"I’VE never been happier,” Graham McTavish says, “than when I’ve been cycling around Scotland”.

“I did multiple long-distance cycle tours when I was younger and that was the best, just the best.

“Being in the Highlands, the remoteness, the way the landscape unfolds around you.

“It was absolutely wonderful.”

Born in Glasgow, acting has taken McTavish all across the globe. From Hollywood to New Zealand to London, where he has been based for his more recent roles in HBO’s long-anticipated House Of The Dragon, and Netflix’s The Witcher.

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But he says there is something special about his home nation.

“It’s almost like a race memory,” McTavish told the Sunday National. “It’s a feeling I get – especially when I go to Glasgow. I just feel different when I’m there compared with other places.

“I mean, I’ve spent many, many years living in London. I feel very much at home here. I feel at home in New Zealand. But there’s something special about Scotland.

“Wherever I go, whether it’s the Highlands or the Outer Hebrides or the Lowlands or anywhere, it just speaks to me in a different way.”

To that indefinable feeling which Scotland gives him, McTavish also attributes some of the success of the smash hit Outlander series.

The Starz show, based on the books by Diana Gabaldon and about a woman who travels back in time to the 1745 Jacobite rising, can be credited with causing millions of people to become enchanted with Scotland and its history.

The National: Graham McTavish, far left, plays Dougal MacKenzie in OutlanderGraham McTavish, far left, plays Dougal MacKenzie in Outlander

McTavish has seen it with his own eyes: “The number of people who’ve said to me, ‘we’re coming to Scotland because of Outlander’, is enormous. It’s had a really positive effect in that way.”

The actor – who played Dougal MacKenzie in the show – said he had visited Doune Castle in Stirling before filming had started, and found it nearly empty.

“Now,” he says, after the castle featured in Outlander as the MacKenzie clan’s Castle Leoch, “it’s had a huge increase, and the general figures for tourism in Scotland have definitely increased, and in part I do believe there is an Outlander effect on that.”

McTavish goes on: “It just perfectly ignited, especially in America, a longing – that’s the only word I can use, really – a longing for a past.

“Americans particularly, I think, are always yearning to discover their roots and to feel roots because they’re such a relatively young country.

Scotland really gives them that.”

But McTavish does not want to get caught up with the fictionalised version of Scotland which can be presented by shows like Outlander.

“The reality of Scotland in that period, in many ways, was much more complex, I think, than is necessarily portrayed in the television show.

“I’ve always been interested in the minutiae of history, and especially the history of Scotland, and it really is a fascinating tale, and one that I’m still just discovering so much about.”

McTavish says the difference between reality and portrayal was a key theme which he and his Outlander co-star, Sam Heughan, tried to explore when writing their book Clanlands, which made them both New York Times best-selling authors.

The book was closely linked to their documentary series Men In Kilts, which saw the pair travel Scotland to learn about its culture and heritage. Season two of the show will see the duo tour New Zealand, a place which, McTavish says, has “a huge Scottish connection”.

“The history of that country,” he goes on, “with the Maori population, the intermarrying between Highlanders and Maori tribeswomen – it’s a fascinating story of these two cultures that were literally on either side of the world to the other, and they have so much in common.

“They recognised each other almost, and just perfectly fit together.”

The National: Graham McTavish is known for his role in House of The DragonGraham McTavish is known for his role in House of The Dragon

New Zealand is a place McTavish knows well, having worked there for years during the filming of The Hobbit trilogy. Alongside roles in The Witcher, the House Of The Dragon, and even Outlander, it looks like the Scot is carving himself a career out of high fantasy series.

“It seems that if I don’t have some sort of bladed weapon, or if I’m not carrying a candle and wearing a cloak, it’s just not going to involve me,” McTavish jokes. “I love it though, maybe it’s the laws of attraction as I love those sort of shows myself.

“I’m not obvious casting for playing a lawyer or an accountant or … let’s just say what it is: it’s the beard. The beard just rules me now.

“I am a slave to the beard and where the beard takes me, that’s where I go. And beards are very popular in high fantasy. So yeah, it seems to be working out so far. Let’s hope I never shave.”

He first grew a beard to play the role of Dwalin the dwarf, who journeys with Bilbo Baggins in JRR Tolkein’s classic children’s story. However, things didn’t go as he’d expected.

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“I grew a gigantic beard for The Hobbit,” McTavish says. “I mean really like the kind of beard that a mountain man living alone for years on end would have grown.

“I arrived in New Zealand thinking, this is great. Look at this beard. It’s fabulous. And [director] Peter Jackson said: ‘That’s a great beard Graham, a great beard. I’m not sure if it’s the right beard.’ “So they shaved it off, and I had to have a beard applied for two and a half years. So after that, I decided that I was going to avoid at all costs ever shaving again.

“It’s to the extent that, when I went for my makeup test for Outlander, the makeup supervisor said to me: ‘Oh, in the book, Dougal MacKenzie has long hair in a ponytail and is clean shaven.’ “I said, ‘well, actually, I see him as bald with a beard’ … so that’s what we went with!”

McTavish’s latest show, House Of The Dragon, is currently being released by HBO and airs on Sky Atlantic in the UK. Filming for the third season of Netflix’s The Witcher was ongoing over the summer, with a release date yet to be confirmed.

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