A Case for Romantics


Jamie Fraser, from Outlander



Scotland has always held a very special place in my heart, not just because I spent four years of my life in Edinburgh but also because its history, bloody and brutal as it may be, is also heart wrenchingly romantic. Overseas, Scotland’s cultural heritage has been reduced to flat faced emblems; tartan flannel and bagpipes, and whiskey and whiskey and whiskey, the Loch Ness monster and the occasional ginger highlander decked out in a kilt. And as violent and rough as the English will make the Scots out to be compared to the more polished and significantly more repressed English culture, it is that very rawness that gives such a special intensity to the songs, art, and poetry of my favourite place in the world.

Anyone vaguely familiar with British history will know of the massacre of Glencoe, where Clan Campbell killed Clan MacDonald, in their homes, as their guests, after being wined and dined by them. They will know, also, of the Jacobite uprisings of the 18th century which split Scotland into loyal subjects of the Crown, and treacherous supporters of the ‘pretender’ Charles Stuart. Game of Thrones‘ ‘Red Wedding’ is based at least partially on the Glencoe massacre and the Black Dinner of 1440, where the 16 year old Earl Douglas and his younger brother were invited to Edinburgh Castle for a feast. As the story goes, while they ate, a black bull’s head- a symbol of death- was brought in to the table. The two brothers were then killed. English ‘Redcoats’ (soldiers), in an attempt to stamp out Scottish culture and sever the means by which the Scots could communicate amongst themselves, went around cutting out the tongues of those who spoke Gaelic, the native language.

The city of Edinburgh was so threatened by violence and warfare on all sides that the Flodden Wall was built around the perimeters to protect it. But as the population of the city grew, space within the boundaries of the walls became precious. This is why Edinburgh is unique among cities: forced to expand vertically instead of the usual horizontal urban sprawl, the poor made their homes in the freezing, damp dungeons and caves beneath the ground and the homes of the more wealthy. Everywhere you go in Edinburgh, every street and pavement you walk on, it is likely that a few hundred years ago, someone shivered and died in the underground city beneath your feet. When plague broke out in a nursery in the city centre, mothers everywhere rushed to their children with food and blankets and anything they could find to comfort them. City authorities allowed the mothers inside and then bolted them in together with the infected children, dooming all inside to a slow and painful death.

Nothing makes for the creation of heroes like the prospect of imminent death. Peaceful times have rarely inspired beautiful art. Something about a sense of loss stirs the human heart like nothing else can. This, I think, is why the character of James Alexander Malcom Mackenzie Fraser is so stirring. Jamie isn’t just a straight woman’s dreamboat. His position as someone who is inherently inaccessible because he lives in the past simultaneously challenges and affirms the very human desire to fixate on someone ‘perfect’. His more disturbing actions- such as when he beats his wife for disobedience- are forgiven because we want to believe he’s a fundamentally good person living in a dark period of history. His more gallant notions of heroism, love and family are enough to overcome those fleeting but disturbing reminders of his belonging in pre-modern times, long before movements such as the suffragettes and feminism came in and reworked ideals of marriage and love. Then there are his startlingly anachronistic qualities that would be admirable even in a man of the 21st century- his friendship with a man he knows to be a ‘sodomite’, his willingness to endure rape by another man to spare his wife the same ordeal.

In other words, the reason Jamie Fraser makes us all fall in love with him is that he embodies our most romantic ideals within a recognizably human framework. A character like him could only ever have existed in a time and place as dangerous as 18th century Scotland, because that’s when the best- and the worst- of humanity is drawn out forcibly from the deepest parts of our being. Jamie isn’t just a man; he’s the face that all the Scottish folk songs are about, the unnamed rider on horseback we picture when the bagpipes sound across the Highlands, the hero who regularly faces up to the kind of dangers most of us only ever hear about in stories.

Even his clan motto: Je suis prest- French for ‘I am ready’- is supercharged on so many levels. Those three words convey everything we need to know about the world that Jamie Fraser lives, breathes, fights and loves in- his readiness to stand tall and defend to the death those whom he loves, his preparedness to take charge as a leader, his emotional maturity and ability to withstand whatever the world throws his way, sexual ‘readiness’, vitality, youth, bravery- a terrific example, all in all, of someone who deserves to live on every count but is likely to die for the same reasons. Almost nobody is cut in the hero mould of Jamie Fraser, but nearly everyone has their moments- however fleeting- of heroism and self- sacrifice.

Jamie Frasers are not made for the mundane processes of everyday life.

Jamie Frasers are sung, written and painted into existence just for those extraordinary moments in otherwise ordinary lives, for the space of a challenge that threatens those whom we hold dear, for the time it takes to vanquish a danger that seems larger than ourselves. Just for those moments when we stand to lose everything and make the right decision anyway. And just for those moments, he’s worth believing in.

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