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Scotland the Brave(-ish)

It felt like the last payment on a debt that was long owing. A long time ago I was given something, a gift or a prize (or maybe a burden) that I really didn’t earn, but was in some way entitled to by accident of birth. I could have picked it up or put it aside. Some people in this homogeneous land opt to disregard the traditions and heritage, or even the distant lineage that brought them here. In a great rush to become one with the local crowd, histories are abandoned or denied. New lands, new roots. We were off to Scotland once more.

My mother’s family arrived at the port of Quebec City in 1920. Robert and Melissa Thomson and their 3 children, John Alexander, Nancy Baxter and James Ventor had left Buckhaven, Fifeshire, to begin again after the coal industry began to fail. The Great War was over and the mines were running out. An ex-miner didn’t have many options. Robert Thomson settled in Toronto working at the St. Clair Stockyards of the Canadian Nation Railway moving cattle about on their way to the local slaughterhouse. David Black, my father’s father, left West Wemyss in Fife via the port of Liverpool bound for Canada and arrived in 1903 aboard the passenger ship Pomeranian. The passenger manifest listed his profession as merchant. He became the proprietor of a goods store of questionable success in a small town of southwestern Ontario. They were both modest beginnings that lead to remarkably un-notable lives.

David Black’s son, James Donald, later met and married Robert Thomson’s daughter, Nancy Baxter, who then produced my sister, Helen Mildred and myself, John David. My parents owned their own house and car and didn’t seem to want for much. Working Class Scotland to Middle-Class Canada in 3 generations. A story repeated endlessly.

Such modest beginnings and simple ties to a place that appeared to push families out the door to the nearest port and across the seas seems a foolish basis for any claim of Entitlement to tradition or heritage. But it was there to pick up if I chose. It has been the “Earning” part that has required some effort. I had to see it for myself.

It wasn’t enough to pick up a bit of history from books or the internet, to screw up the courage to wear my Lamont kilt in public, to struggle with the Great Highland Bagpipes for 30 years, or pretend to savour haggis, tatties and neeps. This was all part and parcel of the Earning process, but I had to see it, taste it and hear it in the place where it belonged: experience all the senses surrounding the land that was in my direct past. It was the only way to make sense of the few stories that had been handed down and the vague feeling that home was somewhere over there. In August 2011 I made my 6th, and perhaps final, pilgrimage to Fair Caledonia.

In 2009 while competing at the Fergus Highland Games Lauren won (once again) a free trip to Scotland. It was free in the sense that her airfare would be reimbursed to a certain amount. The rest of the trip would be funded by that common resource of most highland dancers, the parent’s pocketbook. With both parents in tow, that amounted to two additional return airfares, accommodation for 3, car rental, food and souvenirs and sundries. More free prizes like this could spell financial ruin. But where there’s a will, there’s a way and where there’s a way, the means can usually be found. On August 16, 2011, we boarded an Airbus A330 for Glasgow.

My first trip across the pond was during my mid-twenties in the traditional fashion of the time: pack on my back and a Youth Hostel card in my pocket. With two friends I trekked and trained from London to Bristol to Bath, then headed north to Edinburgh. I also had in my pocket the telephone number of a relative of my father’s, a Mister David Brown. When he learned of our arrival in Edinburgh, he swept down from Leven in Fife to carry us off and lavish us with his hospitality. That was a trip worthy of a story of its own. Trip number two was several years later with my new wife. We explored the strange highland highways and byways in a blue Honda Civic, grinding gears while terrifying oncoming traffic, dipping down into England’s Lake District and making the pilgrimage to the northern lands-end of John o’Groats (the lady at our Aberdeen B&B predicted, accurately, that we would be back the same day. John o’Groats was nothing but a photo op.) My third crossing was to accompany my father who wanted one last nostalgic trip to the land of his family’s roots and the site of some legendary leaves during the war, both before and after the injuries he sustained in Holland. His later trips were more subdued as he leaned on a cane. There were cousins for him to revisit and memories to re-live. He needed both a driver and some company and I was available. Trips four and five were a considerable time later. In 2004 and 2006, we took youngest daughter Lauren to compete at Cowal for the Worlds. As a youngster, she felt the old stirring in her blood and pursued highland dance, reaching a standard that warranted a shot at the highest awards that competitive Highland Dance could offer. She did rather well in my opinion.

