IN PURSUIT OF MY PAST ON THE ROAD FROM THE ISLES
She’d been raised on tie Canadian prairies, with tie brave legends of a Scotland she’d never seen. Then the author went h search of the dream — and found the reality
I WAS BROUGHT up on Scottish music. I could sing Just a wee doch an’ doris, just a wee drap, that's a' at a quite touchingly young age, although it is true that at the time I believed Doc and Doris to be the names of two people. I learned such songs as I Belong To Glasgow and Road To The Isles from my grandmother on my father's side. We made no finicky distinctions between what was genuine and vhat was music-hall. The songs ot Harry Lauder, to my mind, went as far back in history and were as much traditional Scottish music as The Pibroch Of Donal' Dhu. My grandmother was born in Ontario and her knowledge of Scotland was probably about the same as her knowledge of Timbuctoo. My grandfather had grown up in Scotland, but he died before I was born, so I never had the opportunity of gleaning any information from him.
Nevertheless, as a child I was extremely aware of my Scottish background. No one could ever tell me whether my family had been Lowlanders or Highlanders, because no one in the prairie town where I grew up seemed very certain exactly where that important dividing line came on the map ot Scotland. I decided, therefore, that my people had come from the Highlands. In fact, they had not. but Highlanders seemed more interesting and more noble to me in every way. My concept of what Highlanders were like was based upon Alan Breek in Kidnapped.
My family had belonged to a branch of the clan MacDuff, and when 1 first read Macbeth-—written by that famous Scot, William Shakespeare—1 felt myself to be the near kin of the Thane of Fife.
We possessed certain trophies from the past, which 1 used to handle with curiosity and reverence, as though they had been religious relics. One of these was a silver plaid pin which bore our family crest. This crest was a bird that remained mysteriously unidentified. My father believed it to
bo a cormorant and mv mother believed it to be an undersized emu. Our family motto, I regret to say. was Je Pense—"1 Think"— which seemed to me both tame and boastful. I would have preferred
the gruesomely ferocious war cry of the Camerons. “Sons of the hounds, come here and get flesh ! ”
I do not remember at what age the disenchantment set in. but gradually 1 began to perceive that
1 was no more Scots than 1 was Siamese. Whatever of the Old Country had filtered down to me could roughly be described as Mock Scots. The Scotland 1 had envisaged as a child had been a fantasy, appealing because it seemed so much more bold and high-hearted than the prairie town where 1 really lived.
When at last, not so very long
Bitter betrayal in the Highland glens
ago, I planned to visit the Highlands of Scotland, I did not know what to expect of the reality. I felt absolutely no connection with the actual Scotland, and yet I half expected and even hoped to discover some feeling of ancestry there, something that would convey to me a special and personal meaning. My ignorance of Scottish history was total. The only thing the last Jacobite rebellion meant to me was the label on the Drambuie bottle, A link With T he “45.” All 1 knew of the Clearances was that they had had something to do with sheep. 1 knew a good deal about the Selkirk settlers, but only after they reached Canada.
I began to read. Such books as John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances and Ian Grimble’s The Trial Of Patrick Sellar made the story come alive—the breakup of the Highland clans which culminated at the Battle of Cullodcn. and the subsequent betrayal of the Highlanders by their own chiefs, as the glens were cleared of unprofitable people to make room for profitable sheep. This must surely be one of the most painful episodes in European history, the tale of how the Gaelic-speaking people of northern Scotland were driven from the lands they had worked for centuries, treated as subhuman by the English-speaking bailiffs who burned their dwellings, and ignored by landowners who preferred the lights of Edinburgh or London. Some of the evicted crofters lived thinly from what food they could trawl from the sea along the rocky wind-sullen coast. Others, in a kind of numb bewilderment, were herded onto the emigrant ships and found themselves facing the desperate heat of Australia or the treacherous winters of Canada.
