By Sam Heughan
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"I had to believe, because frankly, I had come so far there could be no turning back."
In this intimate journey of self-discovery, Sam sets out along Scotland's rugged ninety-six-mile West Highland Way to map out the moments that shaped his views on dreams and ambition, family, friendship, love, and life. The result is a love letter to the wild landscape that means so much to him, full of charming, funny, wise, and searching insights into the world through his eyes.
Waypoints is a deeply personal journey that reveals as much about Sam to himself as it does to his readers.
Sam walks into the room. The first thing I notice about him is how open his face is. Nervous, I guess, and alert, but open to the world, trusting. The formality and potential stress of the encounter – a director auditioning an actor for their first professional theatre role – has not dimmed his eyes or upset his equilibrium. It’s not always like this. The audition process can be grim for all concerned, but more especially for the actor (Sam testifies to this a number of times in the pages of this book), and they naturally withhold a part of themselves out of, well, self-preservation, I suppose. But Sam isn’t wearing armour today, only a cloak of silent charm.
It’s late spring of 2002, and Sam is still a student at drama school. The play is Outlying Islands by David Greig for the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, to be performed at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer of that year. The role is John, a young Scottish ornithologist in the 1930s from a background of privilege. Sam opens the script at the page I suggest and speaks the lines. He gets it right first time. He doesn’t try too hard, the classic rookie error. Instead, he marks all of John’s qualities; shy, tentative, easy-natured, loyal, right-minded – a gentleman, a gentle man. To me, Sam is John, and that’s it. I don’t think I’ve ever told him this, but we never auditioned anyone else for the part.
When he leaves the room, I do a private little punch in the air. Not only have we got our John, but this guy doesn’t seem to have any idea how good he is.
I think it’s fair to say that Outlying Islands was a success – it won awards, transferred to London, and toured internationally. (You can imagine how much hilarity ensued when it featured in the Daily Telegraph’s ‘Top Five Theatrical Sex Scenes’ of all time.) But equally it might have proved a disorientating and unrealistic beginning to any young actor’s career. Waypoints outlines, fascinatingly but often in painfully explicit detail, the snakes and ladders of an actor’s working life. I’ve always flattered myself that I’ve kept in touch with what Sam has been up to over the years, but now I realize I haven’t known the half of it.
Sam’s journal of his trek along the West Highland Way and its daily challenges reads as a parable of the longer journey to become the leading actor that he is today. It’s an unusual privilege to get this much detail and insight into what creates an actor in the first place, and then follow them as they negotiate the shark-infested waters of the theatre and film industries. The more difficult the challenge, the higher our lone ranger rises to it. This applies whether he’s describing a reckless yomp up Conic Hill by Loch Lomond in the gloaming, or the experience of filming the formidable, torturous scenes (scenes that still haunt me) at the end of Outlander season one. The story of his journey is so immediate, so resonant, we walk it with him in our heads, in rain and shine (more rain than shine). And we marvel at how often the landscape of Scotland looks like the ups and downs of Sam’s life, as an actor but also just as a man.
What do I learn about Sam that I didn’t know twenty years ago when we first met? That he is fiercely loyal, disarmingly self-critical, questing by nature – yes, even when he’s not entirely sure what the quest is for – and above all, determined never to be someone who lets other people down.
Outlying Islands is set on an unnamed Scottish island that we learn during the course of the play is the intended location for the Ministry of Defence’s experiment with a new breed of biological weapon, one that will destroy the island’s ecology. As part of our research for the production, four of us in the company decide to go on an expedition to North Rona, an island that matches the level of remoteness that the playwright has in mind. North Rona lies approximately 40 miles further north than the northernmost point of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, and the only way of getting there in 2002 is with an extreme sports adventure company. And, so it is that Sam – the ‘lad o’ pairts’ from Galloway – finds himself strapped to a RIB (rigid inflatable boat: think dodgem car riding the tops of the waves) in the middle of the North Atlantic, with squalls chasing the rainclouds, plunging of gannets, and sudden shafts of piercing light as at a rock concert.
In the middle of this tiny deserted island (North Rona gives St Kilda a run for her money in terms of sheer stubborn remoteness) lies the ruined chapel of the 8th-century St Ronan and his adjacent hermit’s cell. Sam eyes up the saint’s accommodation and looks satisfied. I hope he doesn’t think we’re staying here. He grins, and we both laugh. But now that I’ve read Waypoints – in which Sam tells us ‘I like to occupy that outside edge’ (here) – I look back and think he might have seriously entertained the prospect. Sam Heughan: Lowlander by birth, Highlander by inclination. And now islander?
