Written by: Anne Gavin
Warning: Contains Spoilers
My obsession with all things Outlander runs deep. The story fills my soul. I laugh (a lot!) at Diana Gabaldon’s witty dialogue in the Book Series and, at times, I cry — bitter, sad and sometimes even happy tears. I’ve also experienced a wide range of emotions while reading and watching the STARZ Television Series. For someone who considers myself sort of “together” and not a particularly emotional or sentimental person, these emotions have surprised me to no end. But, one thing that has absolutely knocked me off my feet is the amazing Outlander Series soundtrack composed and arranged by Bear McCreary. Talk about the “feels.” Wow! I still, to this day — and no matter if it’s the first or the 50th time I have viewed an episode — suck in my breath, feel my eyes well up and gulp…hard…at certain points in the Series during one of Bear’s magnificent compositions. The man is a genius, really, and so passionate about his art. That passion is inherent in his music and he makes me BELIEVE. So, here is my tribute to Bear and the Outlander Soundtrack as I count-down my Top Ten Musical Moments of Outlander Season 1.
Working my way up from #10 to my #1 favorite, I start with a series of songs from Episode 5 “Rent” — the Wool Waulking Songs. Some of the most authentic Scottish folk music you will hear in Season 1 is in this Episode. We hear the Highlanders sing traditional traveling songs as they make their way through the countryside collecting rents and then the songs of the waulking group that Claire happens upon. Bear has said that he and Episode 5 writer, Toni Graphia, spoke at length about these scenes and how they were to play out. They are added scenes, not in the book, but I think a very welcome addition as we see Claire try to embrace Highland life and make the best of being on the road with the motley MacKenzie crew. The traditional wool waulking song that Claire sings with the ladies is called “Mo Nighean Donn” — which, as we learn later in Episode 7 “The Wedding” is Gaelic for “My Brown Haired Lass.” Knowing that this was to become one of Jamie’s “pet names” for Claire, Toni thought the song might be a nice little “Easter Egg” for viewers. The song is charming and beautiful and again, illustrates nicely Claire’s willingness to accept her current circumstances even as she remains determined to return to the future.
Don’t shoot me! Yes, the VERY controversial Episode 114 “The Search” included a fun little ditty that Claire sang to the melody of the 1941 hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” — made famous by The Andrews Sisters. The reason I include this in my Top Ten is because it was a clever way to remind us that while Claire searches for a lost Jamie, Claire herself remains lost — in a time far removed from her own. This would have been a tune that Claire heard many times before going through the Stones and it was certainly the 20th Century version of an “ear worm.” The fact that Murtagh then adapts the tune and adds the bawdy lyrics of a song that Jamie’s Uncle Dougal used to sing to him, is a remarkably clever twist to the story. Not all will agree with me, I know, given this was also a departure from the Book Series, but I include it as a nod to Claire — as this is Claire’s story after all! And, frankly, as Claire said, it’s quite a “toe tapping” tune!
Track 11 on the Volume 2 soundtrack includes a compilation of songs heard during Episode 114 “The Search” when Claire and Jenny and then Claire and Murtagh set off to find and rescue Jamie. Again, Bear McCreary took the opportunity to weave into this episode traditional Scottish folk songs, given Highland landscapes serve as a backdrop for much of the episode. According to Bear, he scored the early Jenny/Claire montages with his own unique arrangement of “My Bonnie Moorhen.” This is a folk song from the Jacobite era filled with double meanings and thinly disguised political messages. The lyrics tell the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie (a.k.a. the moorhen) being pursued by Red Coats. However, Bear cleverly turns this notion on its head as we see the “outlaws” Jenny and Claire pursue the enemy Red Coats! Scored to some beautiful vistas and woodland scenes, it’s a track I play over and over as we watch our intrepid ladies strike out to find the very important man in both their lives. And, later, as Claire and Murtagh take up the search, eventually finding themselves at the Scottish coast and wondering if their search truly is in vain, Bear uses another Scottish folk song, “Wanderin’ Willie.” The arrangement is less upbeat and reflects the deep sadness and despair that both Murtagh and Claire feel after the exhaustion of their long search. All the “Tracking Jamie” music is beautiful, meaningful, historically and geographically significant and lovingly and expertly adapted and arranged and that’s why I love it.
