PREJUDICED and disdainful or packed with prideful self-definition, the word “outlander” might signify an individual’s healthy and assertive recognition of her or his own difference from others, or it might be used to alienate, objectify, and obscure the humanity of people deemed “other”.

Alan Riach looks at a conference taking place this week that is designed to address the issue.

The Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, in his book Of Africa (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), pp.54-56, says this: “There are certain voyage stops – like the bookmark – inscribed into any attempt to review the world’s accounting of a receding millennium, stops that are likely to remain pertinent to succeeding generations, and for centuries.

“Most individuals have their sobering lists, a mere recollection of which checks them in stride even in the midst of marvelling at or celebrating the undeniable, often unthinkable leaps in human achievements.

“It would be astonishing if the average list does not contain one or both of the following: the Holocaust and Hiroshima. For most Africans at home or dispersed, however, there is a third. […]

“The third [is] a far more elusive, insidious, and seemingly eternal condition. It is also, paradoxically, a self-attenuating metaphor, which perhaps accounts for its tenacity, since it encourages a tendency toward toleration. […]

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“The third offers evidence not even of the short memory of the world but of the regard with which the African continent is held, since it is one that would leap instantly to the head of a list for the average African. By contrast, it would have to be near forcefully impressed on others as a candidate for such a list. I have encountered this cast of mind – that is, requiring re-education, at several gatherings devoted to Memory, Race Relations, Human Rights, Conflict Resolution, Reconciliation Strategies – and allied themes.

“It is indeed revealing of much else, since this third bookmark happens to lack the consolation of being in a terminal past – unlike the Holocaust or Hiroshima, it lacks an identifiably limited duration. […] Yes, indeed, we have in mind the African slave trade.”

There is slavery of the body. And there is slavery of the mind. And the extent to which slavery, what Soyinka calls “this self-attenuating metaphor”, applies across nations and continents, centuries and epochs, is simply incalculable.

It has perpetual traction and no “identifiably limited duration”. If we can do anything to redress its progress and presence, surely, that must be the leading principle by which any educational institutions measure themselves.

Glasgow University, like all others, has its liabilities and histories of bad investment. Giving an honorary degree to Butcher Cumberland after Culloden was not one of its better acts. But a conference taking place this week is a significant event in the long history of necessary redress.

It’s the world’s first international conference on Outlander, the internationally popular TV series and of novels. Their author, Dr Diana Gabaldon (below), will open the conference on Tuesday (4-5pm) and fans, scholars, all curious folk, are welcome in the university’s Bute Hall. 

The National:

The popularity of the books and TV series (now in its seventh season) is not to be gainsaid but the conference is much more than a fanfest. Although a festive element is part of the event, the spur to the intellect and the spirit of enquiry into slavery is also part of what is under examination.

The conference takes place in the wake of Glasgow’s acknowledgement of its complicity in slavery and the liability of Enlightenment thinking in the context of 18th-century political hierarchies of power and racial hegemony.

This had direct application in both the construction and extension of racism in the western world and in the validation of prejudices against Highlanders, islanders, Gaelic culture and the Gaelic language and the problems of Scottish national identity we’re still dealing with in the 21st century.

A sample of some of the talks being presented at the conference illustrates this. The plenary sessions begin with Gabaldon giving the opening talk then, the next day, Professor Murray Pittock dives into detail about Culloden and “What Happened Next?”. Later, Dr Katherine Byrne reflects on sexual violence in history with “Outlander, Rape Plotlines and the #MeToo Movement”.

The final plenary keynote will be given by Sir Geoff Palmer (below), whose disagreement with the historian Professor Sir Tom Devine has been reported in The National.

The National:

Palmer’s paper takes its title “Hands that took …” from Burns and in his short video introduction he emphasises that his own arrival in Scotland, in the 1960s, as a direct descendent of people enslaved, made him feel not so much an “outlander” as an ”incomer”. The consequences of the history he and his family and ancestors lived through are still all around us. Racism has always been present and never really gone away. Only through education can it be redressed.

The main themes beyond these cover the territories of fantasy, medicine, historical fiction, witchcraft, the oral tradition, translation, women’s work song, Scottish Highlanders and Native Americans, screen tourism at historical heritage sites, medical ethics and practice, environmental and eco-criticism, heritage, memory, and the politics of Scottish nationalism.

There’s a cooking demonstration with MasterChef winner Gary Maclean, a book signing with Gabaldon and a Night at the Museum, in The Hunterian, on Thursday, July 20.

The central phenomenon of the books and TV series is worth studying and enjoying for its own sake but the great distinction of this conference is that it builds bridges from the mass media entertainment culture to the higher reaches of scholarship and underpins both with deadly serious moral priorities.

If ever there were a way to counter the traction that slavery continues to have, this is it. The Glasgow Outlander Conference promises to be enjoyable and engaging at every turn but it’s so much more than an exploration of a phenomenon of contemporary popular culture.