The skipper herds us back to the RIB earlier than we hoped, appearing genuinely concerned about the forecast for our two-and-a-half-hour trip back to the Butt of Lewis. And so it proves: the reality of the return journey distorts the memory of the outward as a breeze. Now each wave slaps the vessel back down on the water with bone-jangling force. Despite being lassoed (or so it feels) to our saddle-like seats, we cling on for dear life. And – you’ve guessed right – Sam is the only one of us without fear. He shouts, he screams, he cheers. This is his natural environment.
British Columbia, Canada
I have come a long way to be here. The cabin sits at the edge of the wood. Constructed from hand-split logs and timbers, it’s partially hidden by tall, majestic trees and dense foliage. Upon reaching the door, I look around and realize it has an inspiring, beautiful view of the valley and mountains beyond.
This is a good place to live, I think to myself. I can understand why someone would want to settle in such a remote, secluded spot. It’s my kind of home.
The cooking area is outside, spread out under an extended porch. A row of saucepans and a colander dangle from hooks fixed to the exterior wall. A large knife rests across a butcher’s block, while onions and chillies hang from strings to dry in the sun and intensify in flavour. In front of this area, dappled by sunlight, a large bench table suggests our host is someone who enjoys preparing food for others. I picture a group of friends on each side of the table, swigging from bottles of beer as they laugh and joke and swat at midges. At the threshold to the cabin now, I allow my gaze to linger on what could be a stage set for an open-air theatre production. It suggests a life very different from mine. There’s a hesitancy on my part to step inside.
‘Let’s do it,’ says my older brother, Cirdan, who has accompanied me on this journey.
We are here by invitation of the woman who has stepped inside before us. She met my brother and me at the airport, and shared the driving overnight in the car we’d rented for our stay. Neither Cirdan nor I know her beyond a few telephone conversations. She’s a very nice lady – in her sixties, I would say – and yet an air of quiet formality governs how we relate to each other.
‘Come in,’ she says, on realizing we are still on the porch.
I feel my brother gently press a hand to my back.
Inside, out of the sunshine, I am greeted by the smell of woodsmoke, tobacco and coffee grounds. I wonder if I detect a hint of weed as well, but now is not the time to comment on it or even swap a look with Cirdan. As our host closes the door behind us, I let my eyes adjust to the interior. There appears to be just one main living area, plus a wooden staircase leading to a bedroom and bathroom. Looking around, my first impression is of a comfortable, cosy, if notably basic, space.
Books line the shelves in no particular order, their spines fractured in a way that tells me the owner is a passionate reader. A desk stands in the corner. Whoever sits there likes to work by candlelight. I find myself looking at a sprawl of sketches and lists in hurried handwriting. Sifting through the sheets with my fingertips, I find an astrological chart spread out underneath. Ashes sit in the cradle of an open fire, and also dust the hearth. With a crackling blaze on the go, I imagine this is the kind of place that brings respite from the outside world. The worn upholstered armchair suggests it’s a been home for quite some time. A place to finally come to rest, I think, which reminds me of the purpose of our visit.
As our host leaves us for a moment to pad upstairs, I am struck by the fact that we are surrounded by the markers of a lifetime. My brother seems to sense this as well. He looks up and around, arms clasped behind his back like a museum visitor. A model aeroplane hangs from a length of fishing line in front of a window. With three wings in glossy vermilion, this First World War-era aircraft is caught in a barrel roll as if preparing to attack. Immediately I recognize the Red Baron, a character who fascinated me as a child. Someone once told me that the owner of this particular model loved to fly. The plane has been both crafted and painted by hand. The detailing is impressive, and reminds me that a creative urge can take people in very different directions.
I move a little closer to the shelves, interested in what titles I might find, only to register not a book but a DVD that’s all too familiar to me. I pinch it free with my thumb and forefinger, though I know exactly what the cover looks like because I play one of the characters in this movie. Without a word, I show the case to my brother. He raises his eyebrows in what could be surprise that it’s here at all, or confirmation of something we should’ve expected all along.
I return the tape to the shelf, mindful now that the owner has been following my journey from afar, before running my finger along the books beside it. I don’t have to go far to find a library copy of the first title in a series that’s about to be adapted for television. I’ve read them all, as I’m about to star in the show. I pull out the tome just to check it’s not overdue. Judging by the date, it’s a recent selection. Then I wonder if the person who withdrew it from the library will have time to read it, and try hard not to feel sad. It’s an odd take on a familiar emotion. There is little weight to it, as if it’s just a prompt for how I should be responding, rather than the real thing.