The Highland clan system was similar to tribal systems anywhere. The chief was believed in. not so much as an individual but as a symbol, a father, a king figure who possessed almost mystical powers of protection and strength. To be betrayed by one of these must have been like knowing, really knowing, that one's own father intended, if he could, to murder you. T he outcast Highlanders must have arrived in Canada as a people bereft, a people who had been psychically wounded in ways they could not possibly have comprehended. Throughout the Clearances, they were never able to produce strong leaders from amone their ranks,
for the concept of the chief as the trusted and only leader was too firmly entrenched. Their few uprisings were for the most part unorganized and pathetically inadequate. Many of them left their land with no protest at all, with the voiceless docility of the sheep which replaced them. They had been fighters—the Highland regiments were famous for their fighting men —but during the hundred years of the Clearances, they fought scarcely at all, not even with words. They only mourned. They had been in the deepest possible ways forsaken; in the most literal sense their hearts had been broken. This, not the romantic swashbuckling figures in Sir Walter Scott's novels, was the reality of the Highlanders.
1 had known, of course, as every person schooled in Canada knows, of the external difficulties of the early Scottish settlers, the people of Glengarry and Red River. What I had never seen before was a glimpse of their inner terrors, a sense of the bereavement they must have carried within them like a weight of lead in the soul. What appeared to be their greatest trouble in a new land—the grappling with an unyielding environment—was probably in fact their salvation. I believe they survived, not in spite of the physical hardships. but because of them, for all their attention and thought had to be focused outward. They could not brood. If they had been able to do so, it might have killed them.
When I left for Inverness, I felt strangely divided in mind between what I had been reading and the imaginary Scotland of my childhood. The story of the Highland Clearances, which I had been learning for the first time, moved me verv much. It could scarcely fail to move anyone. But I still could not see what personal meaning all this could have for me. although 1 felt it must have some. I hoped I would find out.
Euston station was crowded and dirty, as usual, the waiting room awash with spilled tea and the ashes of ten million cigarettes. Beside me sat a man and a woman, also waiting for the Royal Highlander. the night train to Inverness. I don't know what wedding or funeral or football match they had come south for. but they must have been celebrating, or holding the wake, as the case may be, for several days. They were in pretty poor shape. The man fell asleep, but the woman sang. / Never Felt More ¡.ike Singing The Blues, she croaked hoarsely, and I believed her. She was in alien territory. She felt it and resented it. and resented feeling it.
"Where do you think they took me?” she said. "To Hampstead— to the courts they took me. and they fined me two quid. Two bloody quid they fined me, my dear." Her voice was angry and sad. melodious in a way her singing had not been, and this was the first time I had heard the accent of the Highlands. "But I am just as good as they are." she said, "and I'll tell you one thing, my dear—the people here has no consideration, none whatsoever.”
She turned to her companion and began blowing softly into his ear. “Whist! Come, man—come along. Milton, wake up now.” What a name for a Scot. I thought. Milton, thou shouldst be waking at this hour; Scotland hath need of thee. But Milton, and perhaps the Highlands with him, slept on.
I he journey from London to Inverness takes all night. A jolting indecisive half-sleep is always my portion on trains, and when I decided to give up and to get up that dawn, it was with a feeling of interior gauntness that made the entire countryside seem even more gaunt than it was. The hills were steep and rocky. The grass was sparse but the land was forested with fir and pine and slender birch with moss around the roots. T he water of the burns was brown and clear.
War cries had faded but the heather recalled a bloody past
In the grey light of the morning, something about the land looked familiar to me. but the reason eluded me.
We moved away from the hills and onto a moor. Then a station, and the name—Culloden. There is always some sense of astonishment, for me, at actually being in a place where a great event once happened. The event at Culloden was a tragic one, for it was here that the clans were broken at last and the hereditary jurisdiction of the chiefs finally destroyed. The Highland people never rose again against the redcoats and the southern throne.
It was early spring, and so the heather was brown, a reddish brown the color of dried blood. The air was still, and the only sound was the clank and screech ol the train as we stopped. The low hills around Culloden looked as though thev had never been disturbed, not ever. The war cries and the pibrochs had faded a long time ago; nothing of that distant intensity seemed to cling around the moor now. But there is a legend that the heather will not grow over the earth where the dead clansmen lie.
I looked at the green swaths crescenting the ground, and wondered, and then the train moved on.
