Friday, 5 October 2007


I’m a Highlander. True, I grew up in a polluted city in the dry and dusty Inland Empire of Southern California, but I’m a Highlander all the same. I went to Highland School, passing Highland Terrace to get there. We had a Dunbarton Place just around the corner, and at the local university all the dormitories had names like ‘Aberdeen,’ ‘Bannockburn,’ and ‘Inverness. Our neighborhood, further up in the hills than much of the surrounding area, was known informally as ‘the Highlands.’

Highlanders we may have been, but our town was hot. In the dead of winter, it sometimes got almost as cold as summers in the U.K., but in the summertime, temperatures could easily go as high as 105 degrees and stay there. The heat made most sensible people go indoors and turn on their air-conditioners. Quite apart from the discomfort of the heat itself, there were rattlesnakes about, and the hotter it was, the more they liked to come out and socialize.

Our local pipe band, however, didn’t show the slightest sign of minding the heat or worrying about snakes. Mainly elderly and middle-aged men, they proudly marched up and down the dusty sidewalks under the blistering afternoon sun, looks of great concentration on their faces. The sight of our elderly next-door neighbor, Mr MacDougall, with his hairy old-man legs and, to our silly minds, mini-skirt kilt, was too much for us kids to bear. We would run giggling and shrieking back into the house where our mother, fully aware of what we were laughing at, fiercely admonished us. Hush up! Stop that right now! Shame on you! Those men and their pipes were culture. Didn’t we know that our very own ancestors had dressed just the same? We snickered and bit our lips at the thought and tried to avoid each other’s eyes.

The MacDougalls were as sad a blight on our lives as we must have been on theirs. They were grumpy and no-nonsense; Mrs MacDougall frequently let my mother know that her own approach to child-rearing had been largely drawn from the Old Testament -- Proverbs, in particular. I was a reasonably well- behaved kid, but certainly less so than Mrs MacDougall’s rigidly brought up offspring. During my more spirited moments, I used to catch her giving me looks that clearly said Oh my girl, if you were mine . . . Decades before Hilary Clinton and her It takes a village to raise a child statement, Mrs MacDougall was determined to be part of the village that raised us. She kept an eagle eye out for our misdemeanors and watched our comings and goings with keen interest. For the most part we managed to steer clear of her, but when she came over to visit our mother, the strain of having to behave ourselves exhausted us.

Mr MacDougall was fiercely proud of his Scots ancestry and his own name in particular. He had a huge, dusty book that he frequently pored over: the Book of Clans, and could trace his own ancestors back to Robert the Bruce’s time. My mother once timidly mentioned my father’s and her own Scottish ancestry. What were their names? Mr MacDougall wanted to know. My mother didn’t know much about her own genealogy, so she started with my father’s side, the McKaigs. Mr MacDougall disappeared into his house and came out with his Book of Clans. McKaigs! he said scornfully. Didn’t even have their own clan! A bunch of worthless poets and philosophers! My mother could hardly have been more thrilled.

Years after I left my hometown, I went to Scotland and saw the real Highlands. All my life, I had felt cheated. Growing up in the heat and dust and pollution, I had longed for cool, green, rainy countryside, a land of waterfalls and rushing rivers. Someone had shown me a photograph of Inverness once, and I had been stunned and filled with envy. So the first time I entered the Highlands, I was prepared to find a difference so staggering that my sorry little hometown would shrink into a pitiful nothingness of overheated exhaust and decomposed granite.

Instead, I was gob-smacked: I was home! Okay, there was no smog, no sagebrush and no tumbleweed. There were no stucco ranch-style houses, no taco stands, no palm trees, no tangle of billboards, no signs in Spanish. And admittedly, there were waterfalls and twisting rivers and sheep grazing in fields, all things you would never find anywhere near my hometown. But geographically, the Highlands of Scotland were the Highlands I grew up in. The shape of the mountains, the rocks, the austere beauty. I was astounded at the similarities and felt like weeping with nostalgia and homesickness.