At the 2009 Highland Games in Fergus Ontario, once again she was awarded a prize of “Airfare to Scotland”. Injuries and medical problems kept her on the ground the following year. But 2011 looked promising to take advantage of the prize. So by 7 am on August 16th we were gazing at our aircraft from the departure lounge at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. We were in very good company. With the World’s Championship approaching, the plane would be filling with hopeful dancers and their parents, many good friends over the years. In one of those “We’ll talk about this for years to come” moments, we heard our names called out. Old friends, the McLeods, were off to explore their Scottish roots, so we spent a pleasant 2 hours recalling old times and catching up on the new.

Our bags tumbled down the conveyor and joined the others on the carousel at Glasgow Airport.

This was becoming old hat with the only variations being the degree of security in effect based on the latest terrorist threats. The Hertz counter didn’t have what we ordered, so an upgrade was presented; a gleaming black & chrome Volkswagon Passat. It was luxurious and very large to negotiate on very narrow routes. Every control was digital and, to my shame, I had to run in to ask how to release the parking brake. (The answer? Stand on the brake pedal and press the illuminated (P) button on the dashboard. Simple to the initiated.) To my credit, I only got lost 3 times and had to ask directions twice on the short trip from the airport lot to our residence for the next 8 days: Thornly Park Campus of the University of the West of Scotland (UWS). It was a small residence complex in the rolling farmland just south of Paisley that normally served students. They would commute by bus, or their own vehicles, to the main campus in Paisley. Linda recalled this inexpensive alternative to hotel suites during our 2004 trip when we stayed in a dormitory complex at the university in Stirling. With the university year not yet started and summer school just ending, we had the entire flat to ourselves: 3 bedrooms, two baths, common area and kitchen. It wasn’t four-star, but the price was very reasonable, parking was free and the location was central. It was ideal.

On our first day, I got to meet Walter, the groundskeeper and general jack-of-all-trades for the complex. In my opinion, he was one of the real treasures of our trip to Scotland. I had three occasions to bump into him somewhere on the grounds and simply fall into a conversation that seemed to delight us both. He was pleasant and talkative, relating stories about his sons and his grandchildren, about the work that he did on the grounds, about how blessed he felt to be paid for puttering about, where he could watch deer grazing on the soccer fields in the morning and yet be within a fifteen-minute walk from his home. He was reluctant to even consider retirement though he was more than eligible. We took turns trading life stories. He was a gem.

Paisley – All I knew about Paisley I learned from a vinyl record album entitled “Songs From Paisley Abbey” by Kenneth McKellar, Scottish tenor extraordinaire. It seems I’ve had it forever. The abbey appeared magnificent on the front cover and the acoustics and the organ were heavenly. It was mostly psalms in the fine old King James dialect with a few Church of Scotland traditional favourites for good measure. Over the years I’ve practically worn the grooves smooth. One piece in particular so struck me that I had it played at my father’s funeral, Psalm 121: “I to the hills will lift mine eyes from whence doth come mine aid.” It still sends shivers.

So that was the extent of my acquaintance with Paisley until August 17, 2011. Even in a country where everything is old, Paisley must be reckoned old. It grew to prominence as a weaving centre during the industrial revolution as steam powered the looms and creative minds conceived the ubiquitous paisley pattern. Anyone who has wandered the aisles of a fabric or craft store will recognize the name Coats or Coats & Clark on the spools of thread or balls of wool. Dominating the city heights of Paisley is the William Coats Memorial Baptist Church and the word impressive does not do it justice. The museum, observatory and public library all owe their existence to the Coats family and the spinning and weaving industry they founded here. But all of this is recent history. There’s a pervading sense that the statue of Saint Mirin (6th – 7th century AD) standing near the White Cart Water that separates the town, could provide a better perspective on Paisley’s past. It is old. It is noble. It is sacred. It has seen glorious days. But it is in decline. There are many buildings, great and small, that are boarded up or stand with broken windows and peeling paint.

But it still has its charms. The war memorial at the town centre features a fully armoured knight sitting proud and defiant on horseback surrounded by weary soldiers in helmets and trench coats slogging along in Flanders mud. Across the way is the Piazza, a thoroughly modern shopping complex that provides a jarring contrast to the cobbled streets outside. Contrasts everywhere you look.

So Paisley became our base of operations for the next 9 days. It was central to just about everything we wanted to do: Glasgow, 12 minutes by train. Edinburgh, 1 hour by train. Ardrossan ferry to Arran, about 1 hour’s drive. The M8 was just 5 minutes away and that gave us access to the M9 and the north.

Scotland the Brave(-ish)

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