T’S 1946, the Scottish Highlands are in bloom, and Claire Randall, an English ex-army combat nurse, has come to Scotland on a second honeymoon with her husband, Frank, from whom she’s been separated by the war.
While she doesn’t share Frank’s passion for genealogy, she’s looking forward to starting the next branch on the family tree. Meanwhile, she occupies her spare time in exploring the countryside, pursuing an interest in botany. On one such expedition, she discovers an ancient circle of standing stones—made the more interesting by Frank’s having heard that the circle is still in use by a local group of women who celebrate the “old ways” there.
In the dawn of the ancient Feast of Beltane—May 1—Claire and Frank creep up to the circle, to see the women dancing and chanting, calling down the sun. The couple steal away unseen, but later Claire returns to the circle to get a closer look at an unusual plant she’s seen growing there.
She touches one of the standing stones and is enveloped in a sudden vortex of noise and confusion. Disoriented and half-conscious, she finds herself on the hill outside the circle, and slowly makes her way down—to find what she assumes is a film shoot in progress at the bottom; a prince-in-the-heather epic, with kilted Scotsmen being pursued by red-coated British soldiers.
Claire carefully skirts the scene, so as not to ruin the shot, and making her way through the woods stumbles into a man in the costume of an eighteenth-century English army officer. This doesn’t disturb her nearly as much as does the man’s striking resemblance to her husband, Frank.
The resemblance is quickly explained; the man is in fact Frank’s ancestor, the notorious “Black Jack” Randall, of whom Frank had often told her. While very similar in appearance, however, Jack Randall unfortunately does not share his descendant’s personality—the former-day Randall being a sadistic bisexual pervert rather than a mild-mannered history professor.
Claire is rescued from Black Jack’s clutches by one of the Scotsmen she had seen earlier, who takes her to the cottage where his fellows are hiding, waiting for darkness to escape. One of the men has been wounded, and Claire treats his wound—as best she can—meanwhile trying to come to terms with the apparent truth of where—and when—she is.
Bemused not only by Claire’s peculiar dress—or lack of it—but by the sheer impossibility of her presence—English ladies simply aren’t found in the Highlands in 1743—the Scotsmen decide to take her with them when they decamp under cover of darkness.
As Claire remarks, “The rest of the journey passed uneventfully; if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through rough country at n ight, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain. By the standards I was becoming used to, it was quite dull.”
Arriving at dawn at Castle Leoch, seat of clan MacKenzie, Claire meets The MacKenzie, Colum. A courtly man deformed by a hideous genetic disease, Colum is both intrigued and suspicious. He can think of no conceivable reason for an Englishwoman to have been wandering the Highlands, and makes no pretense of believing Claire’s thin story of having been beset by robbers. Not knowing who she may be, or what her purposes are, he makes it plain that he intends to keep her as his guest for the time being—willing or not.
While laying plans for her escape and return to the stone circle, Claire becomes better acquainted with the young man whose wound she had dressed, a clansman named Jamie, whom she at first takes for a groom at the castle.
She discovers her mistake; Jamie is in fact the nephew of Colum and his brother, Dougal (the clan’s war chieftain, who leads the men to battle in place of his crippled brother), though his father belonged to clan Fraser. He is also an outlaw, wanted by the English for offenses ranging from theft to unspecified “obstruction”—offenses that have left his back webbed with the scars of flogging.
Relations between uncles and nephew appear oddly strained, and the reason is explained following a clan Gathering, at which Colum demands an oath of loyalty from Jamie—and fails to get it. Colum has one son, Hamish, age eight. As Jamie explains to Claire, if Colum should die—as is likely, given the nature of his disease—before young Hamish is of an age to lead the clan, who will inherit the chieftainship?”
Dougal is the obvious candidate, but there are those among the clan who feel that while he is an able warrior, he lacks the cool head and intelligence a chief should have. Hamish is plainly too young—but there is another candidate: Jamie. While Jamie himself professes no desire to usurp the chieftainship, Colum and Dougal are not so sure his protestations are sincere, and are inclined to take steps—some of them lethal—to prevent any such attempt.