I go on to pick up clay models of hobbit dwellings and a felt wizard’s hat with a floppy fringe. Each item defines a point on a journey through life; from the old cigarette lighter to what must be a favourite mug. Collectively they should lead me to the person who lives here. I’m just not sure if what I find will match my expectations. All I really have are vague early memories and a handful of second-hand stories, but if I’m honest, over the passage of time I just haven’t given it much thought. Until now.
The sound of footsteps descending the stairs prompts me to step back, turn and smile politely.
‘Your father isn’t feeling well enough to see you just now,’ she says apologetically. ‘We can come back later.’
Glasgow, Scotland, (almost) a decade later
‘I’ve got to go!’ From my bed, I sit upright so forcefully that the duvet lifts and crumples at my feet. ‘I’ve got to do this… NOW!’
I’m not talking to anyone but myself here. In fact, I’m alone at home. I’ve only been back for a few days. After months away due to a bunch of filming commitments, as well as promotional work and business projects, I should be content with lying still. In just the last four weeks, I’ve hurried through departure and arrival zones in airports from Mexico to LA, New York and Chicago. Not that it’s a chore. I love being busy. But by rights I should be happy loafing around in my sweat pants doing absolutely nothing. Instead, thanks to jet lag and a little hangover from a date with my whisky collection the night before, I can’t stop my mind from roaming.
‘I could just do it,’ I reason with myself, as if I know the rational part of my mind needs to get on board with the plan. ‘Couldn’t I?’
Since I unlocked the front door and dumped my bags in the hall, I’ve found myself aimlessly killing time. I feel restless. I can’t sleep at night, only to doze through the day. Frankly it feels like I’ve forgotten how to live without a work schedule. All I’ve been doing is drifting from one room to another as if reminding myself that I actually live here. Mealtimes have merged into snacking sessions. I’ve experimented with porridge toppings, though nothing beats frozen blueberries, peanut butter and a pinch of cinnamon, and dared the salt and pepper pots to judge me for enjoying eggs with ketchup and hot sauce. A wee trip to the gym towards teatime has been my sole reason for getting dressed – albeit in a random collection of clothing, spring meets autumn/winter collection, circa 2009. After that, I tune in to reruns of Back to the Future and low-budget police chase documentaries. What should be quality downtime just feels like one dull blur. SsssssccccccCCCCCCrrrrrrrackKK! The new coffee machine I’ve struggled to learn how to use finishes dispensing some spectacular atomic black liquid into my favourite porcelain mug. Two cups are enough to get me out of bed. Three would be ideal.
I’m annoyed at myself because I’d been looking forward to this break immensely. I considered myself fortunate in that I was in an industry that had found a way to function through yet another pandemic year. The whole world had been affected, and we were no different. Shooting films and television had become potentially limiting in lots of ways, but I was so grateful to be in one of a few sectors able to continue. Now I had a break, and yet I found myself struggling to rest for more than a day. I’m not hyperactive, I crave down time, but I feel guilty if I’m not grafting and pushing myself in some capacity.
During this last year, we finally managed to shoot season six of Outlander. It was shorter, but more intense and with a darker tone. In my role as the Highland warrior Jamie Fraser, the cast and crew have become like family to me since the show first went into production in 2013. Even though this latest season contained just eight episodes, it proved to be one of the hardest. With the new guidelines and restrictions in our lives, we pulled together like never before to make it something special. It had left me feeling exhausted and looking forward to this short break.
Our base for the production of Outlander is Wardpark Film & Television Studios, which is north-east of Glasgow in Lanarkshire. We had to operate in a bubble, and saw very few people outside it. On the first day of filming, which fell in the teeth of a traditional Scottish winter, I found myself in the company of my faithful and ever reliant driver, Davie Stewart. Davie’s nickname is ‘Hollywood’, because he’s chauffeured big stars in his time. I like to think he considers me to be an ordinary fare, because he’s always relaxed and great company on our rides. We share a passion for bad techno music, and a Friday night in the car home can be pretty wild. Despite my fluid approach to call times, I can guarantee that he’ll always get me there on schedule.
