Outlander (published in the UK as Cross Stitch) is the first in a series of novels (currently six) by Diana Gabaldon. The book focuses on two main characters, Claire Fraser (née Beauchamp) and Jamie Fraser, and takes place in eighteenth and twentieth-century Scotland.
The novel is not easily classified by genre. On one level, the work is a romance novel with a focus on the romantic relationship between the two main characters. However, the book breaks certain romance genre conventions—the heroine, for instance, is slightly older than the hero. The book could be described as a work of historical fiction with a detailed account of eighteenth century Scottish clan life. The novel could also be considered science fiction with a plot propelled by time travel when Claire journeys from the 1940s to the eighteenth century.
It was awarded the RITA award for "Best romance novel" of 1991.
Claire Randall is a practical woman, a nurse for British forces during World War II. She and her husband Frank, who were separated due to their work duties during the war soon after their marriage, have recently reunited and are enjoying a second honeymoon in Inverness, Scotland, where they were married and where, they believe, the war did not scar so much as it had England.
After seeing some obligatory Scottish sites, such as Loch Ness, Claire takes a trip to a nearby site of standing stones to collect plants with a local amateur botanist. The local shows her a group of standing stones on the hill of Craig na Dun. When Claire tells her husband about the stones, Frank decides that he wants to see them in hopes of catching a druid. When they get there they witness a ritual, with a group of local women enacting an old pagan ritual. As a "historian," Frank is fascinated; but Claire, a budding "amateur botanist," is more interested in the flowers and herbs she finds than anything else--although the ritual is unusual and of interest to her.
After a strange stormy night when Frank witnesses a ghost, clad in a warrior's gear, staring up at Claire through their window, Claire returns to the stones to collect a specimen she spied the day before. She is fascinated when she realizes she can hear a buzzing noise coming from the stones--that wasn't there before. As the buzzing becomes louder as she draws nearer. Claire fatefully decides to place her hand against one of the stones, and becomes immediately disoriented and blacks out. She wakes up to the sound of a battle off in the distance. Thinking this must be a re-enactment or a movie set of some sort, she thinks nothing of it until she tries to find her way home. Things have changed inexplicably, including the fact that her ride is gone. Struggling to find her way back and make sense of her surroundings, she is detained by Captain "Black Jack" Randall, who is, incidentally, the six times great grandfather of her husband Frank. To add to her confusion, he is her husband's doppelganger. Unfortunately for Claire, Randall has earned the "Black" in spades and proceeds to attempt to assault Claire, all the while wondering why a lone woman would be travelling in the middle of the wilderness, in a "state of undress." (Eighteenth century dress involved a lot more clothing than in later centuries.) She is saved by a short, gnarly Scotsman named Murtagh, who knocks Randall unconscious and takes her with him to the other Scotsmen of his party who have been rustling cattle.
Still befuddled, Claire cannot make heads or tails of the situation, and is further puzzled by all of the men's reaction to her short dress, which everyone thinks is a "shift," and that her legs are bare. Forced to travel with the group through the Scottish countryside, Claire sees the lack of modern technology and roadways. She begins to come to terms with what has happened to her: she has travelled approximately two hundred years into the past.
Claire is riding with one of the younger Scots, Jamie, whom she met by fixing his dislocated shoulder, after he had a nasty altercation with the British under "Black Jack's" command. The Scots are returning to their home, Castle Leoch, the seat of the Clan MacKenzie. When questioned by the laird, Colum ban Campbell MacKenzie, Claire claims to be on her way to France to visit relatives, a safe bet since she can speak fluent French. It still does not explain what an Englishwoman is doing this far north, and the Scots are very suspicious of her. It is at the castle that Claire figures out when she is for the first time: 1743. The Scots do not trust Claire and view her as a "Sassenach"--an outsider to Scottish Highland culture and an Englishwoman to boot--though she gradually earns their acceptance through her work as a healer. However, throughout the novel the Scots believe or at least have the suspicion that she is a spy.
In a grave error of judgement, the war chieftain (think executive officer) of the clan, Dougal MacKenzie, takes Claire to the English fort for questioning, putting her back in the hands of none other than "Black Jack" Randall. After delivering a cowardly gut punch to a woman he barely knows, he asks the Scots to bring her to him a few days later so that she can be further interrogated and most likely imprisoned.
