Graham McTavish: Gaelic – It’s in my DNA

It’s been a month since more than 300 Outlander fans flocked to the Thru the Stones conference in Davenport, Iowa, where super-fan Debbie Ford set up a day and a half of activities complemented by a Meet & Greet with Diana Gabaldon and Graham McTavish.

Graham and Diana at the Thru the Stones conference (12/6/2014)
Graham and Diana at the Thru the Stones conference (12/6/2014)

I had the opportunity to sit with Graham for a quick chat before he left the conference; here is the second part of that interview:

O: If you, Graham, not Dougal, could pass through the stones, which era would you travel to and what would you bring with you?

Graham: The Elizabethan period, for me, because I would love to meet Shakespeare, I would love to attend one of the original productions of his plays and I think it is such an interesting time, such a revolutionary time in many ways, the court of Elizabeth (the first).  I think would have been wonderful.

What would I have brought with me…I would bring penicillin, definitely. Medicine.  In all reality, if someone from the 20th century went back to the 18th century, they would probably be dead, be dead within a couple of weeks just from the diseases they would get, that they wouldn’t be immune to, and they’d exposed to stuff I can’t imagine.

Now all these surfaces are cleaned (gestures at the table) constantly, everything is clean, I mean, this would be just filth, but then in some ways, you could argue, that people would develop very strong immune systems.  My mother used to say that that you should eat a peck of dirt before you die.  And a peck – I don’t know if you know a “peck”… it’s a pretty big measurement, and that’s a lot of dirt to eat in a lifetime.  She believed and her parents believed you should eat and have dirt in your diet because it keeps you healthy.

O: You spoke a lot about art last night (at TTS) and Van Gogh. What inspired you to become interested in visual art rather than performing art?

Graham: I always drew and painted, all my life, and it’s something I enjoy doing, enjoy having around me. I find it very therapeutic, but in this specific instance of Vincent, I came across that quite by accident really. My friend and I were looking for a two-man show to perform, and we bumped into a lady at Covent Garden, who was a work colleague of my friend, and she said that she’d seen a Dutch actor perform a one man show, ten years previously, about Vincent Van Gogh. She said it was absolutely fantastic, based on letters. I’d never read any of the letters, I obviously knew who he was, and I don’t know why, I mean normally, under normal circumstances, I would have just gone to the pub after that conversation. This time I went straight to the bookshop and got a copy of those letters, they happened to be there.

Collage image from Google.
Collage image from Google

Sometimes you do think that things are not planned exactly, but they are made a little easier than you would expect.  I’ve gone into a lot of bookshops since and I’ve never seen copies of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters, and there they were, waiting. I got it, read it, it was amazing, and sat down and started writing it.  So many people love Vincent because he represents the quintessential artist, because prior to him, if you were a painter, you made a good living.  You didn’t do it to not make money; you would have patrons, be commissioned, do biblical studies, you had a good life.  The idea of leading an uncompromising artistic existence that flew in the face of popular conceptions of what art should be – it’s unbelievable that so many people would look at what he did and say that it’s rubbish and should literally be thrown away.  Yet he still continued (to paint). I think that speaks to a lot of people and inspires them.

O: It’s a character strength for him, that he would keep going?

Graham: He painted over 600 paintings and sold only one in his entire lifetime.  Everything else [sold after his death], everything else.  I think he would have thought it was amazing, but he expected it.  One of the reasons he signed his paintings “Vincent” was because he believed that one day people would know him by his first name. He totally believed that he would be famous, and he was right.

O: You talked a lot about your father last night, really wonderful stories. Has there been any particular instance during the filming of Outlander that has brought on memories and what would those be?

Graham: Yes, my dad, he is always with me, especially when I’m in Scotland, and playing a character like Dougal.  You know, Dougal is a very Scottish – I know it sounds obvious – but he is a very Scottish man, and there are lots of people like Dougal; plain speaking, which my father was, passionate, loyal, all of those qualities. I often think of him when I’m playing Dougal, and when I was playing Dwalin in “The Hobbit.”  I think there are parallels I could draw between those two characters, not just their accent. A lot of people would look at Dougal and see duplicity and other things, but he wouldn’t see it that way, and I think that’s interesting. I don’t think he sees himself as duplicitous, I think he sees himself as practical, and pragmatic and realistic, and so he acts accordingly and yes, my father is a great inspiration to me. It’s a sadness to me that he never saw this show; he would have really loved it.

O: This question is from Lisa Branford of Outlander Ambassador: You have learned some Gaelic for the show, has that inspired you to learn and become more fluent as part of your great great-great-grandparents’ heritage?

Graham: Yes, yes, it has. It’s something that I would love to learn, because, I guess it’s in my DNA.  When I was doing it with Àdhamh (Gaelic consultant), it does stir something in you, it’s strange.  I was quite surprised at that, actually, you start to hear the sounds that your family would have made for most of the history of my family. Speaking English is a relatively modern part of our history.  To go back to that, where it’s also becoming a lot more fashionable (Gaelic), in Scotland: Gaelic schools, Gaelic bars, Gaelic restaurants, and certainly, when I was in Scotland in the 80s, Gaelic was almost a dead language.  It’s had a huge resurgence.

Thank you Graham for your time, and to the fans who haven’t seen “The Hobbit” – you won’t be disappointed!

Want to learn a little more about topics that interest Graham?  Here are some of my picks:

The Elizabethan Era

Van Gogh Museum/Van Gogh Letters

My recording of Elizabethan era music by The Flying Monkeys, featuring a piccolo and the hurdy gurdy (only a minute long).

Photo is a screenshot taken from a short video by Starz.
Graham McTavish and myself, Spreckels Theatre. Photo is a screenshot taken from a short video by Starz.