People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.
While on her honeymoon, WWII combat nurse Claire Randall is mysteriously transported back to 1743 Scotland, where she is kidnapped by a group of Highlanders – and meets an injured young man named Jamie.
The following contains plot spoilers – read at your own risk.
On a Tuesday afternoon, six months after World War II, Claire Randall, former combat nurse, is wandering around the Scottish Highlands town of Inverness and reflecting on her life. She and her husband, Frank Randall, have journeyed to Scotland for a second honeymoon. It is their chance to reconnect with each other after being separated by the war, she in France and he stationed in London at MI6, where he was responsible for sending spies behind enemy lines, even though they rarely returned.
Upon their arrival in Scotland, Claire and Frank notice blood on the doorway of the bed and breakfast they're staying at and that there is also blood on the other homes in the street. They joke about pagan rituals and Frank says there is no place on Earth with more magic and superstition than in the Scottish Highlands. Their landlady, Mrs. Baird, tells them the blood is from a Black Cockerel and is an old custom that time of year to honor Saint Odhran. Frank tells of the saint's sacrifice and Mrs. Baird is impressed with his knowledge of history. Claire proudly tells her Frank is a historian and he will start working at Oxford in two weeks. Mrs. Baird says they have come in time for the Samhain festival and she warns them of ghosts wandering about.
Claire recalls that in the past five years, she and Frank have only seen each other ten times. They thought things would return to how they had been, but they hadn't. Frank jokes that the squeaky bed in their room won't do much for their marital privacy and Claire begins playfully jumping on the bed and encourages Frank to join her. She tells him she tried many times during the war to remember his laugh, but couldn't. Frank tells her he used to doodle the lines of her hand all the time, once getting in trouble for doing it in the margin of an official report.
The next day, they take a drive through the Highlands. Frank points out Cocknammon Rock, a mountain formation that resembles a rooster's tail. Frank says that in the 17th and 18th centuries, the British used the high ground to wait in ambush for Scottish rebels and brigands. Claire reflects that she doesn't mind Frank's passion for history. She was raised by her uncle Lamb, an archaeologist who took her with him though various dusty ruins and excavations around the world, living in primitive conditions and doing things not suitable for a lady of gentle birth.
Frank and Claire visit the ruins of Castle Leoch as part of his research into his personal genealogy, another of his passions while hers is currently botany, especially the use of plants and herbs for medicinal purposes. Frank tells Claire that Castle Leoch was the ancestral home of the MacKenzie clan through to the 18th century. As they explore the ruins, Claire reflects that Frank's interest in the past is his way of dealing with the horrors of the war and of the men he sent away to die.
In an inner room of the castle, they speculate what the room's purpose was. Claire jokes it must have been the castle's hermit's or a troll's. Feeling amorous, Claire entices Frank and they make love in the room.
At the manse of the Reverend Reginald Wakefield, Frank and the reverend are researching Frank's ancestor Jonathan Randall, a captain of the royal dragoons. Frank says Randall had the dashing nickname of Black Jack, probably acquired while he was assigned to the Highlands in the 1740s. The reverend reveals that Captain Randall was assigned as the garrison commander at Fort William and spent those four years harassing the Scottish countryside on behalf of the crown. Frank says the English were very unpopular throughout the 17th and 18th centuries and Claire wryly points out that it would seem to be the case well into the 20th as she overheard someone in the pub the night before refer to them as Sassenachs. The reverend says the word only means "Englishman" or, at worst, "outlander."
The reverend's housekeeper, Mrs. Graham brings tea and invites Claire to join her in the kitchen. There, she reads the tea leaves in Claire's cup. Claire jokingly asks if she's going to meet a tall, dark stranger and take a trip across the sea and Mrs. Graham says that everything in the leaves are contradictory. There's a curved leaf, which indicates a journey, but it's crossed by a broken one which means Claire will stay put. There are also several strangers there and one of the strangers is her husband. Mrs. Graham then reads Claire's hand and says she has never seen that pattern of lines before. She notes that Claire has a strong thumb which means she has a will not easily crossed and her Mount of Venus indicates that she has a strong sexuality. Claire's lifeline is interrupted and the marriage line is divided, meaning that Claire will have two marriages, but that her marriage line is forked, not broken.