That morning, even though I had been uncharacteristically ready and waiting for him, we were cutting things fine on account of the snow. It dusted the landscape, crowning the Campsie Fells as we made our way along the M80 to Cumbernauld, but slowed us down considerably by tumbling across the road in flurries. Fortunately, the traffic was light. This wasn’t just down to the weather conditions, but also the fact that the world had pretty much stopped turning since the virus had set in. We took the empty roads for granted now, and while Davie focused on driving, I dwelled on how the pandemic had touched every aspect of our lives. Quite literally, there was no escape from it. I had only just returned to Scotland, having finished work on a movie called It’s All Coming Back to Me, with Celine Dion and Priyanka Chopra. With social distancing measures in place throughout the shoot, it had been challenging. They had implemented some rather strict rules during the prep period: 25 minutes max spent together in the same room, masks worn at all times, and so on. I felt it important to create a sense of intimacy with Priyanka as we were supposed to be starstruck lovers, so the two of us and the director made sure we spent some time together socially. In some ways the restrictions forced us to raise our game in order to deliver our best work. Mindful of this as we swished through the slush and melting snow surrounding the gates at Wardpark, I sensed fresh challenges ahead.
‘All I need is some kit.’ I am out of bed now and pacing the floor as I think out loud. ‘A tent… waterproofs… boots… crampons?’ I pause for a moment, aware that even though I don’t know the answer, I will need to start from scratch, and then dismiss it as a minor concern. ‘I can sort all that,’ I decide, even if I’m not entirely sure what else should be on the list.
Yes, I am acting on the spur of the moment. It’s an impulsive move, but the adventure I have in mind hasn’t just popped into my head. During a location shoot for Outlander, in the final week of the schedule, we trekked out from the studio to Glencoe. This magnificent Highlands destination is home to peaks, valleys (or glens), trails and waterfalls. It’s also an iconic location in cinema, tailor-made for wide screens, with pivotal scenes filmed here for Skyfall and the Harry Potter films. In what had been a hard winter, the landscape looked both serene and savage. Whenever I was away from the camera, I’d find myself drawn to just gazing out at the views. Standing there in Jamie’s tattered rags and ill-fitting boots, shooting a flashback sequence from Ardsmuir prison (season three), I’d breathe in the crisp, still air and long to lose myself in this vast, glorious wilderness. Much of my passion for Outlander stemmed from the fact that the story went deep into Scotland’s history of the struggles and triumphs of the Highlanders. It’s an honour to play Jamie, a fierce, loyal, strong and stubborn braveheart, and yet I’d never truly explored what was effectively his homeland.
So on the last day of the shoot, I arranged with another actor who shared my love of running to get up long before our call time and lace on a pair of trail shoes. The cold air woke me as we jogged towards the Buachaille Etive Mòr (The Great Herdsman of Etive), the iconic, imposing mountain that protected the glen. We were following a path well travelled by hikers and backpackers; an iconic walking route called the West Highland Way. This broad thread cut across the landscape, snaking around foothills, disappearing into dips and cresting folds. It drew my eye as far as I could see.
‘Glasgow to Fort William,’ Jack, my running companion, said, as if inviting me to consider the sheer length of the route. ‘What’s that? About 100 miles?’
‘It’s a long way,’ I offered, my brain still asleep under the tartan covers back at the hotel. I was unsure of the exact distance but aware that we were briefly following a path that formed a gateway to rugged, elemental country. ‘I think it starts close to where I live,’ I added.
‘Wow.’ My companion glanced across at me, barely out of breath. ‘It must be an amazing adventure.’
I didn’t reply. We were beginning to find our stride, but mostly I focused on my feet because I was reluctant to reel off all the excuses as to why I wouldn’t know. The West Highland Way was one of those things on my to-do list. I’d just never got round to ticking it off. It was on my doorstep, quite literally, and yet I always seemed to be too busy to do anything about it. Ironically, I loved being outdoors. I had even founded a charity dedicated to encouraging people to take on challenges and enjoy happy, healthy lives – and yet here I was, too embarrassed to admit that I had yet to walk one of my country’s great trails.
Plodding along as the sky brightened at the edges, we passed a camper van parked alongside the path. The curtains were closed. Beside the vehicle, just away from the awning, the remnants of a campfire surrounded by folding chairs and tin cups reminded me why my head was only just clearing. The van belonged to Wendy, a fellow Scot and my wonderful make-up artist, who preferred her mobile creature comforts to the hotel occupied by cast and crew. Wendy had dragged her husband along for the trip. The night before, they had invited some of us to join them for a drink. We had gathered around the warmth from the fire, eating posh Fortnum & Mason biscuits, drinking whisky, petting her two overweight chihuahuas and sharing stories from the shoot and beyond, her infectious laugh regularly piercing the crisp evening air.
