Etching History for Outlander One Glass at a Time
The small industrial village of Cumbernauld, just outside of Glasgow, has been especially positively impacted since Outlander’s production company, Sony Television Pictures, built several large sound stages as a base for the Outlander production. Here there are buildings full of hand-sewn costumes and hand-forged weapons, constructed by Scottish artisans from across the country. In fact, Outlander has built a reputation for the historically authentic props used for the 18th century time period in which the story is set. The Outlander production is also known for its obsessive attention to detail in all aspects of set design and set dressing. Long time readers of the Outlander book series know that author Gabaldon’s intricate and amazingly detailed style of prose is an integral part of the magic of the world she creates. Book readers delight in the details. And, in this sense as well, the television production does not disappoint.
But, it was when I met Tarbert artist Wilma MacKenzie on my recent visit to Scotland, that I realized how truly obsessed the Outlander production team was with getting the details just right.
At the beginning of my second week in Scotland this past May I met Wilma MacKenzie at a small coffee shop in the seaside village of Oban. Wilma’s friend, Lesley Scott, and I had met several months earlier in the U.S. through mutual Scottish friends. It was Lesley who told me about Wilma and her work for Outlander —etching and engraving much of the glassware seen in Season 2. After hearing this, I knew I had to meet her and hear her story.
Wilma lives and works in the small west coast fishing village of Tarbert, which sits alongside Loch Fyne in Argyll, Scotland. Wilma was in school in Oban where she first saw an engraved glass in a shop window that sent her on her path. “I liked (the glass) so much that I asked my school career counselor about it. No one seemed to know anything about it but suggested I write to the big crystal companies. I did this and got an interview for an apprenticeship.”
Upon leaving school in the late 1970s, Wilma began her apprenticeship at Edinburgh Crystal. The artistry involved in this kind of work is so specific that I asked Wilma what appealed to her about the process of glass engraving. “It is a two-dimensional form of art and very challenging, which is why I really like it.” Interestingly, Wilma also does illustrations, paintings, and carves etchings for shepherds’ crooks and walking sticks. Given the propensity of sheep and hill walkers in Scotland, I can see why this additional skill might prove useful!
It was just over two years ago when Wilma got a call from one of the props managers from the Outlander production team asking if she could engrave Jacobite glass. Wilma’s friends, Mike and Sue Hunter at Twist Glass Studio in Selkirk made the glasses and then passed Wilma’s name along to Outlander as someone who could do the engravings.
“They initially wanted 24 glasses in a week’s time!,” Wilma says. “After I explained to them this wasn’t possible, I engraved four glasses to start with and then completed the rest in short order. After the glasses, I went on to engrave a decanter and a portrait glass.”
So, what are Jacobite Glasses, you ask? According to the Corning Museum of Glass, Jacobite Glasses were 18th century drinking vessels most often used for toasting Prince Charles Edward Stuart a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie, a.k.a. the “Young Pretender.” As Claire Randall correctly pointed out in Outlander Season 1, the term “Jacobite” is derived from the Latin for “James” referring to James Edward Stuart—King James VIII—the Bonnie Prince’s exiled father. Supporters of the King were referred to as “Jacobites.” Before the defeat of the Bonnie Prince and his armies in 1746, Jacobite glasses were usually engraved with the English rose, representing the Crown, and an optimistic motto such as “Redeat” (Latin for “May he return.”) After 1746 some of the glasses contained cryptic symbols and messages. More from Wilma on that later!
To research the etchings Wilma ultimately created for the Outlander glasses, she used an excellent book by Geoffrey Seddon titled The Jacobites and their Drinking Glasses. Seddon, a physician, is known to be the definitive authority on Jacobite glass having studied it for over 25 years. After retiring, he devoted his time to researching and writing his book about the history of the Jacobite glass.
Prior to her work for Outlander, Wilma had done commissioned work for exhibitions linked to the Museum of Scotland. “I carved wooden roundels known as “Stirling Heads” and also some Jacobite engravings for the company that make the whisky liqueur, Drambuie.”
The creative process behind these exquisite etchings is as detailed and exacting as the etching themselves. Just one glass—from design stage to final cut—can take two to four days. Wilma explains: “For copper wheel engraving, as is used in Outlander, I use a huge range of spindles with little copper wheels attached to them. I use an oil and carborundum powder as the cutting agent. The wheel makes the shape of the cut and the engraving is created by building up the image using lots of different sized wheels.” Wilma also works with diamond drills and acid paste.
While Wilma did not know anything about Outlander—the books or the TV series—before getting the commission, she’s since become a “big fan!” She was “delighted to spot my glasses” in Outlander when she watched the second series.
Asked about her overall experience working with the Outlander production, Wilma repeated something I had heard all over Scotland from the locals who have worked either with the cast or the production crew. “The deadlines were challenging, but I loved it all.” And, Wilma says she was very surprised to learn about all the hidden symbols and meanings in the designs that were featured on some of the Jacobite glasses in history. “Some of the butterflies and moths you see on the designs represented the ‘return of the soul’ in the form of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. Stars on the glasses represented the night Prince Charles was born in December 1720 as it was said a new star was seen for the first time.”
For me, meeting Wilma was another highlight of my trip to Scotland this past spring. Of, course, I love visiting the Outlander filming locations and having a chance to see where some of our favorite actors have walked and produced such beautiful work for us to obsess about, as we do. But, meeting people like Wilma, reminds me of what a wonderful production Outlander is in its totality. I was reminded how everyone affiliated with the show strives to be true to Scotland’s past and to honor the local artisans who take pride in sharing their history with those of us who watch and read the story of Outlander.
And, for those fortunate enough to visit Scotland this summer, you might have visited the Museum of Scotland’s exhibit Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites. The exhibit features the larger story of the Jacobites that, as the museum puts it, “is one which is more layered, complex and dramatic that any fictional imaginings.” Part of the exhibit, of course, includes a selection of actual Jacobite glasses showing some of the elaborate etchings that made the glasses unique in many ways.
Wilma MacKenzie reminds me of so many of the strong women we encounter in the Outlander saga. Independent, curious, ambitious, self-starting, and passionate about her life’s work. Wilma inspired me to look beyond the surface of what we know about the show and the books to see the true Scotland and maybe some sides of the Bonnie Prince that I had yet to uncover. It also inspired me to commission Wilma to make my very own Jacobite glass! If you are interested in obtaining your own authentic Jacobite re-created glass (they would make a great gift for any Outlander fan) you can contact Wilma at the link below.
Thank you, Wilma, for sharing your story!
What details have you noticed that stand out in the production of Outlander? Let’s celebrate the crew’s attention to detail!