An Investigation of the Obsession with Kilted Heroes
By Olivia Wikstrom
The Scottish historical romance is one of the most popular subgenres of historical romance (Emmons). The subgenre started to gain significant traction in the 90s, corresponding with a boom in popularity of movies set in Scotland (Murray). Through this essay, I will define the subgenre by exploring commonalities between the heroines, the heroes, the portrayals of the setting, and the historical context in which the novels were written. I will also explore the correlation between the growing popularity of movies set in historic Scotland and the popularity of Outlander with the increase in popularity of the subgenre.
The Scottish Historical Romance Heroine
There were several common heroine characteristics found in Scottish historical romances in the 1990s: British origin, witchcraft and/or healing aptitude, and origin in modern times through the vehicle of time travel. A large number of Scottish historical romances had an English lead (Neri; Robin 1993c, 1993d). If the heroine was English, then her romantic lead was unfailingly a Scot of some variety, typically a warrior or a Laird (Robin 1993a, 1993c). The reason for the prevalence of the English heroine was suggested by one author, who explains that the cultural differences prompts the heroine to “reconcile her English sense of civility with Scottish pride and justice,” (Givens) providing interest for the novel.
Another common theme in the subgenre was the presence of magic, typically within the female romantic lead (Robins 1993f). Of the Scottish historical romances that featured a Scottish heroine, many of them possessed some form of witchcraft, whether that be in full magical powers or just an unnatural aptitude for healing (Monk). Some heroines were not magical but were under suspicion or a hunt due to their abilities, typically in the healing sphere (Robins 1993b; Miller). As Kathleen Morgan, a writer in the Romantic times explained, this provided an immediate danger for the story to work with, as many alleged witches were killed in that era. Scottish history facilitated this trope, as there was a large pagan population in the country that then became wildly feared, able to scare even the brawny highland warrior (Morgan). Witch hysteria offered plenty of material for an author to work with, especially when the magic gave the heroine an edge over the hero, providing effective tension and power imbalances in couples. The backdrop of Scotland allowed for such plot devices to be used. As Amber Kaye, a Scottish historical writer, said: “strange things happen in the Scottish Highlands and islands… a place out of time, where witches are as believable as the rowan trees planted to ward off their magic” (Kaye).
The Scottish Historical Romance Hero
The Scottish historical also saw several patterns emerge in the 1990s. For one, in almost every instance, the male lead in a Scottish historical was in fact Scottish, a contrast to the prevalence of English heroines (Neri; Robin 1993c, 1993d). Many Scottish heroes were described as beastly or savage to some degree, with one author characterizing her hero as “savage,” “feral,” and like a “wild man,” (Raye) and another author describing hers as “animalistic,” “wild,” and a “ruthless warrior” (Henley). Another important characteristic of the Scottish warrior was his dedication to his clan, a commonly discussed trait in the Scottish hero (Robin 1993a).
An important fixture regarding the Scottish hero was his kilt, the focal representation used to indicate a Scottish hero or setting. The kilt was arguably fetishized, as it was a cultural item of clothing worn by Scottish people that American writers intensely sexualized. There was endless speculation of what was under the Scotsman’s kilt, with salacious stories and quips centering it: “Threatening to reveal what a man wore beneath his kilt…nothing,” “nor did we ever learn what was under his kilt,” (Madl) and a story even called “Under the Kilt,” where a Scotsman learns to “find love that is as enduring as the tartan plaid” (Robin 1999e). There was even an odd instance where a character hears an old legend of a clan having tails beneath their kilts. Kilts and the nudity underneath were also used for comedic relief. One instance was when a senile man has his kilt slip and expose his buttocks (Lamb). The kilt was so centrally engrained in the subgenre that it was used on most romance covers to indicate the content (King). Even in instances where the male cover model was not wearing a kilt, there was often a tartan border to indicate the setting of the novel (LaFehr). Novels without a kilt typically had “highland” or “Scotland” or some derivation of the words to indicate the genre in its place (Jones), though it was more typical to see plaid as an indicator.
Another important fixture around the Scottish hero was his accent. Many of the novels and novelists took time to describe the sound of that voice (Caddell), laced with poetic references to Scotland’s landscape: “That voice! Whisky-dark with a Highland Burr that holds echoes of rushing burns, the crash of the wild sea against brooding dark crags and the wind keening through the heather” (Neri). Some authors directly referenced the accent in their marketing as part of the sex appeal of the Scottish hero (Robin 1993g).
A crucial aspect of the genre was the setting itself, politically and geologically. Politically, as several authors have noted (Kaye), Scotland has a rich history of border disputes, conflict with the English, rebellions, and clan rivalries (Robin 1993e), all of which offer plentiful opportunity for danger, conflict, and high stakes (Graham). There were some common points in Scottish history that many authors utilized in their novel, one prominent one being the Jacobite Rebellion (Robin 1999b). Another common historical point used in the plots was the conflict between England and Scotland (Robin 1993a). Often this coincided with the trope discussed above, where there was be an English woman and a Scottish man on opposite sides of a conflict (Robin 1999a). Another important political aspect of the Scottish setting was the presence of the clan structure. Clan conflicts were prime material for conflicts in stories: battles in which brawny men can fight (Robin 1993d, 1999e), sources of enmity that may fuel kidnappings (Robin 1993h), and reason for arranged marriages to settle disputes (Robin 1999d).
