There is something incredibly sexy about men in kilts, especially if they are Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish. The cheeky cover of their new travelogue, Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other (Hodder & Stoughton) is enough to seduce readers to tag along on their hilarious cross-country romp. However, fans of the Starz Outlander series (based upon Diana Gabaldon’s novels of the same name), will recognize these mates as James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser (Heughan) and Jamie’s Uncle/War Chieftain Dougal MacKenzie (McTavish) and will need no encouragement to join in the fun.
To write this review, I decided to take a two-pronged approach. (Actually, three if you count the bottle of Heughan’s The Sassenach Scotch). Being that the authors were actors, ones whom I admire, I listened to the audiobook production of Clanlands while reading the book. Each platform offered a unique experience of Clanlands — the book contains maps, timelines, illustrations and selected personal photographs, which assist in understanding the complicated Scottish history and demise of Clan culture that began in the 12th century. The audiobook is a delight to the senses, as it is impossible to resist Sam’s and Graham’s mellifluous Scottish brogue whispering sweet in your ear.
THE STORY UNFOLDS
In September 2019, Sam and Graham boarded a ramshackle Fiat campervan to explore the Scottish Highlands. With Sam behind the wheel, the pair claims they had no agenda. However, this tour-de-force was well organized, and of course, began with a whisky tasting. For the novice, whisky is produced in Scotland from malted barley, while bourbon is manufactured in the U.S. from corn mash. Whisky is one of the common threads throughout their journey, which begins upon their arrival at Loch Achtriochan in the heart of Glen Coe to explore Clan history dating back to the Vikings.
The authors are fervent Scotsman, and while taking their country’s history seriously, they share enjoyable behind-the-scenes tales of the Outlander series at each castle, hotel and misadventure along the way. In fact, a cavalcade of Outlander cast and crew — Duncan LaCroix (Murtagh Fitzgibbons) and Wendy Forbes (Sam’s Outlander makeup person) drop by for cameos. Even Gary Lewis (Dougal’s brother, Collum MacKenzie) even makes an appearance, rowing a boat on Loch Ness. For avid Outlander fans, there’s a hilarious description of Dougal’s murder scene in Season 2 preceding the Battle of Culloden. And yes, many tales feature Caitrona Balfe with great admiration.
WHY WE LOVE MEN IN KILTS
Clanlands is more than a travelogue; it’s part memoir. We discover that Sam is the more fun-loving and thrill-seeking of the duo, while Graham is the wise, older philosopher. You can hear the distinction in their narrations. Graham’s vast theatrical experience has led him to the stage (Macbeth), screen (The Hobbit) and television (24). He teases Sam about Sam’s shameless endorsements of whisky and cars, and his constant nudity on the show. Sam retorts with barbs about Graham’s baldness, his obsession with lattes and affectionately nicknames Graham “The Grey Dog.” Part of the book’s hilarity is the contrasting versions of stories narrated from Sam and Graham’s perspectives. They are like Laurel and Hardy, winking at the reader and listener.
Interestingly, Sam hails from an artistic family, and his uncle created the magnificent wicker cross that appears in Season 5 of the show. In the audiobook, Sam’s amazing impressions of guests and friends enthrall, resonating with loyalty and admiration. Our quarrelsome guides made me feel as if I was living the escapades with them, which I wouldn’t have experienced within the pages of the book alone.
Toward the journey’s end, Sam and Graham share an emotional day on the Culloden battlefield, where in 1746 the British defeated the Scots and suppressed the Jacobite rebellion to reinstall the House of Stuart on the Scottish Throne. Graham notes: “Culloden was the battle to end all battles and the clans themselves.”
Clanlands is like a great bottle of whisky — golden, smooth and packs a punch — with Sam and Graham starring as crafty mixologists. As they tackle kayaks, bikes, motorcycles, mountains, shinty (a field hockey type game), and camping along their journey to castles, standing stones and lochs, I couldn’t have asked for more charismatic or amiable tour guides. I didn’t want the journey to end, and I hope they invite me along on their next post-pandemic adventure. Who wouldn’t want to go anywhere with Sam Heughan and Graham MacTavish?
For me, their upcoming Starz docu-series, Men in Kilts, can’t arrive soon enough.