“Clean Pease Strae” is a traditional Scottish reel that dates back at least as far as the 1700s. It was used in Episode 4 “The Gathering.” Dougal and Claire return from the boar hunt after having just seen one of the clansmen die. Dougal is at once mournful and angry and he happens upon what appears to be a friendly game of shinty back at Castle Leoch. Dougal aggressively rushes into the game taking out a few clansmen along the way. As the lively song begins, Penny whistle, Uilleann bagpipes, small Scottish pipes and fiddle rip along at a very fast tempo — maybe even a little too fast for the shinty players! We really get our first good look at the rivalry between Jamie and his Uncle Dougal in this sequence and the music adds to that tension. The teacher and the student, the older and the younger MacKenzie battle it out to the point where you wonder if it’s really all in good fun or is there something else at play here between these two men. It’s an exciting musical piece that works well with this added scene (not in the book). Using this historically accurate folk song to illustrate this lively scene in Episode 4 is another Bear McCreary triumph and why “Clean Pease Strae” makes it into my Top Ten.
Coming in at #6 is the piece that accompanies the daring rescue the Highlanders and Jamie undertake in Episode 109 “The Reckoning.” It should be titled “Don’t Forget to Take a Breath.” Fortunate to watch Episode 109 at the Mid-Season Premiere Event in New York City last April, I literally sat on the edge of my hallowed Ziegfeld Theatre seat during this sequence. I was “scarcely breathing” in anticipation of seeing how our dear Jamie ended up crouching in the window ledge all those months poised to save Claire from the evil Black Jack Randall. Bear says in his Blog that the action sequence of the rescue gave him a “chance to push the boundaries of my action scoring using Scottish instrumentation.” Scratching Scottish fiddle, bodhrán, Scottish snare drums and Uilleann bagpipes all provided steady momentum for the scene as Jamie and the Highlanders ambush the unsuspecting Red Coats. I love how the tension builds and builds as Jamie makes his way through the Fort and to the Commander’s office where Claire is being held. But, my favorite part of the “Rescue at Fort William” piece is when Jamie and Claire climb atop the ramparts at Fort William and jump to freedom and the cold loch waters below. Timed perfectly with their splash in the loch, (at exactly 5:52 into the song) Bear uses a soaring orchestration of the “Claire and Jamie Theme” emphasizing the romantic and epic nature of our two lead characters. I suck in my breath every time those two hit the water and the strings and bagpipes ascend and then explode. As Bear so eloquently stated, “After teasing this theme (the “Claire and Jamie Theme”) for eight episodes, this long-overdue orgasm of thematic fanfare was a thrill to compose. Moments like this are what I live for.” It’s magnificent, Bear, and I can watch and listen to it again and again.
Regardless of what you think of Episode 8 “Both Sides Now” and its emphasis on Frank’s Story or the not-from-the-book scene of both Frank and Claire simultaneously ascending Craig na Dun, the song that accompanies this scene is truly a tour-de-force. It’s actually quite a long piece coming in at a whopping 10:14. This is not the final scene of this episode but absolutely the musical climax for it. It consists of a combination of the Stones Theme (discussed below) and a theme we hear throughout Episode 1 “Sassenach” that Bear composed to represent Claire’s life with Frank, that he calls “Frank’s Theme.” The Stones Theme returns the viewer to where it started — at the stone circle of Craig na Dun. As both Claire and Frank begin to rush towards the circle, Bear creates a Celtic-inspired rhythm using a bodhrán and solo fiddle. Uilleann bagpipes chime in with the melody then the full orchestration bursts into the full Stones Theme. Bear said, “My hope was that the music would be epic enough that it makes you think, even just for a fleeting second, that she might make it back after all.” That steady, building rhythm transfixes as we see the mist clear and Frank and Claire call to each other across time. Pounding bass drums mark the moment when Frank calls out Claire’s name while Claire continues her ascent up the hill. The whole orchestra at this point seems almost out of control as Claire approaches the stones until suddenly the music stops and the screen fades to black. The orchestral notes then drift down as we see Claire being carried away by Red Coats. Then, finally we hear the slow, steady, familiar sound of the Red Coat army field drums. I get a lump in my throat the size of a golf ball when I watch this scene. It’s a thoroughly emotional piece that takes you on a roller coaster ride up the hill at Craig na Dun and back down. I love it and it deserves its 5 spot on the Top Ten.
