March 5, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Starz’s ‘Men in Kilts’: ‘Outlander’ pals talk U.K. politics

It turns out it’s not only “Outlander’s” famously passionate fan base that has generated interest in Scotland, the key setting of both Diana Gabaldon’s beloved novels and their Starz TV series adaptation. In fact, cast members and Scotsmen Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish became so obsessed by their homeland’s history, landscape and culture that the pair co-created and produced a new series for the network that takes them around the country in a camper van.

Heughan, who stars alongside Caitriona Balfe as 18th-century heartthrob Jamie Fraser on “Outlander,” originally conceived “Men in Kilts: A Roadtrip with Sam and Graham,” which premieres Sunday on Starz, as a podcast. (McTavish says he pretended to know what that was.) But it quickly became clear that the project needed a visual component.

“I was looking to develop something around Scottish highlanders and the clans and tartans,” says Heughan, who started discussions with McTavish, his costar in “Outlander” Seasons 1, 2 and 5, in early 2019, while both were in Los Angeles. “Obviously from working on ‘Outlander’ I saw that people were interested in Scotland and the history of Scotland. And I love that part of ‘Outlander’ as well. As soon as I got back to Scotland I realized, ‘I work with some of the best crew in Scotland and I know the best locations. What’s stopping us?’ I threw a crew together and financed it and flew Graham over on a plane and we just went for it.”

The initial shoots took place in September 2019, with the actors and their small crew working on weekends around Heughan’s “Outlander” schedule. They used that video to create a pilot, which they pitched to several networks, including Starz, which connected McTavish, Heughan and their producing partner Alex Norouzi with Boardwalk Pictures.

“We were very aware that we didn’t want to be just a spin-off of ‘Outlander.’ It obviously has to provide context — it’s the reason me and Graham know each other and it’s the reason I’m here,” Heughan says. “But we did set out to make our own show.”

Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser, with Caitriona Balfe, in a scene from “Outlander.”

(Aimee Spinks)

The bulk of the series’ eight themed episodes were filmed in August over three weeks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The production managed to hit a sweet spot following the U.K.’s first lockdown where domestic travel was permitted, and “Men in Kilts” was one of the first productions to get up and running under the new COVID-19 filming protocols. It helped that the series is structured as a road trip, with the two actors journeying around Scotland in a funky camper van that Heughan actually did drive for most of the shoot. While the locations and the guests were arranged ahead of time, most of the action is off-the-cuff.

“We knew where we were going, we knew who we were going to meet, we knew what we were going to see and why that was of interest to us,” explains Kevin Johnston, who directed the episodes. “But there’s a documentary-esque tone to it and I didn’t want to produce the guys up too much. They’re really charming, they’re really good, and I think if we were telling them what to do too much it just wouldn’t be as interesting. Other people have gone to Scotland, other people have done travel shows, but no one has those two and their chemistry.”

“Men in Kilts” acts as a companion to McTavish and Heughan’s 2020 book “Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other,” which goes into more depth on the history and culture presented in the show. Both aim to showcase a nuanced version of Scotland, highlighting what makes the country and its people unique.

“I wanted to somewhat demystify the romance of Scotland,” McTavish explains. “Modern Scotland is very forward-looking. I think history is great and I’m particularly interested in it, but when I look at Scotland now I see a really vibrant, European nation. A nation that’s connected to the world.”

Although “Men in Kilts” is not expressly political, mention of Scotland’s European-ness highlights the series’ underlying connection to issues like Brexit, the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, which came to pass Jan. 1, and Scottish independence. Both actors were vocal campaigners for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and they’re eager for their home country to have its own voice and identity in the modern world.

Sam Heughan on a motorbike and Graham McTavish in a sidecar.

Sam Heughan, left, and Graham McTavish on motorbike at Balquhidder in Scotland.

(Peter Sandground)

“I think, hopefully, the stories that we tell and the love letter that we give to Scotland with the show speaks to our own views on independence without banging a drum about it,” McTavish says. “Scotland is a place to be celebrated if you’re Scottish or if you’re not Scottish, and somewhere to be very proud of. I’m not nationalistic in the sense that I think we’re better than someone else. I just think it’s about having a pride in your own country and where you come from, and having a feeling of connection to that. That was really what Sam and I wanted to get across, was our own personal feelings of pride and wanting to share the story of Scotland and what it has to offer.”

“I’m not a politician,” Heughan adds. “I’m wary of actors being asked of their politics or their stance — but also, why not? Especially when we’re doing a show about Scotland and Scottish heritage and culture. It’s something to be proud of… Nationalism, I think, is not a good thing and we’ve seen the rise of it in America. But actually Scottish nationalism is slightly different. It’s not about closing borders, it’s about being open to the rest of the world and not being insular.”

McTavish sees recent calls for a second referendum on independence as Scotland being “given the chance to shape one’s own destiny as a nation.” Heughan was more direct on Twitter in December, responding to the news that Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would again push for independence by writing, “Time to escape being dictated to by buffoons.” Despite very real political disagreements in Scotland, though — the percentage of Scottish voters who opposed Brexit was 62%, compared with 48% in the U.K. as a whole, and polling shows support for independence steady around 54% — “Men in Kilts” is lighthearted, vicarious fun. Although some unscripted travel shows feel like parachute journalism, this one is like two guys bringing you home with them for some laughs.

“A lot of people can’t travel right now and in one way I’m like, ‘Should we be showing people a travel show when they can’t travel? It’s just making it worse,’” Heughan admits. “But the essence of it is that it’s about the journey and what’s right out on your doorstep. Rather than having to go to a far-off place you can literally find a travel companion and go on a road trip and look at the history around you.”

“It was an enormous laugh,” adds McTavish, who confirms there have already been discussions about a second season. “That’s one of the things we both wanted — that feeling of two people genuinely going on a trip together because they want to have a good time. It just so happened that we brought a film crew with us. We would have done it anyway, to be honest.”