In order to save Claire from who-knows-what terrible things, Dougal decides Claire should wed Jamie, transforming her from an English citizen to a Scottish clansman and relation. This would, effectively, render her unavailable to the English for questioning, or imprisonment. Plus, the marriage would solve another inconvienent family problem for the leaders of the clan. By marrying an outsider, Jamie would be removed from the line of succession and no longer be eligible to be called as chieftain of Clan MacKenzie. As Jamie says a bit later, "Being half MacKenzie is one thing...being half MacKenzie wi' an English wife is quite another" (p. 300, mass market edition). Dougal puts this proposal to Claire--for her the quintessential rock-and-a-hard-place with a bit of bigamy thrown in for good measure. Claire, after a few stiff drinks, agrees and attends a hastily organized wedding in the same church -- much to Claire's horror -- in which she married Frank.
Now by this time, in the best of an arranged-marriage tale, Claire finds herself falling in love with Jamie, although she still loves Frank and is filled with incredible guilt. And it's clear that Jamie is falling in love with her. Claire's healing skills as a 20th century nurse have saved Jamie several times by now. But as the story progresses, her underlying motive is still to find a way back to the mysterious stone circle. She wants to return to her own time and to her husband, who she is convinced must be worried sick.
As life continues at Castle Leoch, Claire's knowledge of the future, her growing inconvenience to the clan's leadership, and a healthy dose of bad luck, and jealousy, lead to a charge of witchcraft. Thrown into a dismal hole with another accused witch, Geilie Duncan, to await her trial, she is rescued in the nick of time by Jamie. During her escape, she realizes that Geilie Duncan has a vaccination scar and must have been from the future as well. After they make their escape, Claire is finally forced to confide the truth to Jamie ...about who she really is and where she is from.
Out of his love for Claire, Jamie takes her back to Craigh na Dun, so she might return through the stones to her own time, but in the end Claire decides to stay.
They head for Jamie's home, Lallybroch, but their happiness there doesn't last long. Jamie, who has a price on his head, is betrayed by one of the crofters on the estate who holds a grudge against Jamie for forcing him to offer his son as stable-boy by force after Jamie realizes the crofter has been badly abusing of the boy. Jamie is taken away to Wentworth Prison and sentenced to hang. Sadistic Jack Randall is also transferred to the prison to deal with Jamie's arrest and takes the opportunity to torture and rape Jamie.
Claire and Murtagh track Jamie down, and with the help of several of Jamie's MacKenzie clansmen, they attempt to free Jamie from Wentworth Prison. They succeed, but not before terrible things have been done to him. They make their escape to the home of a trusted friend not far from the prison. Knowing it's not safe to stay in Scotland, they take ship with Murtagh headded for the Abbey of Ste. Anne de Beaupre in France, where Jamie's patternal uncle is stationed as Abbot.
At Ste. Anne's, Claire tries to heal Jamie, but it is not a simple matter of setting broken bones or stitching cuts. Jamie's mind is severely traumatized as well. One night, in a struggle for Jamie's life, Claire confronts his demons with love, dogged persistence, and "witchcraft", as Jamie says in Voyager.
As he becomes whole again, Jamie tells Claire that his life is hers, that she should decide, will they go "to France, Italy, or even back to Scotland?" for "[they'll] need a place to go, soon." But his Uncle, Abbot Alexander, has provided a direction...a letter of introduction for Jamie, "an efficient linguist and translator", to none-other than King James of Scotland, now a resident of Rome along with his son, Bonnie Prince Charlie. Claire and Jamie decide Rome it will be, "to do what they can".(quotes from this paragraph, p 620, Dell Trade Paperback)
And at the last, as they emerge from the healing waters of a sacred hot spring under the Abbey, Claire reveals that she is pregnant with their first child.
As the first in what is now a six-book series (the 7th book An Echo in the Bone is due to release later this year, and there very likely will be a Book 8) of Claire Fraser and her Highlander husband Jamie, the story is an integral step in a bestselling and surprisingly rich tale spanning the time from the Scottish Rising of 1745, to the American Revolution.
James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser "Jamie" : Claire's husband in the eighteenth century. A strapping young Scottish redhead with a dark past and a disarming sense of humor.
Frank Randall: Claire's history-loving husband in the 1940s, a professor with a deep interest in his genealogy and heritage.
Jonathan Randall: The primary villain of the story. He is Frank's ancestor, a British army officer. He is also known as "Black Jack." According to Jamie Fraser, the black refers to the color of his soul.
Colum MacKenzie: The Laird of the MacKenzie clan, Jamie's maternal uncle, who shelters Jamie and Claire from the English threat. He suffers from Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome.
Dougal MacKenzie: Colum's brother, who serves as the literal and figurative "body" of the pair, since Colum was born with a deformity affecting his legs.