“We are respectable folk”
My children and I were going to stay with a friend who lives in a village on Cromarty Firth in the part of Ross-shire known as the Black Isle. As we drove out from Inverness, the cab driver obligingly pointed out the sights. An old church where one ot the clans once very meanly attacked another who were unarmed while they worshipped. Then a new distillery. Then another old church. 1 hat was the Highlands for you. he said—all churches and distilleries.
At Bcauly the grey-pink sandstone houses stand neatly and decorously as if daring anyone to find even a partial scandal in their past. No word, they seem to say. has ever been raised against the Establishment here; we are respectable folk in these parts. "Yon monument,” the cab driver said with a certain wryness, "was put up in memory of a local laird who raised a battalion from here for the Boer Wai.” But I did not see any monument in the streets of Bcauly for the men ol Ross who made a futile and courageous attempt to drive the sheep trom the land, in the riots ot 1792, the year known to High-
landers as The Year Of The Sheep.
The earliest Clearances began around here, for it was here that the fat Cheviot, known as 'The Great Sheep, were first pastured in the Highlands. Some of the crofters of Ross — men of Bcauly and Dingwall and the hills — drove six thou-
sand of the lairds’ sheep along Cro-
marty Firth, hoping to send them over into Inverness. It was not so much a riot as an isolated gesture of protest. The gentlemen of Ross, however, became extremely alarmed. The army was summoned to Dingwall, a village along the firth,
and the crofters were captured and imprisoned. Their sentences varied — some were fined; one was to be sent to Botany Bay. But none of the sentences w;as carried out, because one night in the Dingwall prison the door was mysteriously opened and the ringleaders escaped, never to be heard of again.
Along Cromarty Firth, in these days, the wild swans gather. Each
"Starvation!" was the cry, but the grain ships moved away
morning and evening we walked along the beach and watched them. They stay here summer and winter, making their nests in spring, hatching their cygnets, caring for them beyond the span of most birds, for it is well over a year before the ugly ducklings at last flaunt the
white plumage of their kind. Just before dusk, the flotilla of swans would move out. along the firth, the tide coming in now over the mud flats where the spiraled shells and the crimson and jade-colored stones lay dazzling with seawetness and where the yellow-
brown kelp spread like scum at the ebb tide. The dogs lolloped and the children plodded, looking mudbound to the eyes of adults, but in their own eyes hovering always on the possibility of buried treasure. The children had been warned about the nesting season, so they
stayed well away from the guardian cob swans, the great males with their white wings unfurled furiously like schooners' sails. The lady swans stayed at the nests, poised delicately above their shell-bound young. The dogs, spaniel and collie. splashed and plundered in the returning sea, and the children came back triumphant with intricately coiled shells and bits of blue glass filed into jewels by the abrasive sands.
In the mid1800s, hereabouts, the ships kept leaving for the south, tuil ot barley and oats, grain grown on the landlords soil. The crofters were enduring famine at that time because the potato blight had turned their only available food into black rot. In 1847 the people of the Black Isle tried to halt the movement of a grain ship. They attacked it in Cromarty Firth and were about to drag it from the sea when the soldiers arrived and stopped them. At Invergordon, just across the tirth, the army stood guard at the docks while the ships were loaded. I he people of the hills and town threw stones and shouted, “Starvation.'” But the grain ships kept on going south.
I sat on the shore as the evening gathered and watched the lights of Invergordon coming on. across the water, the low quiet lights of a quiet town. The wild swans sculled along the navy-blue water as though nothing except birds had ever happened here.
Let them recruit sheep
At Cromarty harbor one day we saw an amazing sight—a whitesailed schooner, fully rigged, gliding into the firth as though it were gliding in from a hundred years away. 1 thought of the British ships that had come here during the Crimean War, to raise recruits for the Highland regiments. The Highlanders had gone to faraway wars for generations. Out of their warriors’ tradition they had supplied many battalions for the alien crown. But by the mid-nineteenth century, they had had enough. Many of the glens that had once raised regiments were empty except for sheep. The men who remained were finished with foreign wars. Let the powersthat-be recruit the four-footed clansmen, they said bitterly—let them recruit sheep. When the British ships sailed into Cromarty harbor. the young men of Ross took to the hills.
