Not sure whether you should read or listen to the Clanlands book accompanying the STARZ Men in Kilts show with Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish? This review should set you straight.
Since Men in Kilts has been slow in making its way to streaming services in the Land Down Under aka Australia, I jumped into the book, Clanlands, while waiting for access. (News flash! It’s going to be available soon!) Here’s why you should take on the book even if you’ve seen the show on STARZ.
I’m a big fan of audiobooks and already have all the Outlander books in my audio library. They’re like old friends that I often have there in the background while walking, driving, doing the dishes — you get the picture. When I heard that Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish were narrating their own book, that was an extra drawcard. It’s like sitting in on a long conversation between the two of them. Interesting, engaging, informative and often hilarious. The story of two men and their cohorts roaming the countryside connected to an intravenous drip of whisky. What could go wrong? How they didn’t all end up in hospital with liver damage at the end of it, I don’t know!
In the course of the book you will learn many terms for a hangover (endemic to the situation I think — a daily occurrence?) like Graham’s “I feel like a giant bat had shat inside my head” and that cute-sounding Scottish term for feeling sick, “peely-wally.”
My first impressions of the book? I have to say the first couple of chapters felt a little contrived, more as if they were acting a part than telling their own real story. But they really did hit their stride going forward into the stories and it began to sound more like two good friends chatting and reminiscing. It was very natural with them interrupting and mercilessly teasing each other. The teasing is often in the form of name-calling, in the grand Scottish tradition of elaborate, descriptive insults.
I’ve complied a list of the names they call each other to give you the flavour of it ….
|Sam’s names for Graham||Graham’s names for Sam|
|The hairless-headed one||Golden Balls|
|Auld dog||The Kim Kardashian of contouring|
|Grumpy Graham||A gazelle in Gore-Tex|
|Grey Dog||The Mountain Goat|
|High-maintenance Graham||The ginger Duracell bunny|
|Graylom (lom = bare or bald as a coot)||Lord Flashheart|
|Teddy McTavish||Old Russet-Top|
|The grey bugger||He of the russet locks|
|The old dog||Piss-taking bastard|
|My follically challenged friend||Twit … or maybe Tit|
|The high-maintenance history buff||Some kind of muscular springer Spaniel|
|Mr Shouty||The grinning ginger|
|Fusty bushy-eyebrowed professor|
|The old git|
|The old sod|
Sam wins the name-calling contest by volume it seems!
Back to the book. The story unfolds with each giving his own impressions of an event or a scene, which is an interesting device — the two men on a journey together with their often very different viewpoints.
Graham sets the scene as they set off like this: “He manhandles the gears some more, looking at me with the smile of a psychopath and, in that moment Clanlands is born — with no plan, no script, just our true selves: a man masquerading as a tough guy about to be driven by a total maniac.”
And, Sam’s take on the launch of their escapade: “As Graham holds on to the handrail, squirming in his seat, I get a surge of adrenalin — this is going to be fun, even if we don’t make it out of the carpark. Just seeing him squeak and squawk is deeply satisfying. He gives me a withering look …….. ‘Here we go’, I say with great confidence. ‘Clanlands is the story of two men who ….’ ‘…. know nothing!’ Graham finishes.”
So, the tone is set for the journey — two men, very comfortable in their cross-generational friendship (Sam’s words), and all set to share a wild adventure. We are told that Clanlands first came about with Sam rekindling Graham’s long-held passion to make a TV show about Scottish history. At first, they considered a podcast, which grew and grew into a book and then a TV show. I think the book serves well as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the TV show, which was later named Men in Kilts. There’s lots of sharing of how they made the show, which is, in itself very entertaining. And, in that sense it must add depth and breadth to the TV experience.
The name-calling doesn’t stop with each other. Graham states, “For reasons best known to Sam our modes of transport (of which there are many), seem to be chosen for their utter impracticality and general clapped-out-ness” — and goes on to provide us with a variety of names for their Fiat Campervan …… the Blunderbuss, Fiat Turd, The Fiat Fiasco, Fiat Colon, Fiat Farce, The fecking Fiat and the Oversized Fridge. And, combined with Graham’s constant ribbing about all Sam’s freebies, I’m pretty sure that the Fiat company will not be gifting Sam their latest model any time soon. The antics in the campervan, the banter between navigator and driver, stand-offs with Audi (or was that BMW?) drivers on single-track roads, holding up the runners in a marathon, Sam’s gear crunching and wild driving — are all very funny.
The book has many themes besides Sam’s driving: the Scottish landscape, Scottish history, battles, clans, inspiring characters, whisky, drunken revelry, their personal histories and careers, and has many references to Outlander and their work together on the show.
