‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation’, said Voltaire. I look to it to salve my soul and revive my spirit.
I can’t believe I’ve populated these pages over the last few months without ever mentioning Scotland. I should be shot with a ball of haggis or banged round the ears with a caber. Scotland, you see, is never far from my thoughts. It is where #2 daughter has chosen to make her home and, apart from that powerful bond, it’s also probably my favourite place. Ever. If I won the Lotto, I’d relocate there in a shot. I’d buy a coastal castle (there are millions of them in Scotland), gaze at the sea and eat shortbread all day long.
Up until relatively recently, I was quite content that I knew who I was and where I came from. Both my parents’ families hailed from the locality where I was born and raised and that was enough genealogy for me. I never questioned that I might be from somewhere else or that the roots of the family mightn’t always have been at ‘home’.
And I have absolutely no concrete reason now to start questioning that… but sometimes I wonder. A few weeks ago, I watched a repeat of Who Do You Think You Are?, the BBC programme which takes celebrities on a journey through their past, tracing their ancestors and unearthing family secrets and skeletons. It sounds a bit like watching paint dry but it’s truly difficult not to become engrossed and marvel at the way families have survived, sometimes against horrific odds. Jeremy Paxman, for instance, the scourge of British politicians, was reduced to tears when he discovered the abject poverty his ancestors endured in the early nineteenth century. This self-assured, sometimes short-tempered intellectual was truly humbled to learn of his workhouse ancestry and the challenges of social class and poverty his family had overcome.
And then I saw the episode about Jeremy Irons who bought a castle in Cork some years ago. Quintessentially English, Irons described his arrival in Cork as a kind of homecoming. From the moment he set foot in the place he felt a natural affinity and a sense of belonging. It had nothing to do, he said, with the fact that his wife is Irish (Sinead Cusack). It was purely the place. It felt right. He felt right being there. It was ‘home’.
Sure enough, after much genealogical research and after many family myths had been exploded, he traced the source. His great-grandmother’s family were landowners in the area in the early nineteenth century. They lived mere miles away from where Jeremy has now settled. He was unaware of their existence until he began the Who Do You Think You Are? process. He wasn’t totally surprised. He reckoned his sense of belonging was so strong that there just had to be a reason for it.
So it leaves me wondering if I might be Scottish. Might there be tartan blood somewhere in my veins. Twelve years ago, for the first time, I went to Scotland and the sense of being ‘at home’ and among my own was overwhelming. From the moment we landed in Cairnryan and throughout the car journey to Edinburgh, I had a powerful sense of affinity. Our errand at the time was bringing #2 daughter to college and we were, naturally, full of trepidation. Like many new students, she was leaving the security of home but there was going to be a sea between us. She wasn’t just going to a different county; she was going to a different country. All the way to Larne, with the car packed full of new-student paraphernalia, I was fretting and worrying and trying to be upbeat about this voyage of discovery.
But looking out at the landscape just before the ferry docked, I felt I was coming home. There was a comfortable, familiar feel to the place. Maybe it’s because the landscape is similar to Donegal, my Irish home. But even Edinburgh, a thriving and busy city, felt friendly and welcoming. By the time we settled #2 into her student flat and took our leave of her, the worry and loneliness about our baby leaving home had diminished. I felt as if we were leaving her with a favourite aunt. I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s all sweetness and light and that there isn’t a darker side to any city, but I honestly felt more comfortable leaving her there than I would have felt leaving her in Dublin.
In the intervening years, I’ve visited Scotland many times and my heart does a little flip every time I arrive. At one stage, we spent about ten days driving through the Highlands and with every bend on the road, I felt more and more at home. Even in the rain, it is enormously atmospheric and soulful. Driving through Glencoe was spectacular and I was reluctant to leave. Over the years, we’ve taken in Stirling, Aberdeen, Dundee, Dumfries and Galloway, Skye, the Highlands and bits and pieces of the Cairngorms. On one occasion, we attended the re-enactment of the Battle of Bannockburn just outside Stirling and I couldn’t believe the passion it evoked in me. Maybe someone belonging to me was there with their bow and arrow in 1314.
So maybe I should consider a little bit of genealogical research. And it’s not as fanciful as it might sound. After all, St Colmcille was born in Gartan in Donegal and headed for the Scottish island of Iona around 563AD. I’m not claiming any lineage to the saints (those who know me will verify that me and saint in the same sentence just won’t fly). But St Colmcille’s journey shows that, even way back then, there was traffic between the two countries. And Donegal in particular has always had very strong links with Scotland in general and Glasgow in particular. So who knows? Maybe somewhere far back in the mists of time I have kilt-wearing, haggis-eating, caber-tossing ancestors. Maybe this affinity with Scotland is really in my genes.
Whatever about that, it’s certainly in my soul. To put it in the words of Dougie McLean, one of Scotland’s favourite sons:
‘Let me tell you that I love you; that I think about you all the time. Caledonia you’re calling me; now I’m going home.’
And, best of all, people… Caledonia called – and I’m going there tomorrow for four whole days. 🙂