I looked at the sailing ship, with its grace and balance and lightness, like a swan’s, and wondered if it were a ghost ship, a ghoul of a ship,
What do summer tourists want? A Scotland that never was
forever hunting the men who had at last said No. I 'he reality, I need hardly say, was otherwise. The ship we saw was the Prince Louis, owned and maintained by the school of ( lordonstoun. where the contemporary bonnie Prince Charlie was then a pupil. I hey keep this
vessel so that the boys can learn how to cope with a sailing ship, an accomplishment that must be mighty useful in the space age.
And yet I question my own dubiety. My ten-year-old son watched the vessel for a long time, with enormous admiration, and
then he sa id. "It's smashing!" Perhaps it is worthwhile after till, that anachronistic ship, not for what it teaches but for the chance, not often found today, to dream openly.
At Cromarty harbor, the old men sit. gossiping around the few fishboats. around the few pleasure
yachts owned by the few men of means. Almost all the people I saw in the streets of Cromarty were old. or tit least—not to put too fine ti point upon it—getting older. The young have mostly gone away, away to the south, to earn their living.
I walked with my children along the firth road one day. by the sea and over to an old church that has been abandoned for a century. It is a peculiar churchyard. It lies close by Invergordon. close by Dingwall. close to all that once happened here, and yet it is very much apart. Once it was a Roman Catholic church, where the priest dwelt and dispensed the Mass. The church itself is broken now, but the burial ground has been kept on. The oldest gravestones are overgrown with green-black moss; one cannot read the inscriptions. But the graves that bothered me were the ones from the mid1800s. Perched on the tombstones, or nestling tit their feet, were curious objects that looked like glass cake dishes, and inside these transparent cages were white flowers and doves and burgeoning leaves, still so starch-white that tit first 1 took them to be plastic, the evidence of some inexplicable contemporary lunacy. But no, they were china, and had rested here these hundred years. Some of the glass cases were also covered with wire netting, an additional protection against weather. Not against vandals— nothing like that, nothing so iconoclastic. was a worry here. I was later told. I walked among these icing-sugar memorials and found myself wishing that the young men of Ross today would take the white china doves and dash them into the sea. But they are more sensible, and in truth kinder. They do not desecrate the dead hands that have held them. They only leave, and go away to earn their living somewhere else.
The tourist trade is one industry that can bring employment and cash to the Highlands, and both are desperately needed. But strangers are spoken kindly to. it seemed to me. not only because of their cash but also because there is some deep courtesy in the people hereabouts. And yet there is a certain dichotomy. Some of the conversations 1 held — I as an outsider, inevitably gauche, feeling my way—seemed to indicate that there was a kind of bitter sadness about the whole tourist business. In the Black Isle some people referred to it sardonically as "the tartan dolly trade.” the annual summer influx of people who want to see the Highlands as they never
Only his fellow clansmen really understand the Highlander
were nor evermore shall be.
The novelist Eric Linklater, a fighter by nature and a man who lives just across Cromarty Firth on ihe far side from where we were staying, has written a typically spirited introduction to Ian Gamble's book on the Highland Clearances, The Trial Of Patrick Sellar. Linklater speaks with humorous aggressiveness of the ranks of Utile Lowland girls, prancing and capering in a travesty of Highland male attire as they dance the Highland Fling at various acceptable Highland Games. I have the feeling that the Highlander of today is in much the same position as the North American Indian. What he really was, in the past, is not comprehended by anyone outside his own tribe, but he has been taken up and glamorized and must act a part now. The Dance Of The Ancestors—slicked-up, prettified, and performed forever in the same way. Nothing must ever change. The tourist trade wants everything to be settled and nice. Nothing must ever make reference to reality, to real sores, to now. One can understand this and even to some extent accept it. The tourists, after all, are paying good money to be provided with an embodiment of their own fantasies. But it must inevitably impose something of a strain on the local populace, who must surely sometimes want to say, “Look, it's not that way, not at all.”
