Outlander, the popular TV series based on the novels of Diana Gabaldon, has always asked its viewers to suspend their disbelief. The show has dabbled in witchcraft, voodoo spells, stories of fairies and the antics of kelpies. And, of course, the very heart of the show revolves around time travel, as the adventure begins when heroine Claire Randall touches the standing stones of Scotland’s Craigh na Dun and is transported back 200 years.
Far-fetched? No doubt. But the creators definitely got one thing right: Unusual things happen near the setting of Craigh na Dun.
To the disappointment of many Outlander-crazed tourists who come to Scotland, Craigh na Dun itself does not exist. You’ll find similar ancient circles throughout the country – the 5,000-year-old Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis being the most impressive – but nothing that looks exactly the same. And while Claire touched the stones on the outskirts of Inverness, the scene was actually filmed near Kinloch Rannoch, about a two-hour drive from Glasgow and slightly southwest of Cairngorms National Park.
The rural village is located at the eastern end of Loch Rannoch. Head toward the western end, and you hit Rannoch Moor, 130 square kilometres of wild, barren land. I have crossed the moor twice, and both times left me in questioning what I saw or didn’t see, what was real and what couldn’t possibly be.
My first encounter was in June, 2016, as part of my solo hike along the West Highland Way, a 154-km trail that starts just north of Glasgow, winds along the banks of Loch Lomond, passes through the beauty of Glen Coe and ends at Fort William (another pivotal Outlander location; sadly, it looks nothing like you’d expect).
If you’re following the typical seven-day schedule, the moor is the last stretch of a roughly 30-km day – the flattest, but also the longest, of the hike. The guidebooks caution you to have emergency food and provisions on hand, along with a map, because if bad weather rolls in, there are no shortcuts out and it’s easy to get lost. “Do not at any point wander out onto the Rannoch Moor, as it is very boggy and dangerous, and you could sink into it,” one website warns. The lone wayfinder is a cairn built in memory of Peter Fleming (the brother of James Bond creator Ian), who died while hunting here in 1971. It’s all rather ominous.
Still, I was quite looking forward to my day on the moor. I had a romanticized notion of what moors were like, fuelled by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great hound and Emily Bronte’s tortured passions. A more astute person would have realized those are both essentially ghost stories.
The last proper rest stop before Rannoch Moor is a small backpackers' pub. After a brief pause to warm myself with a bowl of soup and a shot of whisky, I headed back out, confirming the correct direction with two male hikers standing out front. And if you think what transpires next can be attributed to a single alcoholic beverage – please, I can hold my liquor better than that.
The rain was coming down hard, the wind driving it almost sideways. Every inch of me was drenched, my soaked gloves providing little warmth against the chill and my waterproof pants and jacket no longer even trying.
Right before the moor, I came upon a small woods. A dirt path diverted from the main trail, leading into the forest depths. And in that darkness was a faint light, glowing from some unseen source. It illuminated the sparse trees surrounding it, and amid the damp and the greyness of fog it shone like a beacon of warmth. It seemed to be calling to me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to walk toward it. And so I did. I left the trail. During a storm. By myself.
I walked on for maybe a dozen metres before reason suddenly grabbed hold of my mind. I shook my head, trying to rid it of whatever ill-advised notions had seeped in as I scurried back to the security of the marked path. And then it hit me: I had just seen a will-o'-the-wisp, that ghostly light or spirit that tries to lure travellers into danger.
Immediately, I laughed the idea off. Obviously, I had read too many scary stories as a kid. But still I was ill at ease. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had compelled me to put myself in peril.
Then I arrived at the moor – and instantly I felt at peace. Calm. Serene. The moor was welcoming me, bringing me into its fold. I never wanted to leave.
I used my nearly frozen hands to take a few photos on my phone, but they did nothing to capture the desolate beauty of the place. It’s hard to describe what a moor is, exactly. It is barren. It is vast. It is rocky. Its emptiness is its most striking feature. In Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson put it this way: “A wearier looking desert a man never saw.”
I walked along the path – a bumpy old drovers’ road that in parts was turning into a creek due to the unrelenting downpour – in a state of utter bliss for at least an hour. And then, as if with the flick of a switch, everything changed. The atmosphere turned hostile. I was a trespasser in this strange world. The moor wanted me out. Now. That was clear. But I still had about six kilometres to go. I crashed from elated to exhausted. Hope that I would make it to my campsite before dark descended seemed unlikely. I thought of the foil survival blanket in my backpack. I’d put it on, hope for the best and let the fairies behind that earlier light take me.
