‘Outlander’ Greatly Over-Simplifies Religious History of Scotland & North Carolina

Fans of the historical “Outlander” novels and television series may find the oblique references to the religious history of Scotland, England and North Carolina fascinating, but also confusing. Jamie Fraser in the early 1700s is a Catholic from the “isolated and backward” Scottish Highlands who has never recognized the Protestant Reformation that began 200 years earlier when Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Vatican over Europe by nailing 95 Thesis or complaints on the door of his church in Wittenberg, Germany. Jamie fights for the restoration of the Catholics, specifically Bonnie Prince Charlie Stuart to the British throne, which culminates in the Battle of Culloden on April 16, 1746.

Yet his bride Claire grew up in England as a post-reformation Anglican. She’s 200 years younger than he is (talk about robbing the cradle!) but older than he is when she meets him as a time-traveler in 1745. She’s 27 and Jamie’s 22.

Yet their daughter Brianna Fraser scandalously marries a Presbyterian, Roger MacKenzie, and they all settle in the highlands of North Carolina. This could not have happened in real life. Land grants in the English colonies, especially Carolina, were only available to Protestants, not Roman Catholics. Maryland was settled as a haven for Catholics persecuted in England, but they would not have been welcome in Carolina.

Up until the 1960s, Catholics represented less than one percent of the population of North Carolina, and generally considered the South an “inhospitable environment” given the dominance of Southern Baptists in the region and prejudice against “papists.”

The Outlander novels by Dianna Gabaldon suggest some religious tension or distrust between Jamie and his son-in-law Roger, but the novels don’t evoke the harsh religious bigotry of the 1700s. Jamie and Roger would likely have considered each other heretics. A devout Catholic like Jamie would have had a hard time accepting the religion of his Anglican wife Claire, and vice versa. This likely would have been a deal-breaker among two religious people in the 1700s.

The politics of the time were even more confusing — breaking into bitter religious factions.

British King George II, who ruled from 1727 to 1760, was born and brought up in Hanover, Germany, and spoke mostly German, not English, as a child. His claim to the British throne was disputed by the Scottish Stuarts, who had ruled Scotland from 1371 until James II of England and Ireland (a.k.a known as James VI of Scotland) was deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. James was the last Roman Catholic monarch of Britain.

George II was, importantly, a Protestant. He was, as my attorney friend Bruce Johnson points out, “at least for English legal purposes, an Episcopalian Anglican, the Supreme Governor Under Christ of the Established Church of England. But for purposes of securing his right to the Throne of all of Great Britain, he allied himself in Scotland with supporters of the constitutionally there legally Established Presbyterian Church of Scotland, often known simply as the Kirk.

“Which should have meant that all good Scottish Presbyterians supported him. But things are rarely so simple. The sidelined Scottish Anglicans, like my ancestors, were furious with him for supporting the Presbyterians.” If they lived in England, they might have been his supporters, but since they lived in Scotland, they never forgave him for turning his back on them at the border.

“Scottish Presbyterians are a curmudgeonly bunch,” Bruce observed in an email to me.  “There is an old saying that wherever you find a Scot, you’ll find a Presbyterian church and that wherever you find two Scots you will find two Presbyterian churches. Not totally wrong.

“There were Scots who didn’t find King George’s version of the Church of Scotland Presbyterian enough so they created the FREE Church of Scotland, commonly known as the  “Wee Frees.” (I kid you not.)

“So they along with the Scottish Anglicans like my people and the Scottish Roman Catholics and royalists who actually thought their oath of allegiance to the lawful King meant something formed common cause with English royalists and Catholics behind the rightful “born to be King” Bonnie Prince Charley against the German-usurping King George and not only his English allies but also his good respectably Presbyterian Scottish supporters.”

As very clannish people, the Scots’ religious loyalties were often determined by clan and kinship systems. “MacDonalds were for Charley and Campbells were for George. And Johnstones and Maxwells respectively were for whomever the others were against,” Bruce Johnson observed.

Conceding that this religious history of Scotland is “pretty complicated,” he notes that he has “undoubtedly oversimplified it some. Can’t blame Outlander if they oversimplified it a bit more.”

Drill Deeper: 


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