Claire has so far failed twice in her attempts to escape from Leoch, so she is delighted to hear Dougal announce that he intends to take her with him on his journey to collect rents from the tacksmen of the district. His professed intention is to take her to the captain of the English garrison, who may either be able to shed light on her presence or take charge of her. Or both.
Claire is highly in favor of this, feeling sure that she can persuade the English captain to send her back to the stone circle, from which she may be able to get back to her own time. Her hopes vanish abruptly upon her discovery that the captain of the garrison is Jack Randall.
For his part, Jack Randall is delighted to see Claire again, and determined to find out who and what she is. Englishwomen simply don’t go to the Highlands; if she is here, alone, she must undoubtedly be a spy—but for whom, and why? His notions of interrogation are not gentle, and even Dougal MacKenzie is appalled. Refusing to leave her with the Captain, Dougal takes Claire away with him, and after a pause for thought, tells her that he has conceived a plan: The Captain has the right to compel the person of an English citizen, but cannot arrest a Scotswoman in her own country without legal formalities. So, Dougal announces triumphantly, he will make her a Scot; she must marry his nephew Jamie without delay.
Nearly as horrified by this notion as by the Captain’s behavior, Claire does her best to resist, but can find no alternative. Convinced at last that if she marries Jamie, she will have a better chance of escape, she consents, finding her horror tempered with bemusement at her prospective bridegroom’s inexperience:
“Does it bother you that I’m not a virgin?” He hesitated a moment before answering.
“Well, no,” he said slowly, “so long as it doesna bother you that I am.” He grinned at my drop-jawed expression, and backed toward the door.
“Reckon one of us should know what they’re doing,” he said. The door closed softly behind him; clearly the courtship was over.
However, there is no immediate chance of escape, and Claire is obliged to consummate her marriage with Jamie—under Dougal’s firm orders. Dougal, it appears, is killing two birds with one stone; while he has sufficient humanitarian instincts to wish to keep Claire away from Randall (and is still curious enough about her to want to find out for himself what she’s doing there), his principal motive is to stifle any chance of his nephew attaining the chieftainship of clan MacKenzie—for the clan will never accept Jamie as leader with an English wife.
Realizing that Jamie is as much under duress as is she, Claire accepts the inevitable—and finds herself becoming very fond of her new young husband. Much too fond; for she still means to escape and return to Frank, as soon as she can.
Soon enough, she finds her chance, and steals away while Jamie is occupied elsewhere. However, her attempt fails when she falls once more into the hands of a prowling Jack Randall and is taken to his inner sanctum in Fort William, where she discovers more than she wanted to know about the Captain’s recreational proclivities. This time, she is rescued by Jamie, who escapes with her from the fort while the other Scots create a diversion by blowing up the powder magazine.
During the angry confrontation that follows their escape, Claire learns that there is more to Jamie’s antipathy toward Randall than his recent behavior. She already knows that the scars on Jamie’s back were inflicted by Randall, who had taken the young Scotsman prisoner several years before. Now she learns that the vicious flogging was the result of Jamie’s refusal to yield his body to Randall, who gratifies his inclinations with the readiest victims: the Scottish prisoners under his control, who have no recourse or means of escape.
Returning, perforce, to Leoch, Claire does not give up searching for a way back to the stones—and Frank—but becomes increasingly aware of how wrenching such a return would be, tearing her away from the man she has come to love.
One small difficulty shows some hope of resolution, though; Colum—now secure in the knowledge that his nephew is no threat to his son Hamish’s chieftainship—offers to intercede for Jamie with an English noble of his acquaintance, the Duke of Sandringham. Perhaps, Colum thinks, the Duke could be induced to gain a pardon from the Crown for Jamie, removing the continuing danger of outlawry.
Arrangements are made for Jamie and Dougal to accompany the Duke on a hunting trip, where the delicate negotiations for a pardon might be accomplished.
As Jamie remarks wryly to Claire, “It goes against the grain a bit, to be pardoned for something I’ve not done, but it’s better than being hanged.”
Copyright © 2015 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.