What do we learn about the men themselves? Both go into quite a lot of detail about their early lives and their acting careers. They share a love of Shakespeare (especially Macbeth) and Monty Python (your mother was a hamster etc). They have much in common, with their Scottish childhoods — it’s a really interesting aspect of the book. Also, if you buy the audiobook it comes with PDF files of all the illustrations in the book including Sam and Graham’s photos.
We learn Graham is a history buff and really knows his stuff — he gives eloquent and nuanced accounts of well-known histories like the massacre of Glencoe and the battle of Culloden, rather than just taking the simple good-guy, bad-guy approach.
He’s always hungry and has to be refuelled constantly with snacks and café latte.
He has a penchant for comfort, and the good things in life — fine wine and high-end hotels (which does not fit well with many of the anxiety-provoking situations Sam puts him in!)
He’s scared of heights — perhaps it would have been better if Sam hadn’t discovered this when they were on a chairlift at Glencoe. A hilarious scene told from each of their viewpoints ensues! With Graham pleading ”Are you determined to make me suffer?” and Sam’s reply, “Only for my own amusement.”
On a serious note, at the top of Meall a’ Bhuiridh after that hair-raising chair lift ride, Graham gives a moving tribute to his dear friend, Martin, who died way too young in an accident. Brings a tear to the eye, in contrast with the lighter tone of the book. Needless to say, there was whisky involved.
We also learn what Graham doesn’t like. In fact there are two whole pages of The Grievances of Graham.
We perhaps don’t learn very much that is new about Sam. He talks of his idyllic childhood in the lowlands of Scotland and his dear mother who gave Sam and his brother a great start in life. We get the impression that there are gaps in his family history that he is now keen to fill in.
He tells us he’s a ”get shit done” kind of guy, always active with multiple projects on the go at once. This burning the candle at both ends approach led to a prolonged illness and a kind of burn-out. He says he was exhausted around the time Outlander Season 5 premiered, and hints that his lengthy chest infection might have been COVID! What the? He didn’t have a test to find out???
We learn that Sam is keen to really put Graham through his paces:
“‘I admit I have a childish obsession with tormenting Graham’” … ‘I know I’m meant to go easy on him but it’s like an addiction, I just can’t stop myself.’
The more he panics, the better for TV, I thought. ‘But maybe I was going too far.’
‘I look at my good friend and smile. Instead of smiling back he looks at me with distrust ….. so I immediately decided I will continue to fuck with him for the rest of the trip.’”
We learn some other stuff about Sam from Graham’s tongue-in-cheek POV, like …
“‘Sam is somewhat of a stranger to literature. His idea of a cracking read is a book showing pictures of mountains, or perhaps … dumbbells.’
‘Heughan will promote anything — he’s one job away from haemorrhoid cream’.
‘Honestly, he’s always at it, flogging products. The amount of free stuff he gets I imagine his room looks like and outlet store. He’s probably got an Audi in his bathroom.’”
The book has a lot of fun stuff for Outlander fans. In fact there are so many references to Outlander that I wonder about the appeal of the book to folks who have never seen the show?
Sam: (Outlander is) “A unique mix of historical fact, action, romance … and humour.”
Graham: “and more close-ups of Heughan’s arse than is strictly necessary; the show is best described as tartan and soft porn.”
We hear stories about horse-riding on Outlander (yes, all actors pretend they can ride horses when going for a job), and behind-the-scenes revelations on what really happened during some of the Outlander filming. Dougal’s death scene, for instance, had some interesting twists. We hear about Sam going “Full Nash” (short for the full National Theatre) — the cast ribbing him about his “signature look.” And, most importantly, how Graham saved Sam’s life from a runaway Moon-crane during the raiding scene with the Grants in Outlander Season 1.
They go fishing on Loch Ness with Gary “McHugger” Lewis (Colum in Outlander ), complete with hip flasks of whisky (what?) so hopefully they have their life-jackets well strapped on! The story of how they film this scene is highly amusing!
Other call backs to Outlander are the meetings to experience Scottish culture, with Gillebride McMillan and the Badenoch Waulking Group. Gillebride (who played Gwyllyn the bard in Outlander #102) comes from the Western Isles and Gaelic is his first language. And we remember the wool waulking scene from #105 ‘Rent’ where Claire joined in the action.
The Clanlands adventures are wide ranging, filled with fascinating places and characters, such as ……
Their meeting with Charlie ”Chick” Allen, the modern Highlander who teaches them the finer points of dress, weaponry and techniques for wielding same — it’s quite gruesome. Sam says, ”Yup, his handshake is pretty terrifying, my manly resolve now crushed in his enormous hands.”
