Monday, June 23, 2008

Tapping My Roots

After the class was over and the group left to return home, I had made arrangements to stay behind in Scotland for an extra week.  One other girl, Jessica, was staying with me, and we were going to spend the time visiting my family, none of whom I had seen more recently than 2000 - eight years ago.  We were received with warm Highland hospitality and such graciousness that we were made to feel as though we were the ones doing them a favor by staying with them!  I hope to someday have developed an easy welcoming spirit similar to theirs.  I also wouldn’t mind being timeless, as I found them to be.  It seemed as though they hadn’t changed at all in the past eight years.  My great-aunt Nanda was just as spunky and knowledgeable as I remembered, and having dinner with her the first night that the group was gone was a definite highlight.

Jessica and I were able to explore Edinburgh a bit more in depth and at our leisure.  We spent two days there after the group had flown home.  Edinburgh is such an intriguing city.  When it was being built, everyone wanted to be inside the city walls.  This meant that they had to get creative with construction and consequently the city is built on multiple levels.  You might be on a street lined with shops and cafes, and if you went down the stairs that meet the sidewalk, you would get to another street with similar shops and cafes.
In addition to above-ground levels, there are subterranean caverns and tunnels that make up the portion of the city where the poorest of the poor lived.  They couldn’t afford houses, but as long as it didn’t rain too heavily, the underground accommodations were much preferable to living on the streets. 
My cousin Johnny and his wife Rebecca hosted us affably during our two-night stay in Edinburgh, and saw us to the train station on Saturday morning to get us sent off to Johnny’s parents in Inverness.  Our packs felt significantly lighter because we had left the majority of our luggage at Johnny and Rebecca’s.  They were to put us up for one more night at the end of our vacation so that we could get to the Edinburgh airport on time for our flight home, so since were were returning to their flat, we could leave what we didn’t need for the holiday part of our trip: books and tape recorders and the like. 
Our train ride to Inverness was much more boisterous than we were expecting, and when we got to Inverness we found out why.  That weekend was the start of the Rock Ness three-day outdoor rock concert on the shores of Loch Ness.  Suddenly our Corona-drinking, techno-blaring co-passengers made sense.  We were met at the train station by Johnny’s parents Ian and Shona.  Shona is my dad’s second cousin, but the distance of the relationship is of no concern when a Highlander welcomes kin to her home.  We spent the weekend being fed incredible foods that delighted our palates and stretched our stomachs.  It is customary to feed one’s guests to their bursting point and we were happy to comply; Shona is an incredible cook.  We ate homemade quince jelly, plum chutney, and orange marmalade, perfectly cooked meats, fresh oatcakes, and oh-so-tasty leeks.  Shona was our guide to gustatory gladness.

Beyond pleasing our bellies, we feasted our eyes on the area of Scotland where Ian and Shona live.  The itty-bitty town of Culbokie is on the Black Isle, just north of Inverness and the island is the lushest, most fertile place you can imagine. 

We had nearly 22 hours of daylight to take in the sights each day, and we tried to make the most of the majority of those hours.  This picture, looking out the back window of Ian and Shona’s house, was taken at 11:30 pm.

After spending the weekend relishing flavors and familial connections - turns out the minister at Ian and Shona’s church is also my grandfather’s second cousin, so Shona had him and his grandchildren over for Sunday dinner, meaning I got to eat with my fourth cousins - Jessica and I got back on the train and headed west to the coast.  There is no train that goes to the Isle of Skye, my family’s ancestral home, so we switched to a bus to take us over the sea to Skye via the (relatively) new Skye Bridge.

We were met by Flora, my dad’s second cousin’s wife.  She and her husband, Alistair, are just the dearest people.  They spent the whole of our time on Skye driving us from sight to sight so that we could see as much as possible.  Skye is the second largest island in Scotland, so it took us the better part of two days to tour almost all of it, and that was without taking much time for hiking.  For the most part we drove to scenic places, took pictures, and then hopped back in the car to travel to the next spot.  We went for long walks after supper to experience some of the wild, windy weather that exemplifies Skye.  I thoroughly enjoyed the car-riding too, because it gave us a chance to see so much of the island. 

One of the highlights was, of course, visiting the MacLeod of MacLeod traditional castle, Dunvegan.  Even as a MacLeod I have to pay to get in, but I was invited to sign the special “MacLeods-only” guest book.  What a kick!  ;)  Dunvegan is still the home of the clan Chieftain, so visitors can only go through about one third of the castle.  When I was there before though, my dad and I actually met the Chieftain.  He was out back getting his picture taken in full dress-kilt, and we happened to be taking some photos ourselves.  We said hi but it wasn’t until we saw the pictures of the kilt-wearing man in “Scottish Life” magazine later that we realized who he was. 

The whirlwind visits were over much too soon, but they were so good.  I love having an extended family that welcomes you just as though you were a cousin they’ve always known and loved.  There was no awkwardness or discomfort whatsoever.  I hope I’ll get a chance to continue cultivating those relationships in a not-too-distant year. 

Posted by Emily MacLeod on 06/23 at 09:59 AM

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