The Season 1 Finale Episode 116 “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” contains the most emotionally stirring compilation of musical pieces of the entire series. It’s Track #15 on the Volume 2 soundtrack and begins on the beach as Claire says her “au revoirs” to Rupert, Angus and Willie. After what the viewer has been through the past two episodes, these were some very welcome, light-hearted moments between Claire and the Highlanders. This comedic interlude was accompanied by a playful fiddle, bouncing bodhrán and a small string ensemble. Perfect for the setting. But, as Claire, Jamie and Murtagh set off for an unknown future, we then hear a version of “The Skye Boat Song” in full orchestra. What could be more fitting since for 16 episodes, the Series Title Song has referenced “sailing over the sea.” As the row boat bobs amongst the waves, it’s a perfect musical send-off for our trio. Then, as we move to the very final scene, Bear decided to use a variation of the Stones Theme. He said, “The Stones Theme represents the mystical and the unknown, but it also represents Claire’s journey and clearly, Claire is embarking on a huge, new journey here. Above all, this particular theme gave these closing shots the necessary scope and grandeur for the big finish.” And, a BIG finish it was. As the camera pans away and we see the Cristabel pirouette into the setting sun while Jamie and Claire embrace on the deck of the ship, the orchestra swells as the sails billow then the screen fades to black and inevitably, I take a hard gulp and wipe away my tears.
But, it’s not over yet! As the credits roll, we hear an amazing “new” arrangement of “The Skye Boat Song.” There is NO way I could do a Top Ten Musical Moments from Season 1 and NOT include a shout-out to The Skye Boat Song. It’s become such an iconic piece for Outlander the TV Series and was a stroke of brilliance by Bear to adapt this very old, traditional Scottish folk tune as a theme for the Series. The theme was even voted #1 as Best TV Show Opening Sequence, beating rival “Game of Thrones.” How many of us sing along to the Title Song when re-watching episodes? I am not ashamed to admit that I do Every_Single_Time! And, I never fast forward through the opening sequence. Never. But, I will say that what Bear and his lovely bride, Raya Yarbrough, (who is the voice of The Skye Boat Song) did with the extended version that we hear in Episode 116 is absolutely without equal. The version features more prominent strings and we hear more of the lovely lyrics. Bear said of the version, “It is more intimate than the Main Title version, and yet somehow almost more epic.” Epic, indeed. What a wonderful way to end Season 1 — so full of emotion and this stirring arrangement of The Skye Boat Song.
I must say the timing of the musical rhythm of “To Wentworth” at the end of Episode 114 “The Search” is remarkable. After Claire succeeds in convincing the Highlanders to aid with the rescue of Jamie, the group sets off on horseback. The piece begins as they ride slowly, yet determinedly, over a hill and get their first glimpse of the ominous Wentworth Prison in the distance. Yet another arrangement of the “Claire and Jamie Theme,” you hear pulsing strings and Scottish fiddle and can even hear and see the notes timed to Claire’s gasp as she looks over the horizon at the brooding edifice that imprisons her beloved. We get close-ups of each of the rescue party and the music, again, times perfectly to each of their individual reactions to the impractical deed in front of them. But, the best is saved for last. Bear has shared that he writes an original End Credits track for each episode. Again, after the scene fades to black, the end credits start and the music then soars with aggressively arranged bagpipes and stirring Scottish snare drums. The drums…the drums…the DRUMS! Of all the music in Season 1, this End Credits piece and these drums affect me like no other. Sometimes I almost feel the need to jump on a horse myself to join the rescue party! Brilliant composition and arrangement and worthy to take us into the final two dark episodes of the season filled with a sense of foreboding but also one of adventure.
