When Kyle was around ten, in whatever grade that was, he had to do a report on his family history. I’d had to do the same report at that age, so it must be one of those obligatory assignments. It was when I did my report that I discovered my Scottish roots and that my Great-grandparents came over from Aberdeenshire in the late 1800s. As I asked more and more questions about my family’s history, a lot of things about how I was raised suddenly made sense to me. Those certain ways that my Gran’pa had were not just his own idiosyncrasies; they were because of the way he had been raised by his Scottish parents. I loved the ways in which we held to the traditions, and still do. It was way back then, when I was about ten years old, that I resolved to go to Scotland.
As Kyle wrote his report I watched his inner Scot come alive; he, too, began to realize the continuity of the threads of Scottish tradition in our family ways. He had a greater resource to write from than I had had. My uncle had paid an investigator in Scotland to research the family and he had very wonderfully sent copies of all the information to each member of the extended family. When Kyle also resolved to go to Scotland when he was older, I promised that we would both make our first trip there together when he turned eighteen.
As things turned out, when he turned eighteen I was in a financial position to be able to make good on the promise that I had made to both of us. We moved from Arizona to Boulder, Colorado just after the Winter Solstice of 2004 so that by the spring we were beginning to be settled in our new surroundings. Before we got too settled though, we were off to Upstate New York to attend a good friend’s wedding at Lake George and then out to Ithaca to visit with my dad for a couple days. Two weeks after returning to Boulder, we were off again to Scotland.
I had not used the internet very much before planning the trip. I did some research on chronic pain (as I wrote about here) when Kyle was in the hospital; and, I used it when I wrote on spiritual diversity for my Doctor of Divinity paper. I opened wide the door to “surfing the web” when I planned the trip to Scotland. I had the entirety of my uncle’s research to give me names of places where there was family history and I found myself staying on the computer for hours at a time as one thing led into another. I was able to form an online friendship with the head of the Clan Fraser Society in Canada. He and his genealogist wife were very supportive and helpful. Keep in mind, this was 2005. Each time I have planned another trip over the ensuing decade, the information available has increased exponentially. Back then, there weren’t GPS applications; and so, with a thick booklet of papers with printed directions and information, off we went.
When we arrived, I was immediately thankful for another part of my earlier years. My dad was quite fond of sport cars. He rallied often, and sometimes took me with him. I became quite fond of sport cars and driving myself. Throughout the late-1950s and early 1960s Dad had various cars, most of which were unheard of in the US at the time. I remember seeing commercials during the 1960 Olympics for Renault as a car new to the US – Dad had been driving the Dauphine model a year beforehand. He also had a Morris Minor, an MGA Classic, and a DKW. It was his on his last rally car that I learned to drive. When I was fourteen we lived out in the country in between the Hudson River Valley and the Berkshires. There were plenty of little roads running this way and that through the pastures and apple orchards. Also running this way and that was me behind the wheel of a right-hand drive bright yellow English Ford Anglia. All four wheels were on the ground but for me at the time it flew as magically as the blue one in Harry Potter.
As I slipped behind the wheel of the Peugeot at the Glasgow Airport, I opened myself to feeling the cellular memory of having driven right-hand drive so many years ago. Since it was how I learned, I hoped it would come back as second nature. I looked up through the side window to see Kyle standing there with a completely bewildered look on his face. He’d put the luggage in the trunk and come around to get in the car. On the right side. And couldn’t figure out what I was doing there. The moment only lasted for a few seconds but the laughter lasted a lot longer. We still laugh about it.
I created a mantra for Kyle and me to repeat each and every time that I started driving: “Look right, stay left”. After a day or so, while we kept on with the mantra, we were comfortable enough to stop having the comedy act of heading for the opposite side of the car to get in, reaching over the opposite shoulder for our seat belts, and me reaching out with my right hand for the gear shift and scraping my knuckles on the inside of the door. As we learned how to handle our way around the (dreaded) round-a-bouts, we found a rhythm. Kyle, reading from the printed directions, told me which exit I needed to take by putting the round-a-bout on a clock face and telling me which number it was. When I taught Kyle how to drive, I started, as my dad had with me, years beforehand by letting him at first feel me shift through the gears and then do the shifting for me. This exercise came in quite handy during the multi-lane round-a-bouts. I paid attention to the traffic, the directional flashers and the clutch while I called out gears to Kyle and he did the shifting for me. It was great teamwork on both our parts.
We left the car park of the airport and began our drive of just an hour or so west to Largs where we were going to spend our first night in Scotland at a working horse and sheep farm. Fortunately we were on country roads soon enough, allowing me the time to drive more slowly and get used to the view from the left lane. As we rolled along the roads and the scenery opened before us Kyle became quiet. A few minutes later he softly said, “Now I know why we love Mendocino so much. It’s ancestral memory. Northern California looks like Scotland.” I had been concentrating on driving so much that I hadn’t processed what I was seeing around me. I found a little road, pulled over, and breathed in the clear, misty air and allowed myself to land.
During the next two weeks, we drove through most of Aberdeenshire and found every town and hamlet that was listed in the family records. We looked in graveyards for family names. We went to the little hamlet of Cowie that once was the more important of the towns of Cowie and Stonehaven until people realized that Stonehaven had the better harbor. We ate very good food at every meal and talked with very friendly people at every turn. We had a magical time at Dunnottar Castle when the mists and the fog descended over it wrapping us in a shroud of quiet and the feeling that the world consisted of only the two of us and those old, old stone walls. We became saddened at Drumossie Moor where the Battle of Culloden took place in 1746. (As we left, Kyle turned to the battlefield and said, “We kicked their asses for all of us thirty years later.”) We were enchanted as we stood amidst the standing stones and cairns of Easter Aquhorithies, Loanhead of Daviot, and at Balnuaran of Clava and felt the energy of the ancient sites wash through us, each in our own way and time. I remember that as we noticed some children being allowed to climb on the Clava Cairns by their parents, Kyle thanked me for bringing him up with proper respect for ancient things and peoples.
Too soon, too soon it was time for us to return to Boulder and begin our lives there in earnest. I have been fortunate to have been able to return to Scotland three more times over the past ten years and I learn more and love it more each time. It was that first trip, though, that showed me a deep part of myself which had been born of my ancestors.
The first time I visited Scotland, I thought it would be just a place; a place of amazing history and connection, but a “place” nonetheless.
I was proven amazingly wrong.
What I realized when I was there was that I had been going to places like the Northern California Coast, thinking that it was home, and not realizing why. When we got out to the Highlands, I could not only see the history in the land and the seemingly random standing stones…I could actually feel it. I could feel my blood moving faster as we approached ancient sites, and hear my ancestors in the wind.
I found that this was home. This was where I belonged.
A very sweet and tender post! I too love the Scotland and its strong traditions.
Kate Cowie Riley said:
Thank you so much!