it came as a puzzler to me that Sam and Graham actually had a co-writer.

The other misfiring? The ceaseless gags about Sam’s driving and Graham’s age as well as some stupefying tidbits of personal history. It’s an odd approach that’s better suited to TV and maybe the book was always meant to be the bus to the show.

That said, Clanlands is an incredibly enjoyable read. It accomplishes what it says on the cover. Two gents that never take themselves too seriously. Some appealing descriptive writing, some reflecting on friendship and beautiful scenery.

Yet I feel, at best, the book is a mixed bag hitting some high notes and some low notes. Sometimes the history and adventure is overwhelmed by mundane anecdotes and a humor that, at its core, is mean spirited and not cutting edge wit.

So unless you are a devotee of the Outlanders show you might be better served by going directly to the Men in Kilts television show. This saga works a bit better on television than the printed page.