When our car had stopped in the midst of spectacular scenery to let a flock of sheep pass from one pasture to another, I suddenly heard the familiar whine of bagpipes. And from nowhere, a pipe band suddenly emerged. Mainly elderly and middle-aged men, they marched proudly down the street, looks of fierce concentration on their faces. Other tourists might have found it exotic. But to a Highlander like me, it felt just like home.


A Paperback Writer said...

I once heard a tourguide in Edinburgh say, "Scotland has been a poor country, and a poor country exports its people."
There is a Highland High School in my town, too. It's pep club is called the Lassies. The cheerleaders wear tartan uniforms.
Nearby are the Highland apartments,and the Caledonia apartments are downtown.
So many of the original white settlers in Utah had Scottish blood (although many were lowlanders, like my people) that EVERY parade in Salt Lake City begins with a pipe band, usually playing "Scotland the Brave."
When I spent my first full summer in Edinburgh, I went with some younger foreigners to see the Fringe Parade. Anca, my Romanian friend, was ecstatic over the pipe bands, and it finally occurred to me that not everyone assumed that a parade should begin with a pipe band, that only in Scotland and parts of the world with heavy Scottish influence would that be taken for granted.
I liked the Highland of Scotland, but the mountains looked too small to me. I can tell I have lowlander blood (yes, I know -- no mountains there) because it's the Edinburgh/Stirling area that I love.
I wrote a poem about my first trip to Clackmannan (where my g-g-grandmother was born) wherein I used the image that the dampness of the Scottish earth makes up the marrow of my bones, which would otherwise dry up in the desert heat of the place where I was born. I still feel this is true for me.

Brian said...

My home town , a mining community , was full of Pommy exports -- Welsh , Geordie , and my father's colliery , Bellbird , was mostly worked by Scottish miners , though he himself was a Stafford man ,

Pipe -- and brass bands -- abounded and one Masonic lodge -- now defunct -- was Lodge Caledonia.

My wife's ancestors came from Inverness and some from Offaly , ex-Kings County - whither they had migrated from Scotland.

My mother was a Macdonald ( sometimes spelled McDonald of MacDonald -- so I am not sure which clan branch applies !) but the mob have been a long time in Oz.

One early boss of mine was a poisonous character I nicknamed The Grey Snake
-- a Campbell .

Remember Glencoe !


allrileyedup said...

This is a great post, becuase I think of your old neighbors and the startup of elderly men playing music in Scotland, and I think that somewhat, the highlands were always within you, no matter where you were/are.


To be honest, I kept hoping you were going to make a reference to Highlander the TV series. Mainly because I have a sad addiction to that show.

Carolie said...

Loved this post. Was in tears at the end.

Eryl Shields said...

You've made me long for a trip up north, I haven't been for ages and the Highlands are wonderful at this time of year. We used to go to Plockton every September for the regatta which is such fun. Have you been to Plockton? It's great, the cows go for a walk up the main street every afternoon of their own volition.

Kim Ayres said...

I'm sure I read somewhere that while there are around 5 million people living in Scotland, there are 40 million people world wide who call themselves Scottish or of Scottish descent.

Certainly when I was in Nova Scotia, Canada, there was a considerable amount of ex-pat "more Scottish than the Scottish" feeling.

It's like that wonderful definition of a Kilt - an article of clothing worn by Scotsmen in America and by Americans in Scotland

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- There is a lot of truth in what that tour guide said, though it could be argued that the English and the Welsh did the same thing -- and indeed, many countries have exported their people. At certain points, however, the Scots did this with a will, and their descendants tend to hang onto their Scottishness with a fierceness that is quite remarkable.

Some years ago, my eldest and I appeared in a cooking program for children on Japanese television. She and I prepared cock-a-leekie. The other participants were a woman called Susan Burns and a man whose last name was Adamson. Susan was, as far as I could tell, 100% Vietnamese; Mr Adamson was from Ghana. I thought it was pretty funny: my daughter and I might have looked more ethnically Scottish and we knew how to make cock-a-leekie, but they had the Scots names.