Is Canada a good place?
The hydro-development schemes arc providing some employment in the Highlands, but the drift is still going on—the drift to the south, the removal of the young. When we left the village on Cromarty Firth, and drove back to Inverness, the young cab driver told me he was a mechanic and he asked me, “Would Canada be a good place to emigrate to?” I did not know how to reply. All I could say was, “Yes,
I think Canada would probably be a good place to emigrate to, if you have a skill in demand there.” Canada has been a good place, taken all around, for Scots to emigrate to, these hundred and fifty years. 1 wanted to tell him what the price would be. but I could not. I could not speak to him about the loneliness, that his children would be the children of another land, not his, and that this difference would divide him from them forever. It is the fate of immigrants to discover this for themselves.
No places and no people reveal themselves quickly to the casual eye, and I knew this very well. Nevertheless, for the first time Scotland had become real to me, both in its past and in its present.
For myself, however, I still did not feel any personal sense of con-
nection with its history. The story of the Highland Clearances moved me as much as the story of the slave trade in Africa, but no more.
For me, the ghosts were of a different kind. It was the names I could not get away from. At the further end of Loch Ness, the home
of the mythical monster, not so far away from where we were visiting, was Glengarry, where the evictions of the crofters continued for a century and when they were over twenty thousand Macdonells were in Canada and nearly none in Scotland. Not far away, also, in the opposite direction, was Kildonan, in Sutherland, where so many of the Mathesons, Macbeths. Banner-
Now the Highlands struck a chord: they reminded me of home
mans, Gunns and Mackays were evicted and cast their uncertain lot with the Earl of Selkirk, who made them a part of his compulsion and his dream, the founding of a settlement at the junction of the Red and Assiniboinc rivers, in a land he knew nothing about.
All these names meant something to me. Glengarry—this is Glengarry, Ontario; it is The Matt Front Glengarry, by Ralph Connor, a very corny book but a part of one's childhood. Sutherland, Banncrman, Ross, Selkirk. Kildonan-—-to me, these are the names
of the places 1 grew up among, the names of Manitoba towns and the names of Winnipeg's streets. Weirdly, encountering them in Scotland, they seemed unreal there, or else derived, because to me they are Canadian names.
I realized at last why my first
sight of the Highlands had seemed familiar, the spruce and pine and the birch with moss around the roots. When I was a child, before Riding Mountain became a National Park, we used to go every summer to the cottage my father and my uncle had built on Clear Lake. One summer my great-aunt Ett accompanied us. She was my grandfather’s sister, a tiny dynamic woman who spoke with such a thick Scots’ burr that I was never able to understand a single word she uttered. But her reaction to Clear Lake was in some way translated and communicated even to me. It was the closest thing to Scotland, she said, that she had ever seen. Perhaps some kind of ironic historical wheel had now come full circle. The Highlands of Scotland struck a chord in me because they reminded me of Clear Lake in Manitoba.
Another kind of history
History, as history, is moving when one catches a momentary sense of it, as I think I did in the Highlands, because the humans who lived before oneself are suddenly endowed with flesh and bones, and because man’s incredible ability to survive both the outer and the inner damage seems to me to be heartening wherever it occurs. But there is another kind of history, the kind that has the most power over us in unsuspected ways, the names or tunes or trees that can recall a thousand images, and this almost-family history can be related only to one’s first home.
1 am inclined to think that one’s real roots do not extend very far back in time, nor very far forward.
I can imagine and care about my possible grandchildren, and even (although in a weakened way) about my great-grandchildren, but not beyond that point. Going back, no one past my great-grandparents has any personal reality for me. The ancestors, in the end. become everyone’s ancestors. But the history that one can feel personally encompasses only a very few generations.
So, finally, the Mock Scots retain a greater emotional hold on me than the real Scots, because of very specific things—the daft and unnamed bird on our plaid pin, and my grandmother singing / love a lassie, a honnie Highland lassie, she's as fair as the lily in the dell. These things are genuinely mine. They don't relate to Scotland any more than the transplanted names do, at least for me, and they don’t need to. 1 know where they belong. ^