Once again, just as I started to take off my backpack and make a horrible choice, reason surged forward. Let the fairies take me? Get a grip, Clark. I turned around to get a better sense of how far I had come and was rewarded with the happiest sight: The two men from the pub were hiking not far behind me! At least, that’s who I assumed it was. The shapes were dark, hazy outlines in the rain, but who else could it be? I had seen no one else in the area, and they were intending to set out soon after I left them.
Buoyed by the knowledge that I wasn’t going to die alone in this horrible place, I picked up my pace. I still felt an overwhelming desire to get out of there.
After about half an hour, I glanced behind to see how my fellow hikers were doing. But this time, I saw only one man. Strange, I thought. At this point, we were all about halfway across the moor: It didn’t make any sense to turn back. I shrugged my shoulders and kept going. I had to focus on my own journey, which continued to feel endless.
Another half-hour or so passed and I grew hopeful I’d be able to end the day with a companion. I knew that, despite my urgency to be out of there, I was walking much slower than my usual pace. It seemed likely that the remaining man – tall, fit and probably 10 years younger – would be close to catching up. So once again, I looked back.
He was gone.
I scanned the moor frantically. No men. Not even one. And nowhere for them to hide, either. The fog had lifted, so poor visibility wasn’t to blame. They were both simply gone.
I started spiralling. Had they ever been there? Had they been a hallucination? Had I indeed seen something – but not of this world?
I put my head down and walked as fast as I could. How much more of this damn moor was there?
Then I heard voices. Mutterings I couldn’t decipher in the wind, but clearly voices. Oh, thank goodness, I thought. The men were behind me. I had clearly been letting my imagination get the better of me.
So I looked back.
And that’s when the panic really set in. Will-o'-the-wisps. Ghostly men. Disembodied voices. What the hell was this place? I walked so fast I was almost running. My heart was pounding in my tightening chest. My near-frozen hands clutched my hiking poles, which I swung violently by my side.
Soon I saw the cairn. That marker of death gave me life. It was almost over. I was close to the edge of the moor. Safety was within reach…
For months after that hike, I tried to rationalize what I had seen and felt. Surely, I was simply exhausted, my tired brain susceptible to tricks of the light. Perhaps I had experienced Third Man syndrome, a coping mechanism reported by the likes of explorers Ernest Shackleton and Peter Hillary wherein those in need manifest a mysterious figure that provides a sense of comfort. Or maybe that was one heck of a shot of whisky after all.
One other thing continued to strike me as odd. The West Highland Way is a popular path. Every day, you pass people regularly, at least once an hour. The morning before the moor crossing was no different, and in the evening, I met up with several hikers who had done the same route. So where were they all during the moor? Even besides the two mystery men, I should have seen someone at some point. It didn’t make sense.
A year later, I repeated the hike with my 16-year-old niece. I was dreading Rannoch Moor, but at least, this time, I wouldn’t be alone. We passed the little forest without incident, saying hello to another group of hikers headed in the opposite direction as we entered the moor. I didn’t feel that overwhelming sense of despair, but I still didn’t want to be there. We finished without incident, and that’s when I realized one thing had played out the same.
“We didn’t pass anyone on the moor, did we?” I asked my niece.
She thought for a moment. “No, we didn’t. That’s weird. We’re always passing people.”
Shivers went down my spine.
Another year on, my fanciful explanation for it all is this: When you enter Rannoch Moor, it isolates you. You go through it alone, unable to see other travellers. The two men I saw were those other hikers, somehow temporarily breaking through the invisible barriers. The moor does this because it wants more victims – it wants more cairns.
I’ve obviously been watching too much Outlander.
Season Four of Outlander premieres Nov. 4 on W Network.
Want to follow in the footsteps of Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser? The Scottish tourism board has compiled a comprehensive guide to filming locations. You can download a map at visitscotland.com.
West Highland Way
The 154-kilometre route, designated one of Scotland’s Great Trails, is an excellent choice for walkers looking to tackle their first long-distance hike. Camping, hostels and hotels are available along the way, and bag carry services are available. Learn everything you need to know at westhighlandway.org.
Want to have your own otherworldly encounter? Once again the tourism board is here to help with its new Ghost Trail guide. Try your ghost-hunting luck at supposedly haunted castles, bloody battle sites and the streets of Edinburgh.