Finally, Scotland offered an intensely beautiful setting to place a romance. Common details discussed in Scottish historical romances of the 1990s were the glens (Kaye), heather hills (Robin 1999c), and old stone castles (Robin 1993f). It was unusual to see an article discussing romance without it waxing poetic about the Scottish landscape: “echoing with the fierce cries of Scots warriors and the lament of Scottish ballads[,] readers can feel the cold wind swirling through the pages and the haunting fragrance of heather” (Robin 1999c).
There were several plot tropes commonly found in the Scottish romances of the 1990s. The first was captivity romance, with the hero kidnapping the heroine. This trope typically arose from clan conflict, where the hero is a highland warrior getting revenge on another clan, eventually falling in love with his captive. Another trope that arose from clan conflict was an arranged marriage between members of different clans in order to create peace between warring groups (Robin 1993h). The last common trope was the time traveling heroine, where a modern woman is sent back in time with some sort of Scottish magic where she encounters a wild setting and an even wilder hero (Raye).
Cultural Movements Correlated with the Rise in Popularity of the Subgenre
There were several cultural occurrences that happened in the 90s that strongly correlate with the emerging popularity of the subgenre. One of the most important ones was the mid-90s boom in movies set in Scotland. Perhaps the most recognizable of these is “Braveheart” (1995), which grossed 210 million dollars internationally and won five Oscars (Alexander). While “Braveheart” was criticized for historical inaccuracies, it helped shape the American perception of Scotland as a wild, tartan, battle-rife setting (Deufel). Another prominent Scottish film was “Trainspotting” (1996), which was the most profitable film of its release year, with a gross profit 42 times higher than its budget (Murray). These two prominent films were part of the boom of Scottish film which occurred in the back half of the 90s. From 1990 to 1995, only seven Scottish-set features were released, but the ensuing five years almost tripled this number, with 18 releases (Murray).
Braveheart appears to have influenced the romance industry. It is out of the scope of this paper to provide statistics on the number of published works before and after its release; however, there are several instances where romance writers explicitly cited Braveheart as what inspired them to write Scottish historical romance (Henley 1998a, Skye). Virginia Henley, a popular historical romance novelist, used Braveheart in her marketing and interviews to give context for her novel, as the setting she used was the in the same era or interacting with similar history (Henley 1998b). Some readers explicitly described Braveheart as what made them fall in love with Scotland as a setting and was therefore the reason they started reading Scottish romances (Smargiassi).
In addition to Hollywood’s boom in Scottish-set movies, the popularity of the Outlander series correlated with the growing popularity of the subgenre, and specifically correlated with the growth in popularity of the time travel trope (Wachsmith). The series follows Claire, an English woman, who travels back in time to Scotland in the time of the Jacobite rebellion. There, she meets Jaime Fraser, an alpha-male warrior. Against the backdrop of the failing rebellion, they fall in love. Through the rest of the series, they travel through both space and time, exploring some different settings, though the anchor of the series is 18th century Scotland (Gabaldon 1991). The first novel follows several clear tropes of the Scottish historical romance subgenre, with a large, alpha-male warrior hero, Jaime, and a more restrained and conservative English love interest, Claire, who travels back in time to meet him. The first book was originally published in 1991, with the second published in 1994, and the third in 1997. Now, there are 12 novels, most with a page count around 800, and a very successful TV adaptation with six seasons and counting.
Despite Gabaldon’s attempts to distance her writing from the romance (Vineyard), the connection of her work to the romance subgenre and its wild popularity is undeniable. In a 2010 poll to determine the most popular Scottish historical romance, taken by Goodreads which saw over 2,100 respondents, Outlander was first on the list with 704 votes (Goodreads 2010). Additionally, on other Goodreads, user-created lists of favorite Scottish historical romance novels, Outlander repeatedly appears (Goodreads 2011, 2012). While these sources may only prove that modern, 21st century audiences think of Outlander as part of the romance genre, this is simply a continuation of a trend that originated when the novels were first published, as Outlander’s marketing team used the Romance Writers of America convention to advertise the series (Hague). Additionally, Gabaldon makes appearances in Romantic Times to promote Outlander (Gabaldon 1997, Ryan), and the magazine reviews the Outlander books in its issues as a romance novel (Robin 1997). The use of these publications was an undeniable acknowledgement from Gabaldon’s marketing team that the book would be of interest to an audience that reads romance novels.
Harlequin Publishing appears to have ridden the coattails of Outlander’s success. From 1990 to 1996, Harlequin did not publish any Scottish historical romance. In 1997, when Outlander’s third novel was receiving attention and acclaim (Mauel), Harlequin started releasing Scottish historical romances, publishing at least one for every year following 1997, expanding to an even larger frequency of an average of five a year starting in the middle of the 2000s (Harlequin). While I cannot prove here that Outlander and the Scottish movies were the origin of these novels being published, there is a strong correlation between the mid-decade boom of Scottish film and of Outlander success and the emerging interest of Harlequin, one of the most prominent romance publishers, to release more books in the subgenre.
In the 1990s, the Scottish historical romance subgenre contained many tropes in its plot and shared characteristics between the different heroes and heroines. Heroes were frequently Scottish warriors or Lairds, devoted to their clan. The heroine was frequently of English descent, a witch, or from the modern era. Common tropes were arranged marriage, kidnapping, and time travel. The subgenre started to gain significant traction in the 1990s, corresponding with a similar boom in Scottish film and the explosion of the Outlander series.
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