I did not know what to expect from Outlander when I decided to watch the first episode. Knowing it was based on a series of books that had been randomly inspired by the character of Jamie McCrimmon from classic Doctor Who, and that it was a time travel story to Scotland in the 18th Century landed it squarely in my wheelhouse, but didn’t give me any frame of reference as to its potential quality.
So after the strange and somewhat context lacking introduction involving the longing for a vase after the end of the Second World War, seeing the names of Bear McCreary and Ronald D. Moore in the credits immediately filled me with confidence. Moore is an excellent showrunner and writer, but McCreary’s involvement excited me most of all.
I became aware of his work as I assume most genre fans did, through the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica by Moore. I’ve kept a loose ear on McCreary’s work since then, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve listened to. But Outlander seems to be, at least superficially, the project that would be the “best fit” for McCreary. Whilst a versatile composer, he seems to have a penchant for a Celtic influence in his work, so a series set during the Highlands of Scotland around the time of the Jacobite Rebellion seems a perfect setting for a McCreary score.
The first season of the series has been oddly separated into two “volumes” with a six month gap between them. This soundtrack contains music from the first volume, with the second volume’s soundtrack due out September 25th.
But for this volume of music, rather than starting with the series’ main theme, the album’s first track is “People Disappear All The Time”. This music accompanied the introduction to the series as main character Claire Beauchamp (played by Caitriona Balfe) longs for a vase. As I hinted above, the intro didn’t work for me. However, stripped of the narrative context, this is a powerful opening to the soundtrack, which firmly drops you into the setting and foreshadows many of the themes and cues that will occur later in the soundtrack.
Track two is probably what everyone who buys this soundtrack is really coming for; the main theme or “The Skye Boat Song (Castle Leoch Version)”. McCreary’s wife Raya Yarbrough provides the vocals for this piece, and it is a great version of the traditional Scottish folk song and makes for a rousing main theme. Those who are familiar with the original song may find the different lyrics somewhat jarring, but they are based on the poem “Sing me a Song of a Lad that is Gone” by Robert Louis Stevenson, with changes to better fit the story of Outlander.
A frustrating feature common with Television Soundtracks is that they don’t specify in which episode a piece of music is first or primarily used in the notes. If I’ve watched the episode and made note of the music in it, I usually like to jump to that first. To be fair, it’s common for many of the pieces on a soundtrack to be made up of individual themes, so sometimes this just isn’t feasible. This soundtrack falls prey to the lack of episode context, and while I can guess in which episode a certain piece of music turns up within the first eight episode span of the season after a rewatch of the series, I am flying a little blind here.
As the impetus (so we assume) for all the time-travel shenanigans at the core of the show, “Dance of the Druids” plays over a scene crucial to the series. The piece evokes a sense of otherworldliness with an almost frenetic pace, without playing on what we would recognise as a clichéd depiction of Druids in popular culture. Again, Raya Yarbrough provides the haunting vocals over the music.
“Fallen Through Time” is bonkers, which is to its credit. With this piece, series protagonist Claire Randall has woken up in 18th Century Scotland and in her confusion stumbled in the middle of a skirmish between English and Scottish forces. The music manages to capture the sense of bewilderment Claire experiences as she stumbles into danger and is rescued by the Scottish skirmishers.
From a narrative perspective, “The Women Of Balnain” is pulling triple duty of being an on screen musical performance in an episode, playing behind a narrative of a character translating the lyrics to Claire, then finally playing over Claire’s voiceover as she realises what the story means. Despite all of these elements in play, McCreary manages to pull it off and create a piece of music that is lovely even stripped of that entire context. It also features the vocals of Gillebride MacMillan, who played Gwyllyn the Bard in the series’ third episode. He provides an authentic and haunting Gaelic performance which complements the tune.
Tracks “Castle Leoch”, “Comin’ Thro’ The Rye”, “Mrs Fitz” and “The Losing Side Of History” do the heavy lifting for the show’s score; showcasing the main themes McCreary composed, interwoven with more traditional Scottish songs. They are all of great quality, but to me they did not stand out among the surrounding songs.
To juxtapose that, “Clean Pease Strae” is an almost frantic piece utilising traditional Scottish instruments, played over a brutal game of shinty in the episode “The Gathering”. This is upbeat and fun, and makes a clear break from some of the slower pieces on the soundtrack.
Both “The Marriage Contract” and “The Wedding” play from the episode with the same title as that last, AKA “The One with All the Sex”. The first piece from that episode is playful and upbeat, conveying some of the humour of the situation series protagonist Claire finds herself in. “The Wedding” itself is a more complex affair; capturing the mixed emotions and the passion of the episode with aplomb.
This album’s final piece, “The Veil of Time” is primarily from the mid-season finale, “Both Sides Now”, and is the longest track on the album. It is beautiful work, conveys well the drama of what was happening on screen, as Claire is captured by the English forces, and despite its running time does not outstay its welcome.
Given my knowledge of McCreary’s prior work and my own interest in Celtic music, the first volume of Outlander music is wonderful. I would recommend it to any fan of the series, of McCreary’s prior work, or those interested in orchestral music with a Scottish bent.
Finally, composer Bear McCreary goes into lovely detail on how he composed this music on his website, which is worth reading if you are interested in his process and the themes that went into his work.