Andy McAlindon, electrician turned actor, speaks to Rona Simpson about his journey and the inspiration behind his Highlander Tours company.
As I walk up towards the house a large, handsome, beaming, hairy-faced Jacobite in full regalia including calf-length leather coat and flintlock pistols leaps out from behind a van, “You must be Rona!” and he shakes my hand so warmly that the various weaponry attached to him rattles. “I’m Andy… The Highlander!” he says. I had guessed!
“Can I show you what’s in my van?” Andy asks eagerly. Laid out on display are swords, dirks, pistols and scabbards as well as a large Outlander hardback book with stills from the show. “I’m just getting set up for a Tour.” Andy McAlindon – a starring extra in the Outlander series – also runs Highlander Tours; a company that specializes in Outlander, Historic and Scenic tours and holidays. But it quickly becomes clear that this is not just a job for Andy.
Eyes shining, he proceeds to tell me in detail the names of the weapons and explaining when and how they’d be used in battle and their connection to the show. He explains etymology behind words and phrases such as ‘a flash in the pan’ – he points to the ‘pan’ an area of the flintlock which holds a charge of gunpowder and can sometimes explode here instead of firing the pistol properly. He points to his beard and explains that the term ‘sideburns’ came from redcoats holding the red-hot barrel of the pistol against the side of their faces. I’m hooked. His passion is infectious. He urges me to hold the ‘basket-hilted’ sword, which is incredibly heavy and beautifully designed and can, with one careful flick as Andy demonstrates, whip a shorter sword out of the hands of your enemy. He’s like a living, breathing history lesson.
Once inside the house I’m face-to-face with a life-sized poster of Andy in his Jacobite costume. He’s unashamedly proud and I don’t blame him for feeling delighted about where his life is at. He has not always graced the sets of films or made a living escorting people around the country whilst being wrapped in six foot of plaid kilt brandishing swords and pistols. He used to be an electrician. I ask Andy how, in his late thirties and with three kids, he made this huge leap.
“My dream was always to be an actor. My dad died 10 years ago and I was completely devastated. A friend of mine persuaded me to join the Kilmacolm Dramatic Society. The acting gave me an escape and a good distraction, which made the grieving process a little more bearable. And it opened doors for me to progress to a more professional level. I eventually got the part of DC Lowe in the TV drama, In Plain Sight. I cancelled two holidays to do that. We were all booked up to go to Croatia. I phoned Ana and told her, “I’m not coming on holiday with you!”
I ask if Ana was angry. He looks at me directly and in a rare moment is very serious, “No, she understands.” he said, “When these chances come, you’ve got to grab them.” For all the fun and wonder that shines out of Andy McAlindon, you feel there is also a steely, driven side.
It wasn’t long before the call for Outlander came. For those of you who have not heard of Outlander (where have you been?!) the story begins in post war Britain and follows the character Claire who time travels back to the 1700s, falls in love with Jamie, a young, handsome highland warrior, and becomes embroiled in the romance and adventure of the Jacobite struggle. I asked Andy if he knew how big the series was going to be.
“No idea…but I’d watched a couple of episodes. I loved the atmosphere of the show. I thought it was shot beautifully. I loved the historical aspect to it.”
Despite being left handed, Andy had to train himself to fight right-handed in order to make it through the Outlander bootcamp, which he did with flying colours.
“The anniversary of The Battle of Prestonpans is the 21st of September 1745. That was the same date I was at bootcamp training to fight The Battle of Prestonpans.” Andy tells me excitedly. It’s a strange coincidence, no doubt, but there is something reverent, almost fatalistic about the way Andy speaks about his time on the show and his subsequent career in historical tours. Talking about wearing the costumes on set he says, “It’s like it spoke to me,” and of his tour company, “It’s like a calling!” Like everything Andy says with passion and awe, you can’t help believing him, believing in the magic of it all. And perhaps he was destined to play his part in Outlander and have it change his life. But I know he worked incredibly hard to get it and there seems a burning determination to make things happen.
What was your favourite part or scene to play in Outlander?
“I just loved the fighting scenes. We did the Prestonpans scene and the scene of Jamie’s return from France. And it was tough, you know. You’re away from home, you’re outside in the cold and on your feet all day. It’s physically very demanding. But being part of those scenes, especially the one where Jamie, having just come back from France, comes down to the fields to rally the troops to fight against the Hanoverians. It changed my life. It was moving. It’s going to stay with me forever now. It’s amazing.”
Were there friendships formed out there on the battle ground?
“Absolutely! We bled together! I broke my ribs in season 3! There were five of us. We met in the studio and decided to find shared accommodation up in Crieff. After filming, and you’re often filming 12 hour days, you’d get a quick shower and go to the local pub in Crieff and that is where the friendship was forged. Our group was called The Wolfpack but then Grant (MacGregor) – a geophysicist turned writer – changed the name to Paca – which is Gaelic for ‘the mob’, ‘the pack’.
Paca are a productive bunch and have stayed in contact. Grant has written a screenplay called ‘After Culloden’ for which they are currently looking for funding.
Maybe, like Claire from the series, Andy McAlindon has also become a time traveller. He seems to spend more time in his kilt than out of it.
What is it about the Jacobite era that you love so much?
“The simplicity of it. We’re so consumed by technology these days. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of horrific things in the 18th century like bedbugs and disease but there’s just something romantic about it all…”
The phenomena of Outlander not only reignited an interest in Scottish history but it has contributed to growth of the Scottish Tourist industry. Andy, in a hugely smart move, has combined his passion for the Scottish landscape, the Jacobite era and working knowledge of the show, and formed his own Highlander Tour Company. I asked him why he thought this idea could work.
“After Outlander I decided to buy the gear myself – the kilt, the scabbard, the sporran, and I did my own video in my back garden showing how to wear the plaid. A leading internet entertainment company asked if they could share the video and it got 5.2 million views.” Part of this might have been the fact that at the end of the video, once the kilt is on, he decides to prove his credentials as a true Scotsman! (Yes ladies, he does flash his bottom!)
“I then started meeting fans from all over the world. I joined the Outlander groups on facebook and I became quite well-known. Ana decided it would be a good idea to call myself ‘Andy the Highlander’ and I decided to set up Highlander Tours.”
His company has gone from strength to strength, with bookings well into 2019 already. Andy provides two types of tours – Historical/Outlander and Scenic – but can also design bespoke tours on request. They range from one day to three days and can cater for up to eight people at a time. Whisky toasts, transportation, amazing scenery, costumes and VIP treatment all included! With his charm, passion and knowledge there is little doubt he is an excellent host.
I ask Andy if he reckons he shares certain traits or characteristics with the 18th Century Jacobite soldiers.
“The clan system was quite harsh. It was brutal. And the different clans fought each other and had violent disputes… but I think in the end they were honourable men and maybe I share that!” And it’s really hard to disagree!