As Series Five of Outlander unfolds on our TV screens, we wanted to research and share with you what a Fiery Cross actually is/was.

Setting the Scene

The Fiery Cross book and series five focus on the lead up to the American Revolution, with Jamie ordered to raise a militia and oust the rebellion in North Carolina for a king he ultimately plans to betray. The storyline plays out between 1770 and 1772.

Diana ‘Herself’ describes The Fiery Cross as being set against the War of the Regulation in North Carolina. This being the first tax-payer’s rebellion in the American colonies, and a precursor to the full-blown Revolution. The story obviously focuses on the Fraser household and extended family.

Wikipedia describes said War of the Regulation, aka Regulator Movement, as an uprising in the British North America’s Carolina colonies, lasting from about 1765 to 1771, in which citizens took up arms against colonial officials, whom they viewed as corrupt. Though the rebellion did not change the power structure, some historians consider it a catalyst to the American Revolutionary War.

Each of Gabaldon’s books has a theme. The theme for The Fiery Cross is Community – with Jamie reclaiming his original (Lallybroch-oriented) destiny as laird and leader, supporter and protector of a community. This, of course, is set against a backdrop of not only war, but the usual good measure of adventure, discovery, conflict and danger. In this sense Diana’s storyline, centred around Fraser’s Ridge, is a microcosm of what was happening across emerging America at that time.

Tensions rise as Jamie is forced to comply with the oath he made to Governor Tryon. The Govenor calls in on the promise Jamie made to raise a militia, if required, to uphold the Kings law (in a lawless land) in return for the Land Grant of Fraser’s Ridge.

The War of the Regulation
British Royal Governor William Tryon confronts the North Carolina Regulators in 1771, public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shockingly, it seems like we will witness the unthinkable – Jamie wearing a Redcoat while hunting down Murtagh and the self-styled Regulators

In real life and in Outlander, tensions between the government and the Regulators climax in the Battle of Alamance. This rebellion is put down, at great cost – in particular to Roger’s health and wellbeing.

Battle of Alamance
An artist’s conception of the Battle of Alamance from 1910, public domain image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Rumour has it, unsurprisingly, that we will see a burning Fiery Cross during season five. An as yet unburned cross has been spotted in the props department at the Outlander studios in Cumbernauld. It seems that this prop, like many others, was made by Sam Heughan’s uncle.

So what exactly is a Fiery Cross?

There are several answers and examples that we will share with you below.

Firstly, in the context of the Outlander storyline, a Fiery Cross or burnt cross was used by Highland Chieftains to summon their clan to a place of rendezvous upon any sudden emergency. It was also called Crann Tara or Crean Tarigh (Gaelic for Cross of Shame), as to ignore this call to the chief’s side would bring shame and infamy. The Fiery Cross is said to have been frequently used in the 1715 Jacobite rising, and more recently among Scottish settlers in Canada during the War of 1812.

The Fiery Cross was typically fashioned from a Yew or Hazel tree, often in the shape of the Latin (or Roman) form of the Christian cross (though, we see a Celtic Cross – understandably – in Outlander series 5 episode 1).

Latin or Roman Christian Cross
The Latin (or Roman) form of Christian Cross

Sir Walter Scott, who played a significant role in the 19th century renaissance of the Highlands, features the Fiery Cross in some of his works. Scott’s ‘The Lady of the Lake’ is a narrative poem, first published in 1810, consisting of six cantos (sections of a long poem). In the third canto, a fiery cross is used to summon Clan Alpine to rise against King James:

And while the Fiery Cross glanced, like a meteor, round.

The Chieftain killed a goat, made a cross of light wood, lit the four ends on fire, and extinguished the flames with the sacrifice of the goat’s blood. The cross was carried to the first village by a messenger who spoke one word; the place to meet. The village would send a messenger with the cross to the next village and relay the same message.

Any man between the ages of 16 and 60 able to bear arms who failed to arrive at the appointed tryst in full battle gear met the same fate as the goat and cross – himself slain and his chattels burnt.

In 1679, a Fiery Cross was carried across the shire of Moray (not too far away from Lallybroch and Inverness) to raise the inhabitants to defend themselves against the McDonalds.

The Fiery Cross is mentioned in ‘Not For Glory: A Historical Novel of Scotland’ (book three in The Black Douglas Trilogy) by J.R. Tomlin. The book’s synopsis is as follows:

James, Lord of Douglas, known to his foes as the Black Douglas, leads a flank of the Scottish army in crushing a vast invading English force at the waters of the Bannockburn. Fresh from battle, James revels in honors heaped on him by the Scots and in the hatred of the enemy. When King Robert the Bruce orders him to push their advantage and force the English to the peace table, they both know the only way James can do so is by fire and the sword–the only language King Edward of England understands.

In the book is the following passage relating to July 1322:

I’ll think on it, but… let’s see what Edward of Caenarfon does first. When we return, the fiery cross must be carried across Scotland.” The king nodded. “It is as you say, Jamie. Thomas and Walter and Andrew, I shall send to carry the fiery cross and raise all the powers of Scotland, of the Highlands, of the Isles. I shall hold at Culross and send a force to hold Stirling, but everything below the Forth will be left bare – of man or beast, of crop or habitation. That I leave to you.”

Secondly, quite disturbingly, the Fiery Cross was also adopted by The Ku Klux Klan who used cross burning for dramatic terror – as a racist tactic. After the film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in 1915 this method of rallying supporters and publicizing their attacks was adapted by the second Ku Klux Klan.

Thirdly, another Fiery Cross with an Outlander connection is a magnificent stained-glass window in none other than Culross, the 17th century Scottish town that features extensively as an Outlander film location in series one, two and four. This window named ‘The Fiery Cross’ can be found in the entrance hall of Culross Abbey. It was designed by a well-known Scottish stained-glass artist called Sadie McLellan  (b 1914, d 2007). We include a visit to the abbey and this window on our Seven Day Outlander Tour.