The number 2 spot is occupied by another of the most recognized musical pieces from both Volume 1 and Volume 2 soundtracks. The “Dance of the Druids” — also referred to as the “Stones Theme” — plays a very important role in the Series. We first hear it in Episode 1 “Sassenach.” It represents the mystery and the superstition that surrounds the Scottish Highlands and Claire’s story. As with all things Outlander score, Bear attempted to try and make this piece as historically accurate as possible. Both Bear and his musical historian and friend, Adam Knight Gilbert, searched but could not find any music that had survived the era of the ancient Druids. With nothing to draw upon, they decided to use as inspiration a stanza of one of the oldest poems they could find from the era, called “Duan Na Muthairn,” Bear then took the text of the poem and arranged an original theme. Celtic harp, orchestral strings, driving percussion and Scottish fiddle combine with Raya Yarbrough’s haunting vocals to produce a mesmerizing interlude as the Druids group summon the sun and Claire and Frank look on in wonderment. The cinematography of this scene only adds to its mysticism and impact. Beautifully shot above Loch Rannoch at the mysterious Craig na Dun stone circle and using local Scottish dancers, it eases us into the notion that the Highlands are a magical and spiritual place about which we know little but yearn to learn more. Indeed, we hear this lovely tune again and again throughout Season 1 and it is haunting every time. This was the first song on the Volume 1 Soundtrack that I put on repeat. I’d often listen in the car and just keep returning to the track again and again. It actually was the piece that “hooked” me on Outlander — touching that Celtic part of my heritage in some inexplicable way. It easily makes it into my Top 2 of the 10 best in Season 1.
Bear called this his “favorite action cue of the series to date.” Totally agree! I am sure I wasn’t the only book reader that wondered how Diana Gabaldon’s inventive Highland-cattle-book-scene would play out on the small screen. As Episode 116 “To Ransom a Man’s Soul” opens we see that Jamie and Claire’s night of terror has turned to day. The morning military exercises at Wentworth Prison continue oblivious to the evil that took place in the darkened depths of the prison the night before. But, we know…
Cut to that horrible shot of a broken and gravely wounded Jamie lying side by side with his torturer. My stomach turned watching Randall stand and walk casually away like the man without a conscience that we know him to be. As Jamie begs for Randall to honor his debt and end his life, we book readers wonder, “Where are the cows?” Let’s not even talk about how amazing the scene physically played out on screen. Last time I checked, you can’t clicker-train cattle. Check out showrunner Ron Moore’s podcast after Episode 116 if you want to know more about how this scene came to be. The rescue ensues and the accompanying music erupts as the prison door bursts open and the cattle trample Black Jack and leave him for dead. I cheer every time here even as I dance a jig to the tune! Bear uses an aggressive rendition of an old Scottish folk tune called “Sleepy Maggie” for this scene. Maggie certainly wasn’t sleeping during this arrangement! Great Highland Bagpipes and Scottish percussion offered a rousing rescue sequence lead by our heroic Highland coos. And, as Murtagh gently carries Jamie from the prison and the rescue wagon rolls along to the beat of the drums, we see our Claire, pacing nervously in the road. I love everything about this scene — Claire’s breeks and costume, her expressive face and the suspense felt as the wagon approaches. It’s made all the better by the stirring rescue tune and once again, the beat of those DRUMS!
It was a close call between the #1 and #2 spot for me in this Top Ten, but the magnificence of this rescue scene and its music score make this my #1 Musical Moment of Season 1.
I cannot wait to see what Bear McCreary will do musically for Season 2. It will be so much different given Jamie and Claire will be in France, but I have no doubt that Bear and his musical historian are hard at work and the results will be astounding. Je Suis Prest!
What is your favorite Musical Moment of Outlander Season 1?
Some References and Quotes for this post from Bear McCreary’s Blog.