Scotland is having a moment; even David Bowie noticed. In eight hours or so, residents of the northern European country will begin voting on whether they should stay in the United Kingdom of Great Britain (which, as writ down in 1707, encompasses England and Scotland) and Northern Ireland. At the same time, Scotland has had a banner year in the world of film and TV. In April, the introspective story of an alien’s self-discovery amongst the urban and rural men of Scotland, Under the Skin, debuted to wide critical acclaim. (I still can’t shake it.) Although set in Dorset, the BBC murder investigation series Broadchurch, starring David Tennant as a Scottish melancholic police detective, made such a splash when it aired here that it’s getting an American remake, also starring Tennant, that’s set to premiere early next month. Peter Capaldi, who will never lose his Scottish accent, no matter what role he’s playing (even if he’s Cardinal Richelieu on The Musketeers), is now Doctor Who. Stuart Murdoch, leader of indie band Belle & Sebastian, directed a winsome Glasgow-set musical released this summer: God Help the Girl.
But for me, nothing in film or TV right now can be any more about Scotland (or better yet, “Scotland”) than Starz’s lavish costume drama Outlander, which is based on the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. In it, Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, a former WWII combat nurse on a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands with her sensitive and intellectual husband Frank (Tobias Menzies). Somehow, touching the standing stones at Craigh na Dun near Inverness transports Claire to 1743, right before the thick of the second Jacobite rebellion. She becomes the imprisoned guest (yes, you read that correctly) of the Laird of the local Clan MacKenzie, Colum (Scottish character actor/everyman Gary Lewis). Everyone at his estate, Castle Leoch, suspects that their visitor, who appeared on their lands rather mysteriously and with a near incredulous backstory, is an English spy. Claire immerses herself in highland culture, but as an identifiably modern woman from the 20th century, she’s not afraid to confront its barbarism, misogyny, and plain backwardness. While a guest of Colum MacKenzie, she strikes up a tentative friendship with the young, noble outlaw Jamie MacTavish (Sam Heughan), who ostensibly represents everything that we love about Scotland: its wild, untameable spirit, cheeky sense of humor, romantic sense of independence, and high percentage of gingers. Although Claire wants nothing more than to return to the standing stones of Craigh na Dun in an effort to reunite with Frank in 1945, obstacles lay in her way everywhere. Chief among them is the mutual attraction between she and Jamie. Trust me, it’s pretty damn sexy.
Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice on this past week’s episode, the sixth of the season, that Claire’s confrontation with the sadistic English Army Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (expertly played by Tobias Menzies) and Frank’s direct ancestor (hence Menzies’s doing double duty on the show), sort of puts this whole Scottish independence vote in a nutshell. In episode five, Claire discovered that the members of Clan MacKenzie with whom she is forced to travel while they collect taxes from the villagers and farmers who live on MacKenzie lands are actually raising funds to bankroll a Jacobite rebellion that Claire knows, thanks to the hindsight of history, will end in their crushing defeat at Culloden in 1746. Having contracted a strain of Stockholm syndrome, Claire ruins any chance of securing the assistance of the English army in traveling back to Inverness when, after an officer “rescues” her from her Scottish “captors”/”friends” while on the road, she loses her cool over dinner with Brigadier General Lord Oliver Thomas (John Heffernan), casting doubts as to where her political (and by implication, cultural) allegiances lie.
Episode six, “The Garrison Commander,” is a two-hander featuring nothing much more than a psychological game between Black Jack Randall and Claire, a chamber piece set in a dark room where neither is willing to give in to the other’s desire for transparency. Once Lord Thomas’s men roll out at the word Scottish rebels have attacked nearby, he leaves Claire with Black Jack Randall, who, in an effort to expose her heresy, regales us with a tale about how he created a bloody masterpiece out of Jamie’s back, flogging him over one hundred times. I recommend this piece from Vulture about how the writer, producer, and actors staged the flashback scenes of Jamie’s torture and mutilation. The scene is visceral, realistic insofar as I know what it looks like for a back to peel off when repeatedly whipped, and most importantly, the loudest and most striking on-screen appeal for Scottish independence in the 18th century. But how curious this scene should air just days before the Scottish vote on 21st century independence?
Please don’t get me wrong: as much as I love the idea of Scottish independence, I think it is more Romantic than ideal or feasible. There are too many uncertainties: the fate of the Scottish currency (to join the disastrous euro zone or lose the hefty British pound? that is the question), whether England will accept an independent Scotland’s disavowal of the UK’s nuclear weapons, the real wealth that the rapidly depleting Scottish oil would bring to the new country, etc. As Steven Erlanger points out in his New York Times profile of the small, northernmost English town Berwick-upon-Tweed, independence would be catastrophic for those who live so close to the border. If you live in one country but work in another, how will you do your taxes? Small businesses are likely to go under. On top of it all, the Labour Party would lose its strongest voting bloc in Parliament if the left-leaning Scotland cuts ties for good. People are worried about what the UK’s flag will look like come 2016 if the Scots vote yes tomorrow. It seems silly, and though the polls suggest this will be a close call, I don’t think Scotland will declare its independence tomorrow.
The media everywhere are using the analogy of a divorce to describe this monumental decision. Is the married couple really that unhappy? England will throw Scotland some concessions, offering to do the washing up after dinner, even though it totally forgot how hard Scotland works during the day. Although I haven’t seen Outlander‘s seventh episode, “The Wedding,” I know that Jamie’s uncle Dougal (a gruff but charismatic Graham McTavish) has already figured out a way to save Claire from Black Jack’s clutches: making her a Scot by marrying her to a very game Jamie. This way, Black Jack cannot lawfully detain her while on MacKenzie lands. A fine political loophole that should make her transformation from Sassenach (the Gaelic word for “outlander” or, really, “Englander”) to Highlander. Lemme tell you, Saturday’s episode will be interesting no matter how the Scots decide.