The Fiery Cross Stained Glass window at Culross Abbey
The Fiery Cross in Culross Abbey. Photo © Andrew Nicholson

McLellan was a graduate of Glasgow School of Art, who studied and worked with another well-known stained-glass artist Charles Baillie. She taught for a time at Glasgow School of Art and was awarded the John Keppie scholarship – taking her to Scandinavia and spending a year at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen. Sadie McLellan’s works can be found all over Scotland including: Glasgow Catherdral, Kelvinside Hillhead Parish Church, Cambuslang Old Parish, Netherlee in Alloa, Cardonald churches and Pluscarden Abbey.

  • At the Robin Chapel of the Thistle Foundation, ten windows depict scenes from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
  • At Cardross Parish Church: Windows on the theme Recurrent Creation comprise four pairs of lights, illustrating the flow of creation through the seasons of the year.
  • Pluscarden Abbey’s Marian Window (below) celebrates the Virgin Mary and depicts the cosmic battle between good and evil.
Pluscarden Abbey Marian Window
Pluscarden Abbey’s Marian window. Photo © Andrew Nicholson

‘Fiery Cross’ is also the name of a fishing boat based in Stornoway on the Scottish Western Isles.

Finally, the ‘Fiery Cross’ is a painting by the Scottish artist James Drummond (1816 – 1877). Drummond was a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. This 240-year-old society’s purpose is to promote the cultural heritage of Scotland though supporting the study and enjoyment of Scotland’s past, or as they put in more detail:

to investigate both antiquities and natural and civil history in general, with the intention that the talents of mankind should be cultivated and that the study of natural and useful sciences should be promoted.

Today, the society is as strong as ever with over 2,500 Fellows from a wide range of backgrounds and antiquarian interests. Fellows are nominated by their peers are denoted with the post-nominal letters ‘FSA Scot’ after their name. Increasingly, the aim of the Society is to help to translate the past for a contemporary audience, highlighting its relevance today. In this sense, there is some correlation with Diana Gabaldon’s undoubted impact in raising awareness of Scottish history and culture through Outlander.

Here is the painting:

The Fiery Cross by James Drummond
‘The Fiery Cross’ by James Drummond © The Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum, reproduced here with their kind permission.

This painting depicts the Fiery Cross, a Celtic signal used as a call to arms, as it arrived at Stirling Castle. It was carried through Scotland in 1547 during the time of the ‘Rough Wooing’, when Henry VIII of England was trying to marry his son Edward to the infant Mary Queens of Scots.

The painting ‘The Fiery Cross’ is on display at The Stirling Smith Art Gallery & Museum (aka ‘The Smith’) in the City of Stirling, Scotland. We were lucky enough to be invited to Bannockburn House in January 2020 to witness The Smith’s curator, Caroline Mathers, bring the ancient key of Stirling back once again to Bannockburn House. Watch this space (blog) for another post on our visit to The Smith and Bannockburn House – coming soon.

Below is The Ancient Key of Stirling, followed by another image of us holding it at Bannockburn House. The key was lost for a long time before being found in 1902, hidden in a recess in the wall of a bedroom at Bannockburn House.

The Ancient Key of Stirling
The Ancient Key of Stirling – said to be the key from Stirling Port Gate, given to Prince Charles after the surrender of Stirling on 6th January 1746.
Andy with the Ancient Key of Stirling
Andy with the Ancient Key of Stirling – standing in front of Bonnie Prince Charlie

We are planning to include both Bannockburn House and The Smith on a brand-new Outlander Tour that we are developing. This will be a follow-on tour to our very popular Seven Day Outlander Tour. You do not need to have been on the first tour in order to enjoy the second tour, however, we recommend doing both as they include completely different locations. The follow-on tour will feature locations from all five seasons of Outlander.

More about The Smith and Bannockburn House

The Smith was founded in 1874 from the bequest of the artist Thomas Stuart Smith (d1869) and is dedicated to the promotion of cultural and historical heritage and the arts, from a local scale to nationally and beyond. The Smith houses many remarkable pieces, including the world’s oldest football (1540), world’s oldest curling stone (1511), the Stirling Jug (1457), Bannockburn tartans, Wallace and Bruce memorabilia. The Smith also has in its collection, a punch bowl from which Bonnie Prince Charlie drank when he stayed at Bannockburn House.

During his failed attempt to take Stirling Castle, Prince Charles lodged south of the city, at Bannockburn House. His host was Sir Hugh Paterson, 2nd Baronet of Bannockburn, a prominent Jacobite supporter. It was at Bannockburn House that Charles met Clementina Walkinshaw, niece of Sir Hugh, who later became his mistress while they were both in Europe and bore his only acknowledged, surviving child, Charlotte Stuart, Duchess of Albany.

Charles had his Jacobites lay siege to Stirling Castle, but they failed to take it. It is from Bannockburn House that he orchestrated the last-ever victory for the Jacobites at the Battle of Falkirk Muir. Meanwhile, the town of Stirling surrendered without a fight. The Lord Provost, civic head and lord-lieutenant of the city (a role similar to that of mayor in Scotland) then came to the Bannockburn House to meet Charles and present him the ancient key to the city of Stirling as a sign of capitulation.

So there you have it! Some history around the Fiery Cross and its connections to Outlander. Enjoy the lack of Droughtlander 🙂

4 Responses

  • Suzanne Buechel

    Interesting read Andy. You have given us so much background on the origins. Thank you.

  • Leslie Askew

    Somehow, I missed this in previous perusals of your blog. I love the fascinating details you impart to us.

    Thanks for all your diligent research and hard work.


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