Outlander fans will be very familiar with antagonist Geillis Duncan, who served as the primary villain for the third season of the series. However, many may be unaware that she was inspired by a real individual.
In Outlander, Geillis is a time-traveller who kills her husband in the 20th century in order to travel back to the 1700s in an effort to change the course of Scotland’s history. She meets protagonist and fellow time-traveller Claire Fraser in the first season, where the two bond over their shared interest in herbs.
It is not until the season’s 11th episode, when they are both on trial for being witches, that Claire discovers Geillis’ true identity after seeing her smallpox vaccination scar. She saves Claire’s life and is sentenced to death – though is eventually able to escape.
Geillis reappears in the show’s second season, when Claire encounters her the very same day she originally travels back in time, but it is not until the third season that she gets a starring role. Here, she takes part in acts such as murder and kidnapping in her zealous efforts to get a Scot on the throne and regain Scottish independence.
While aspects of Geillis’ character were invented by author Diana Gabaldon for the fantasy series, Geillis Duncan was in fact a real person who lived in the 1500s. She was a teenage maidservant who, like her fictional counterpart, was accused of witchcraft.
She worked for bailiff David Seton, who was a prominent figure in the 16th century North Berwick Witch Trials. He accused her of witchcraft due to her ability to heal those with seemingly-incurable ailments.
Additionally, she reportedly drew suspicion for her habit of wandering out in the middle of the night. Soon after, Seton began interrogating and torturing his maidservant in an effort to get a confession out of her.
During this process, a mark was found on Geillis’ neck that her interrogators called “the Devil’s mark”. This only furthered Seton’s suspicions.
Geillis ultimately confessed to witchcraft. It was not uncommon for women at the time to make false confessions due to being violently manipulated into doing so.
After this, she was forced to reveal the names of other ‘witches’, and was sent to the Old Tolbooth prison in Edinburgh. Geillis was later executed at Castlehill in Edinburgh despite attempts to retract her confession.
While the Outlander character was not directly based on Geillis Duncan, according to Diana Gabaldon. The villain – born with the name Gillian in the 20th century – would have been aware of Geillis Duncan due to her interest in witchcraft and therefore took on her name when she travelled back in time.