Frank and the reverend speculate that Frank's ancestor Jack had a patron, someone high up in the hierarchy, perhaps the Duke of Sandringham, but that Sandringham himself was suspected of being a Jacobite. The reverend says the duke died under very suspicious circumstances. Feeling a little disquieted about Mrs. Graham's reading, Claire leaves for the B&B. Along the way, she feels that Mrs. Graham's reading had an air of prophecy. The war had taught Claire not to worry about the future and to live in the present, but what she didn't know at the time, was that tomorrow would prove less important than yesterday.
Back at the B&B, Claire is trying to get her hair in order while a storm rages outside. Walking toward the inn, Frank sees a kilted man standing in the rain, his gaze upon Claire in the window upstairs. Frank approaches the man, who ignores him and turns away and disappears into the night. Upstairs, the lights go out and Frank, clearly rattled, bursts into the room. He goes to the window and looks out. Claire, concerned, tells him he looks like he's seen a ghost. Frank says he's not at all sure he hasn't.
Frank tells Claire about the strange man, that when he pushed past him, Frank should have felt him brush his sleeve, but he didn't. When Frank had turned around, the man had vanished. Frank asks Claire if she nursed many Scots during the war and Claire says man, including a piper who couldn't stand being stabbed with a needle. Claire wonders what Frank is thinking and Frank says he had wondered if that man was someone she had nursed and he was looking to reconnect. Claire asks if Frank thinks she's been unfaithful and he says no, but even if she had, it wouldn't matter to him. Nothing she could ever do could stop him from loving her. He begs her forgiveness and they make love. Claire reflects that sex had always been their bridge, the one thing they had that proved to them that everything would always work out.
After, Frank sets the alarm clock and she says she thought they weren't setting alarms during this trip. Frank says he wants to see the witches or druids, a group who still observes rituals at a circle of standing stones on a nearby hill called Craigh na Dun. The next morning, Frank and Claire approach the stones and Frank says that according to local legend, the stones were carried there from Africa by Celtic giants. Claire asks Frank if the lights they see in the distance is Inverness and he says they must be. They hide in the bushes as robed women carrying lanterns approach and being to dance. One of the dancers is Mrs. Graham.
As the women dance around the circle, Claire thinks they should have been ridiculous, but the sight of them raised her hackles and a voice inside her warned her that she should not be there and was an unwelcome voyeur to something ancient and powerful. After the dance, the women disperse and Frank and Claire enter the circle to look around. Frank examines the rocks and Claire looks at plants and flowers. One of the dancers return and as it appears she's in no hurry to leave, Frank and Claire stealthily make their way down the hill.
That day in Inverness, Frank prepares to meet with Reverend Wakefield as Claire looks through a botany book for the plant she saw up on Craigh na Dun. Frank suggests she goes back for it and Claire agrees to meet him for dinner afterwards. Back on the hill, Claire leaves the car parked on the road and hikes to the stones. She finds her plant and puts some specimens aways in her handkerchief. Then she hears a strange noise as the wind picks up. She walks toward the stone in the center of the circle and puts her hands on it. Everything goes black.
Claire says that once during the night, she fell asleep in a speeding car. When the driver took a bridge too fast and lost control, Claire says that the sickening sensation of falling through the air at speed was the only way she could describe what she experienced. After she comes to lying on the ground, she rushes down the hill to find the car, and the road, missing. Confused, she wanders around, then hears a gunshot and the sounds of an apparent battle. She observes red coated and kilted figures fighting each other and wonders if she's wandered onto the set of a film company filming a costume drama, but when one of the Redcoats shoots at her, she realizes that actors would not be armed with live ammunition.
Claire runs through the woods with Redcoats chasing her until she encounters another soldier kneeling by a brook. Thinking the man is Frank, she asks him what the devil he's doing. Then she realizes the man is not her husband and asks who he is. The man introduces himself as Jonathan Randall, esquire, Captain of His Majesty's Eighth Dragoons. At her service.
