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How Outlander's Time Travel Works

 Sam heughan and caitriona balfe on outlander season 1.
Sam heughan and caitriona balfe on outlander season 1.

Outlander wrapped up the first half of Season 7 way back in August 2023, and fans are still waiting to find out when and how Jemmy will be rescued from Rob Cameron, who took the lad back into the 18th century, hoping he could lead him to the hidden Jacobite gold. We still don’t know when the drama will return for the second part of the penultimate season, and with there being a big timeline-specific cliffhanger dangling before us, now seems like a good time to dig into the reason we have this whole Fraser family adventure in the first place: time travel.

If you’re still fuzzy on how time travel works in Outlander, or you’re just now starting the series via your Netflix subscription and want to get a jump on understanding the crucial elements of time travel for the historical drama, you’ve come to the right place. The show has dropped plenty of tidbits about how the process works and its effects, so let’s dig into it!

claire touching a standing stone to time travel in outlander's pilot
claire touching a standing stone to time travel in outlander's pilot

You Need A Time Travel Location With A Portal

First and foremost, there is no saying to oneself “I want to go back to 1778 now,” and then magically being transported to the desired year. What you need to find is one of the established locations that can open a portal for such time hopping adventures.

At first, it seemed that only the ancient stone circle at Craigh na Dun in Scotland (which transported Claire by accident at the beginning of Outlander Season 1) was able to open portals through time. We’ve slowly been introduced to additional locations that make it possible, however, with the Abandawe cave in Jamaica being introduced as one in Season 3, and the stone circle on North Carolina’s Ocracoke island being another.

And, Bree seems to have accidentally stumbled upon another while she was at work in a tunnel under Loch Errenty, as she heard the distinctive buzzing sound that accompanies a portal. She had to pass through what I’ll call the "time barrier" in that tunnel, but wasn’t sent back in time, which might mean that because she wanted to stay in the current time, she did. Basically, you need to be in the know to time travel on purpose, which leads to our next point.

Outlander's Sophie Skelton and Richard Rankin as Brianna and Roger
Outlander's Sophie Skelton and Richard Rankin as Brianna and Roger

It Helps A Lot If You Have A Natural Propensity For Time Traveling

Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels have gone into more detail about this than the show, but time traveling isn’t an easy process for anyone and you can’t do it all the time and not be affected by it. As such, it’s been revealed that some people seem to have sort of a time travel gene that allows it to be a bit easier on them physically and mentally.

This trait appears to be inherited, as many of the people who time travel on the romantic period drama are related to one another. Bree, for instance, is Claire’s daughter and can make it through safely. Her husband, Roger, is a descendant of notorious time-traveler Geillis Duncan, so he can do it, as can his children with Bree (Jemmy and Mandy), and the same goes for Buck MacKenzie, who’s Geillis’ son and another of Roger’s ancestors.

Though we haven’t gotten a full record of fellow time traveler Wendigo Donner’s relatives and whether or not they tripped through time, it’s a very safe bet that they at least could have, even if they never happened upon a portal.

Outlander Flora MacDonald
Outlander Flora MacDonald

If You Don’t Have The Gene, Carrying A Precious Gem Makes Things Easier

There’s been a lot made over the years of those who time travel needing a precious gem to make it across time safely, whether they’re going backwards or forwards to return to their own time. Geillis certainly believed she needed one (along with a blood sacrifice of some kind and fire), and most time travel on the series has been helped along by it, but when Claire first went back to the 1700s, she didn’t have any gems on her. In fact, we’ve never seen her worry about carrying gemstones at all, even after she found out that Geillis felt she needed them.

The reason why Claire was able to get back and forth without numerous ill effects is still up in the air, but it may simply be because she has the gene for it, or the jewelry she was wearing (a gold watch and her gold wedding band from first husband Frank) might also offer some protection, as discussed by Gabaldon herself when writing about the rules of time travel in her universe. But, considering that people have absolutely died while making the attempt, it’s safest to assume that having a gem or two on your person while time traveling is a must.

jamie on the battlefield at culloden in outlander
jamie on the battlefield at culloden in outlander

Whatever You Do In The Past Won’t Change Major Events As Recorded

There have been plenty of movies/shows that have time travel as a basis for plots or the action therein, and a standard bedrock of the rules tends to be that everyone traveling back in time needs to be super careful, because pretty much everything they do while there can dramatically alter the future as they once knew it. This, however, is not true for Outlander.

After Claire, Jamie and Murtagh’s many attempts to stop the Jacobite uprising during Season 2, it was all for naught, leading to the Battle of Culloden and everything major that happened there still going exactly as written in the history books by the Season 3 finale.

Now, this does not mean that smaller things won’t change. As soon as Claire got thrown back in time she started changing things accidentally just by interacting with dozens of people she hadn’t before, but none of those smaller events changed the big things. So, going back in time to try and kill baby Hitler? Not gonna work in the world of Outlander.

buck mackenzie on outlander
buck mackenzie on outlander

People From The Past Can Travel To The Future

This is the last point, because the revelation was a pretty big one. Until recently, no one whose timeline originated in the 18th century (or before that) had been seen or even rumored to go flying into the future via stone circle, cave, or any other means.

That all changed with Season 7, Episode 6 when it was revealed that Buck MacKenzie was the one secretly hanging around Lallybroch in the 1980s and causing mild trouble for the newly-returned-to-their-own-time Bree, Roger and their kids.

Gabaldon has stated clearly that Jamie can’t time travel, which pretty naturally led many fans to assume it was because folks from the past couldn’t jump forward to the far future, especially since we’d never heard of anyone from the olden times doing so. It seems, though, that his inability to hang out in the ‘80s with his 20th century family is probably more about him simply not having the gene.

It’s important to remember that a lot of whatever time travel facts there may be in the world of Outlander haven’t been totally spelled out. What we know has come from what information the characters have been able to piece together about their experiences and those of other time travelers, so our knowledge of how it works could definitely change in the second half of Season 7, or whenever we can watch Season 8, which will see Outlander’s series finale.