As for the dampness of the Scottish earth, I absolutely love it. People here often ask me what I like about Scotland. I always answer 'the weather,' and they almost always assume I'm joking.

Brian -- Not so long ago I happened to see a marriage announcement in the paper: a Campbell and a MacDonald were getting married! I wondered how their families took it... It has always amused me that two of the big companies in the States are Campbells (soup) and MacDonalds (junk food). I wonder how that happened.

I remember reading about your Grey Snake, though -- wasn't he a teaching supervisor? And did he know your mother was a Macdonald?

ARU -- I'm so embarrassed. I didn't even know there was a t.v. series called Highlander! While we do have a t.v., it isn't hooked up so we can't watch it. And I have lived out of the States for so long that I am well and truly out of it. I just found out about who Paris Hilton was this year, for instance. I think I need a crash course in American culture; the next time I go back for a visit, I'm going to feel like Rip Van Winkle.

Carolie -- Sometimes I picture the first Scots visiting Southern California and saying to themselves 'The Highlands!' and it makes me want to cry, too!

Eryl -- Plockton sounds great. I'm a big fan of cows, especially when they are the kind who amble about in a friendly way. Cows who stroll around a town, though, would really impress me. I'll have to ask you how to get to Plockton!

Kim -- I love that definition, and it is so true.

Just recently I saw a man in Tesco's wearing kilt, sporran, Ghillie brogues, the whole get up -- even a tam o'shanter. He was also wearing an expression of self-conscious pride. I was dying to ask him if he was American; fortunately, before I could ask, he blew his own cover by asking someone where the pickles were. He sounded like he was from Georgia, or maybe Alabama. I give him credit for tricking himself out in a kilt in Scotland. That takes some guts.

debra said...

Many years ago, I was visiting a friend in Washington DC. We were walking very late at night. In the distance, we heard bagpipes. We followed the sound, and discovered pipers playing on the grounds of the National Cathedral. I am still moved to tears when I hear bagpipes.
Our house was built by a man named Dougall MacDougall in about 1830. I have always wondered what he was like...

Kim Ayres said...

Then there's always the old joke about how to tell the difference between a McDougal and a McDonald - lift the kilt and if it's self-raising, it's a McDougal and if it's a quarterpounder it's a McDonald...

ba-dum tish

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- Drums and bagpipes always get to me too, though here in this town I now associate them with twee shops full of tartans and tam-o-shanters and enrapt fellow Americans on heritage holidays. Although I usually change people's names in my postings, Mr MacDougall was really Mr MacDougall, and though he died some years back, he would have loved to hear about your Dougall MacDougall!

Kim -- I'm always the last one to hear a joke, and I love that one, which was entirely new to me. I eagerly told my husband, and he rolled his eyes and beat me to the punchline. He's heard it several dozen times, it appears. Damn.

Christy said...

It's funny which aspects of a region make it "home." I've found many places that I like, but only a few that I love. For me, it's all about pine forests.

And I'm being picky, but let's not call Paris Hilton American culture. I would hope that we have more to offer the world than celebutantes.

Carole said...

From the time I first heard bagpipe music, I was smitten. I absolutely love the sound. I've made John promise that when I die, he will do whatever it takes to have the pipes played at my funeral. I can hardly wait.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

My uncle was a Donald MacDonald and his father a Donald MacDonald, and his father a Donald MacDonald - his father was a Murdo. But that would make my uncle a cubed Donald MacDonald. When he emigrated to Canada in the 70s they just called him Mac.

Mary Witzl said...

Christy -- I love pine forests too: they always make me remember Georgia and the Florida panhandle, back before development took over.

As for Ms Hilton, how about pop culture, or perhaps sub-culture?

Carole -- I agree with you about bagpipes; there is something about them that is really stirring. And yes, it's enough to make you look forward to your own funeral. I'd like drums too, and some really mawkish country music...

Sam -- Mr MacDougall, bless his bony old legs, was also 'Mac.' The only difficult thing about naming people after ancestors and relatives is that it is tiresome for mathematically challenged descendants who wish to do their genealogy.