There’s a lot to take in. And context is important. Sir Hilary McDonald Beckles, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI), signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the principal of the University of Glasgow in 2019 It was the first agreement for slavery reparations since 1838. The £20 million agreement was signed at the regional headquarters of the UWI in Kingston, Jamaica last week by Beckles and Dr David Duncan, Glasgow’s deputy vice-chancellor. Recognition and reparation are at least beginning.

And if one further salient and significant co-ordinate point might be noted and kept in mind as a complement to the conference, it’s the story of James McCune Smith, whose name was given to a new building, a “learning hub” at the University, opened in April 2021.

McCune Smith was a prominent civil rights activist and the first African American to be awarded a medical degree by the University of Glasgow in 1837.

As far as Glasgow and Glasgow University are concerned, we might think of James McCune Smith (below) as the exemplary “Outlander”.

The National:

His journey from America to Scotland in his own time tells one tale and his travelling from the 19th century to our own tells another. Together, they underpin and emphasise the lasting significance of the Outlander conference.

Willy Maley has a detailed account of McCune Smith’s story available online at and it seems appropriate to state here that, in 1841, McCune Smith delivered a lecture on the Haitian Revolution in which he invoked Robert the Bruce: “Like Leonidas at Thermopylae, or the Bruce at Bannockburn, Toussaint [Louverture] determined to defend from thraldom his sea-girt isle, made sacred to liberty by the baptism of blood”.

This comes from “A Lecture on the Haytien Revolutions; with a Sketch of the Character of Toussaint L’Ouverture, delivered at the Stuyvesant Institute, (for the benefit of the coloured orphan asylum)”.

Maley comments: “McCune Smith is truly a remarkable figure, a polymath and public intellectual celebrated as ‘the first university-trained Black American physician’ as well as an activist and world-changer.

“Born into slavery on April 18, 1813 ,to a black mother, Lavenia Smith, (he described himself as ‘the son of a self-emancipated bond-woman’) and a white father, he was himself formally freed at the age of 14 in 1827 through New York’s Emancipation Act. McCune Smith later said of himself, ‘My mother is a mulatto, half white and half African – my father white; I am three-fourths white’.”

According to one of his most recent biographers: “We know Smith’s father’s name only from Glasgow University’s Matriculation Album for 1832, which lists ‘James M’Cune Smith’ as ‘filius natu maximus Samuelis, Mercatoris apud New York’ [first natural son of Samuel, merchant, New York]. This is the only known reference to Smith’s father.”

In what follows, I’m paraphrasing from Maley’s excellent website exposition of McCune Smith’s life and work. Educated first in New York, McCune Smith was an excellent scholar, yet could not get accepted to the colleges to which he applied in the States, including Columbia University.

So “Smith’s abolitionist benefactors drew upon international connections in Glasgow, where the Glasgow Emancipation Society was active, and traditions were liberal with respect to university admissions”. Maley continues: “Scotland beckoned, and McCune Smith sailed from New York to Liverpool on August 16, 1832 aboard a ship called the Caledonia. He was 19 years old.”

In his journal, McCune Smith laments the paradoxical nature of the American-built ship on which he sails, a vessel taking a free man from one slave-owning state to another: “And that gathering something of the spirit of liberty from the ocean which she cleaves, and the chainless wind which wafts her along, she might appear in foreign ports a fit representative of a land of the free, instead of a beautiful but baneful object, like the fated box of Pandora, scattering abroad among the nations the malignant prejudice which is a canker and a curse to the soil, whence she sprung.”

McCune Smith graduated BA in 1835, MA in 1836, and MD in 1837. He gained practical experience as a medical student at the Glasgow Lock Hospital for the treatment of venereal diseases.

His enlightened education meant he was a steadfast opponent of so-called “scientific racism”, which drew on phrenology and respiratory biology to reinforce notions of white supremacy, and he had the medical expertise as well as the anti-racist credentials to demolish the arguments of apologists, which made him “an important figure in countering notions of innate black inferiority”.

McCune Smith was so much more than only a medical man, and his story connects with the Outlander saga in myriad ways. In Outlander, a married English nurse, Claire Beauchamp, goes to Scotland, passes through stones in the Highlands and travels back from 1946 to 1743. She meets and marries Jamie Fraser, who is a Jacobite.

She then returns to the present to be re-united with her first husband, Frank Randall, a historian. Claire trains as doctor and surgeon in the States, then goes back into the past to live in a British colony in North Carolina in the 1770s with Jamie.

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Medicine, seeing, healing, learning from all that we can, is the prerogative of both stories. Both are complicated but wonderfully rich. Outlander is immensely detailed, with lots of intriguing insights into Scottish and indigenous connections, including Native American and Scottish interactions. The connections are close.

Jamie’s blind Aunt Jocasta runs a slave plantation and senses Claire’s deep disapproval through her sightless eyes.

Our understanding of the significance of McCune Smith, of what the Outlander books and TV series might open our eyes to, is our commitment.

Our attempt to redress the legacies of slavery that still infest our lives so pervasively, slaveries of work and physical entrapment in a class system as redundant as it is disgusting, and of the mind and habits of obedience that Scots have been so burdened with and accustomed to, is, in however small a degree, what the Outlander conference, as a critical gathering examining a complex common history, is for.