Claire runs, but is stopped by Randall who interrogates her. She tells him her husband's name is Frank Beauchamp, a teacher. Randall warns that she must tell him exactly who she is and why she is there and she spits in his face. He says she has the speech of a lady, but the language of a whore and then assaults her. Before he can, Murtagh Fraser knocks Randall unconscious and tells Claire to come with him. They run and when some Redcoats approach, Claire tries to call to them but Murtagh knocks her unconscious with his dagger.
Claire comes to on the back of a horse and wishes she was in a dream, but knew from the stench of her erstwhile rescuer, she was not. Murtagh takes her to a cottage which is filled with Highlanders. Their leader, Dougal MacKenzie, questions Claire who decides to use her maiden name of Beauchamp to keep them from connecting her to Frank in case of ransom. Murtagh tells Dougal that she was accosted by a captain of the dragoons they are acquainted with and it appeared the captain thought her a whore. Claire tells Dougal she is not a whore and one of Dougal's men suggest they put that to the test, but Dougal warns him off, saying he doesn't hold with rape and even if he did, they don't have time. Murtagh asserts that he doesn't know who or what Claire is, but he'll say she is not a whore. Dougal puts the issue aside for later as they have a good distance to go tonight and they must do something about Jamie Fraser, who dislocated his shoulder during the tussle with the Redcoats.
Claire knows she should keep quiet until she can find a chance to escape, but when she sees them trying to force the joint back in, she stops them, saying if they do that, they'll break his arm. She tells him they have to get the arm into the right position to get the joint back in and Dougal allows her to try. She orders a man to hold him steady and then maneuvers the arm until she gets the shoulder back into place. To Jamie's surprise, it doesn't hurt any more, but Claire says it will and tells him it will be tender for about a week. She orders one of the men to give her his belt and he mocks her, but Dougal orders him to give her the object. Reluctantly, he does. Jamie supposes she's done this before and she says she's a nurse, but not a wetnurse. She binds his arm and advises him not to use the arm much and to stop at once if it hurts. He thanks her and tells Dougal he can ride.
Outside the cottage, Claire knows that Inverness should be visible, but it's not. Jamie tells her that they're looking right at it and Claire realizes from the absence of electric lights that she is no longer in the 20th century. Dougal warns Claire if she tries to escape, he'll slit her throat and helps her to mount Jamie's horse. Jamie wiggles around until he frees enough of his plaid to protect them from the rain. Jamie tells her that they'll be riding for at least two nights.
The party continues to ride through the night and into the next day. As they approach Cocknammon Rock, Claire remembers what Frank said about it and tells Jamie about how the English used it to lay ambush. Jamie agrees it's a good place for an ambush and warns Dougal who asks Claire how she knows there's an ambush ahead. Claire says she doesn't know there is, but she heard in the village that they sometimes do. Pushing Claire off the horse, Jamie races with the other men to intercept the redcoats.
Seeing her chance, Claire runs away, but is stopped soon after by a bloody Jamie who says not much of it is his. He threatens Claire that he'll throw her over his wounded shoulder if she doesn't come with him and she reluctantly does so. Back with the others, Jamie boasts he can handle maybe one or two Redcoats with one hand, but not three. He says Claire can fix his shoulder again when they get to where they're going, but she says that's what he thinks.
That night, Jamie faints and falls off the horse and Claire realizes he was shot in the battle. With only alcohol to disinfect him with, she patches him up and over her protests Dougal says they can only rest for a short time. Jamie tells Claire that Randall is after them and he would rather take his own life than be captured by the man nor would he risk anyone else. Claire tells him he should have told her he'd been shot and he says it didn't hurt much. She asks if it hurts now and he says yes. She says, "good," and offers him a hand up. He thanks her and calls her Sassenach.
The next morning the group reaches Castle Leoch now not in ruins and Claire is struck by the fact that she'd been there just two days ago or was that in the future? She wonders how she can remember something that hasn't happened yet and so far all that she's been through, she knew that her journey has only just begun.
'Sassenach' is the Gaelic word for an outsider, or more specifically, an English person; usage is generally derogatory.
Ron Moore and the production team decided not to include English subtitles for the Gaelic, preferring the audience to identify with Claire's ignorance of the language and rely, as she does, on context for the gist of the meaning.