Scotland Dreaming by Jamie Kirkpatrick

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Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching The Open Championship at Carnoustie; maybe it’s because I have some friends currently touring the Scottish isles, following a familiar old itinerary through the harr that comes rolling in off the Irish Sea; or maybe it’s just because it’s in my blood and bones. Whatever the reason, lately I’ve been Scotland dreaming.

I was 12 when I made my first trip back to Scotland. That’s right: “my first trip back.” Even at that tender age, I felt I had been there before. Some atavistic muscle memory, something in the air or on my tongue or in my ear—it was as if I had returned to a place I had never been before. Or had I? Seven generations ago, my great-times-seven grandfather (another James) emigrated from Scotland, arriving in northwest Pennsylvania in time to achieve some modest notoriety as the last settler to be attacked by Indians in Crawford County. He survived and therefore so did I and whatever DNA he carried with him somehow landed smack in my lap. I wore my first kilt at age eight; I learned to play the bagpipes. My family was amused but no one else felt the pull of the old country the way I did. I can’t explain it, but I know it to be true.

Since that first trip, I’ve returned home four more times. Many years ago, when I was reeling from divorce, I sought solace in the hills of Scotland. I climbed, I walked, I let the winds blow over my disappointment. Years later, I was blessed with a sabbatical and went to live in “the auld, grey toon” of St. Andrews for four months. My flat looked out on the North Sea and the wind literally shook the giant grey stones of the house. It was winter and daylight was in short supply but I learned to find camaraderie in my local pub. I travelled a lot by train, by bus, by ferry.  I made the first of three pilgrimages to sacred Iona, the tiny teardrop of an island just off the coast of Mull where St. Columba landed from Ireland back in the 8th Century, bringing Christianity with him. By the end of my time in St. Andrews, I had become part of the weft and warp of town life. I cried when I left.

Since then, I’ve returned two more times. In 2010, I went back to help Scottish friends who were working on a book about the Clearances, that sad chapter in Scottish history when tenant farmers on large Highland estates were evicted from their subsistence crofts to make room for millions of sheep whose wool would supply the new industrial mills in the Lowlands and England. A few of the displaced farmers adapted by eking out a livelihood from the sea, but most gave up hope and sailed away. If the beginning of the end of the clan system and the dream of Scottish independence came in the aftermath of the Jacobite rising and the bloody defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army on Culloden moor in 1746, it was the Clearances in the early 19th Century that drove the final nail in the coffin of the ancient way of Highland life. Today, the number of diaspora Scots far surpasses those who remained.

The last time I was back in Scotland was in 2014 to await the results of the Scottish Independence Referendum. In the wee hours of the morning after the vote, I woke to a conspicuous silence in the streets and I knew then that the dream of an independent Scotland was yet again denied. Oh well: my wife and I and our best friends spent the next ten days nursing that wound by visiting as many castles as we could, as well as by tasting fresh oysters from Loch Fyne, haggis balls at Loch Lomond, and a wee dram or two at pubs along the way.

But now I’m Scotland dreaming again; it must be time to return. There are old friends and places to visit, but plenty of time and room for new adventures, too.  You know me, Scotland: as I always say to my friends over here,

“I’ll be right back.”

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” will be released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.

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Letters to Editor

  1. Tom Highfield-Clark says:

    “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”–T. S. Eliot

    I thought of this because of your heartfelt essay. I write this to you as I sip a gin and tonic and watch the players approaching the 18th tee at St. Andrew’s. “We’ll be right back” to Ctown on Thursday.

  2. Edward Plaisance says:

    It can be magical for sure.
    My girl friend and I were there last October, visiting Edinburg, Glasgow, and Islay, a pilgrimage to my favorite whisky distillery, Laphroaig…and several others along the 3-mile trek from Port Ellen to Ardbeg. I am a “friend of Laphroaig”, and as such am a laird with one square foot of land on their property. Using my GPS we located the square foot and planted a small American flag they gave us. My rental was a wee dram of whisky. (Great marketing ploy, I must say.)
    We would go back in a heartbeat. We will go back.

  3. Howard McCoy says:

    Ach Aye, Jamie Kirkpatrick!!! A tear came to my eye as I read your piece. Every time Mary and I board our flight from Glasgow to Philadelphia I get choked up. And, much like you, I’ll say quietly, my voice breaking but with resolve, “I’ll be right back.” We leave shortly for the west coast of Scotland, including Islay and Jura. And next summer’s itinerary in Scotland will follow the string of islands from Barra to the Isle of Lewis, the Outer Hebrides. So,here’s to Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture. Here’s to Iona and the hike down to Columba’s Bay. Here’s to the Highlands, her mountains shrouded in cloud cover. Here’s to the ferry up to the Orkneys. Here’s to the lochs and the castle ruins on the shoreline. Here’s to the clans and the pipes that call to me through the mist. And, here’s to the Ancient Stones and the stories they could tell. Tonight I drink for Scotland!! Slainte!!!

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