At Cawdor Castle, they meet Angelika, the Dowager Countess Cawdor, and are smitten. Graham especially by a particular book that she owns.
At Kilchurn Castle, with its “small private army dressed in combat fatigues wielding walkie talkies,” they learned that you should always include a beheading pit when building a castle!
At the Clava Cairns with Cameron McNeish. Before I lived in Scotland I had no idea of the legend that is this man. But I soon became enthralled with his TV shows on every aspect of the wildness of Scotland. This section in the book felt significant to me, as they explore the Gaelic concept of dualchas, a rhythm and deep connection to the land, the seasons and forebears, giving a sense of belonging. This is so similar to the Australian aboriginal people who speak of belonging to the land, to country. And as Sam and Cameron discuss, it is something that us modern folks are close to losing to our peril. We are encouraged to connect with the land by taking a skinny dip (I believe Sam did that!), walking, running, climbing in the landscape so that we can smell the country as we pass through it …. “at a speed you can appreciate the small print of the land,” Cameron says.
Surfin’: In trying to convince Graham that this is a good idea, Sam says, “Come on Big Man imagine the sand in your beard, the seawater in your eyes …. Trying to stand up on a board for the twentieth time in freezing water …. We’d win an Emmy for all the drama you’d create.”
I’ve seen wee snippets on social media as to how that scene played out!
On the making of Men in Kilts, I loved the little insights into the fakery (acting?) of television;
Graham (at 9am) “in the time-honoured tradition of television we pretend to meet the band … who just ‘happen’ to be in the pub …. We stomp our feet and I forget for one blissful moment that I am in an empty bar with a film crew.”
Pretending that Graham has spent the night in a tent ahead of meeting Gillibride McMillan! “I gave Graham his stage directions … he is to emerge from the tent after spending a sleepless and uncomfortable night.”
At Clava Cairns with Cameron McNeish: “They film us cycling all of fifty yards …. When it’s cut together we can pretend (badly) we’ve just done a thirty miler.”
They ….. “set up a shot where by ‘Hugger Mor’ Gary would magically appear in a row boat, and invite us aboard to row across the loch (the magic of filming).”
From my own perspective I was left with one wee gripe about the book. To be honest (as Sam frequently says) there was something I did find irksome. And I am not easily offended. I really objected to Sam, in teasing mode with Graham, saying, “Stop being such an old woman” ….. and Graham’s reply was that he didn’t appreciate Sam “comparing me to an elderly female.”
Come on guys, get with the program. A significant proportion of your constituents (your fans) could be described in the “old woman” category. Moi for instance. Being 66 I don’t feel old, but when people look at me they probably think, she’s old. And it is not nice that your age and gender status are used as a derogatory term, implying incompetence. And if you think I’m a whining old woman saying that, just substitute “old man” and “elderly male” into those sentences. It doesn’t have the same connotation at all, does it?
Ageism combined with sexism — a fatal combo Gingernut and Grey Dog.
I did question my reaction, was I overreacting, but it was a gut thing. Older women may understand, and younger women may not realise that they have this to look forward to — or maybe not, maybe by the time they are “old” the term “old woman” will no longer have a derogatory connotation but instead be a term of respect and endearment. Also, last bit on this, I was really surprised that their female editor did not pick this up.
Clanlands finishes up with our two heroes waxing lyrical about each other and taking back all the mean things they said and did to each other! It’s like a couple of saints commenting on each other’s saintliness — with extra syrup drizzled on top. Good luck to them. They certainly had some fun and obviously have a great friendship. I look forward to watching the show that they made on this grand road trip, which brought back so many wonderful memories for me of the time I spent in Scotland. Wouldn’t we all love to go on a road trip right now? So, living one vicariously in the beautiful land that is Scotland is certainly right up my alley.
Thanks for this review of the book. I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this audiobook. I listened to it during election day 2020 here in American. It kept my mind off everything going on around me. As for your gripe: it wasn’t just you. Every time that popped up, it stuck out like a sore thumb to me. I feel it’s this subtle sexism (and ageism) that is the most harmful. It’s so ingrained in our society, they might not have even realized they were being offensive.
thanks for your comments Elizabeth. Sounds like a great diversion for you at a stressful time! ‘Men in Kilts’ is now available in Australia and I’ve seen a couple of eps. Must say, I’m preferring the audio book – the show seems to be racing through, skimming over and dare I say, dumbing down some of the content of the book, especially around the interesting historical stuff?? Still theres several eps to go so I’d better wait for my final opinion on that.
Sexism and ageism are all pervasive and yes, sometimes subtle and unnoticed. I felt like taking notice in this instance. #wink