Wendy was a marvellous host, with a great sense of humour. I was tempted to bang on the side of her van to wake her. As much as I liked to make mischief, though, especially as we were effectively on our last day of term, it was still very early. Plus I didn’t think my running buddy needed to learn from Wendy’s vast lexicon of Glaswegian swear words. I could imagine the response: ‘Gonnae no dae that! Yer aff yer heid, runnin’ at this time, ya bawbag.’ So we passed the van quietly and pressed on with the loop we had planned. Leaving the path, we descended across moorland to the River Etive. The banks of this fast-flowing waterway were boggy and somewhat challenging underfoot, but it felt so good to just get out and switch off and feel a little free. This was the last day of the hardest season of shooting. My heart lifted and I felt excited to escape the COVID protocols and the tough schedule that had dictated the days, weeks and months of the shoot.
By the time we arrived back at the hotel, I had just enough time for a shower before rushing out to find ‘Hollywood’ waiting for me behind the wheel of his car.
‘Cutting it fine again,’ he said jokingly.
Even with the mud from the riverbank still fresh on my running shoes, I wondered whether he assumed I’d just been sleeping in.
‘Always,’ I said all the same.
The final day of the production was no less intense than any other. The last scene we had to film would be the one that opened the season. We had actually shot it in the studio six months previously, but the producers thought it wasn’t dramatic enough, and decided it needed this epic location to kick the season off. Acting can be a topsy-turvy experience in this way, and so as I set off back to Glasgow on my motorbike, I was looking forward to some normality returning to my life. I could unwind at home, I thought to myself on the long journey back to the city. With no other work commitments for a week, I planned to simply sit back and do nothing. I decided to celebrate my new freedom and took the longer route home, through Stirling and past Loch Lubnaig, a stunningly beautiful loch near Ben Ledi and the secret location of Fraser’s Ridge and ‘the Big House’. I gave it a wave as I passed. ‘See you next season!’ I shouted from under my retro motorcycle helmet.
‘It’s only ninety-six miles,’ I say to myself on consulting a map of the West Highland Way on my laptop screen from bed. Just then, it feels as if the absence of those four extra miles I expected to find makes all the difference. In front of me, I study a line that crosses and follows contours on a journey north from my home city to a town at the foot of Ben Nevis; a mountain I have always longed to climb. Ever since my running friend and I set foot on this celebrated path, I have not been able to forget about it. It felt like I had sampled a couple of hundred metres, and now I want to experience every moment from start to finish. And to climb Ben Nevis at the end – what a challenge!
Established over 40 years ago, the route is intended for people to immerse themselves in the Scottish landscape. Beginning in Milngavie, a northern suburb of Glasgow, it follows the eastern flank of Loch Lomond for nearly 30 miles. From there, it strikes out across the glens towards Inverarnan and Tyndrum, Kingshouse and Kinlochleven. The route cuts across increasingly wild and wonderful terrain before climbing to the rise that reveals the magnificent peak of the UK’s highest mountain.
Scribbling on a scrap of paper, I attempt to calculate how much time it would take me to reach the finish at Fort William. I am in good shape physically, thanks to my passion for working out and the occasional run, and also blindly optimistic (or naïve).
‘Easy. Five days,’ I conclude, having figured that 20 miles each day would be a breeze. ‘It’s on.’
I only have a short time available, but it’s just enough. If I parked the idea, I don’t know when such an opportunity might arise again. In that moment, as I close the laptop, it doesn’t feel like a rash decision. It’s destiny, pure and simple. With two days in hand, which is enough to get home again by train and prepare for my next work commitment, I could smash it.
Partly inspired by Wendy’s charmingly boujee, nomadic lifestyle, I figure camping would be the most efficient and fitting way to travel. I could pitch a tent as the sun went down, cook my supper over an open fire, and then turn in under canvas beneath the stars. I hadn’t properly camped since my cub scout days (I just loved collecting the badges), apart from a gruesomely muddy experience at T in the Park, Scotland’s traditionally waterlogged music festival. This would be different, I decided. It would be the real deal.
- "A pleasure for fans of the author, whisky, and Scotland."—Kirkus
- “As the title suggests, Waypoints is a rewarding mix of markers, both personal as he reflects on his life and geographical as he leads the reader along the West Highland Way.”—The Scotsman
- “A deeply personal and warmly entertaining memoir that fans of Sam - and Scotland - will have a joyful time devouring.”—Heat
- “From both his walk and his career, the common lesson is the power of persistence.”—The Times (London)
- "Spirited and heartwarming"—booktrib.com
- "With disarming asides and humorous accents, Heughan's narration reveals the fun-loving yet thoughtful man behind his acting roles…Bookended by scenes with Heughan’s estranged father, Waypoints is a companionable and inspiring memoir that encourages soul-searching and mindfulness.”—Bookpage
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages