After 26 hours of travel (taxi to Victoria bus depot, Pacific Coach Lines bus to ferry, PCL to Vancouver airport, 9 hours over the Arctic to Gatwick where the whole world has gathered to queue in the Cheapo Air/Easyjet check-in line up, on to the plane headed for Inverness: no-reservations -allowed-knees-to-chin seating, gale force winds in the Scottish Highlands and the pilot has to abort several landing attempts flying low over Loch Ness – on the second pass over the dark water I see a few sinister ripples on the grey surface -before he can get the plane onto the runway). I’m still recovering from a bout of end of term pneumonia, and Pierre swallows painkillers for a slipped disc with the last mouthful of mineral water from the flight. We stand with the other arrivees like a group of somnambulists staring at the unclaimed dented metal suitcase with its frayed bungee cord that loops its lonely way around on the luggage conveyor belt. We are a mainly silent group, but next to me, I eavesdrop on the following conversation:
Young man: Yes. It was altogether lovely weather in London. Sunny and warm, a promising beginning to summer. Have you heard by chance the forecast for Inverness?
Older man: I have but then, you probably already know it yourself.
Young man and older man in unison: Changeable! (both laugh).
Young man: Well, we live in hope.
Older man: You’ve got that right, lad.
There is one small taxi waiting and at least twenty-five of us looking for a way into town. Everyone insists that the other groups go first. We stand with our backs to the wind and spitting rain, clutching flyaway scarves and inside out umbrellas. Taxis arrive one by one at twenty minute intervals. Maybe it is the same taxi, maybe Inverness only has one taxi, it occurs to me when finally it is just Pierre and I waiting forlornly next to our dripping suitcases. Neither of us has a mobile phone, so we try to reassure one another: we live in hope. The whole airport has shut down and the staff gone home when our taxi finally pulls up and takes us into Inverness. En route, our driver gives us a blow by blow recounting of the battle of Culloden (the battle field is just outside the city as is Cawdor castle where the unsuspecting King Duncan met his reckoning at the pointy end of Macbeth’s dagger). The driver pulls up in front of a tidy two story gabled stone house whose sign, swinging in the relentless wind announces Bannerman B&B. Inside is as neat and functional as outside, a sunny breakfast room looking onto a patch of lawn where Hugo, the chocolate lab laconically nudges a green tennis ball with his nose. A narrow thick-carpeted creaky staircase leads up to our room, immaculate, cosy, a desk with a teapot and kettle, a packet of Scottish shortbread cookies and a gabled window overlooking the road that leads to Loch Ness. The bed beckons but we agree to force ourselves to stay up, stroll in our jet-lagged fog along the River Ness that bisects the city. We sleepwalk across a narrow pedestrian bridge and pass the Inverness castle that now serves as the law courts, and walk up the High Street, trying to remember to look right before left at intersections. We find a bank machine that gives us Scottish pounds sterling (who knew?) and a noisy cheerful pizzeria with a wood-fired oven and an Italian waiter who assures us that a glass of the house Montepulciano will cure all our ills. And he is right.
The three and a half weeks of our voyage in the UK and France will be divided into three sections: a 4 day “roots pilgrimage” in the Scottish Highlands to visit the ancestral home of my husband’s MacKenzie clan relations, then an academic conference entitled What Happens Next: Writing in the New Millennium at Lincoln University, and finally a research portion in Paris and Burgundy for a planned novel project based on a true event, a bicycle journey that took place just after Paris was liberated in August, 1944.
Both my husband and I are made up of Scottish DNA: Viking, or Pictish, Celtic or Norman. Maybe even Roman. All these peoples have staked their claim in Scotland at one time or another. Pierre is half Scottish through his father, half French through his mother. I am almost 100 percent Scottish. Pierre’s paternal ancestors, MacKenzies, immigrated from a fishing village in the west Scottish Highlands to Vancouver around the turn of the century. Soon after, Pierre’s grandfather, Hector MacKenzie, a reputed bagpipe master, enlisted with the Seaforth Highlanders and became one of the so-called “ladies from Hell” as he piped the WWI troops into battle across the muddy war-torn landscape of Western Europe. From him and his ancestors, my children have inherited kilt pins and hose brooches; a set of pipes was given to a piper in Seattle so they would be played and not deteriorate; a nephew has a moth-eaten kilt. There are photographs and letters, war medals and certificates. Things that make palpable the family history.
My own family came to Canada before the turn of the twentieth century. My paternal great grandfather, a blacksmith, signed his immigration papers with an x. I have inherited a name, McCachen, that is a phonetic rendering; the clan to which I belong, untraceable. Could be McKeachen or Maclaughlin, Mckracken or McKechern, the store clerks in the tartan shops speculate, holding out bolts of plaid woollens and inviting me to choose the one I like. My father speaks of it as a point of pride that there are only four McCachens to be found in the world and they are all members of his immediate family. For me, although there is something to be said for this unique status (we are easy to locate in the phone book), as Pierre and I explore the streets and museums, old churches and castles of Scotland, I can’t help but feel somewhat bereft, a little envious at the ubiquitous MacKenzie name; we find it everywhere, engraved on name plates and gravestones, on historical plaques and modern business signs. There are everyday MacKenzie tartans and dress MacKenzie tartans. On war memorials we find long lists of MacKenzies who died young on far-flung battlefields. There are time-worn stone tombs bearing the MacKenzie name at the beautiful ruined medieval priory at Beauly (so-called after a visit by 16th century Mary Queen of Scots who, charmed by the little town and gracious priory, pronounced it “un beau lieu”. This little apocryphal story reminds me of another in which a French servant cooked up a sweet orange confection for Queen Mary because “Marie est malade” and hence invented orange marmalade).
Pierre and I rent a car for two days and drive out into the wild heather covered mountains of the highlands, a journey we thought would be leisurely but which turns out to be terrifying, especially on the first day. Sitting on the left side of the vehicle as we tear through the rugged countryside (speeds sign-posted at 80 are wishful thinking-no passing lanes or shoulders means a long line of impatient drivers behind if you are foolhardy enough to obey the speed limit) under a bruised looking sky that rumbles a threat every now and again, I have the constant impression we are heading off the side of the road, which is lined either by trees or water or gullies. Pierre can’t get used to shifting gears with his left hand. The vehicle smells mysteriously of mutton. “Piped in for the tourists?” we speculate. Cars seem to be heading straight for us on the wrong side of the road. And indeed they often are as, nearing the Isle of Skye, the highway becomes a one lane track with pull-offs every few hundred metres that allow two vehicles to pass. In Victoria, we have a photograph of the ancestral home at Loch Carron, our destination. Pierre’s great grandfather and great grandmother pose, unsmiling, in front of a whitewashed stone house with thatched roof and wooden door, he with a white shaggy beard and dark suit and she in a tall feathered black hat and floor length black skirt. There are shrubs by the stone steps that could be hydrangea, a couple of dishcloths dry draped over an open window. She has the high cheekbones and broad forehead of my husband’s father and brothers and of Pierre himself. Still it comes as a bit of a shock to meet these same features on the face of the man who serves us our tea and gooseberry fool in the single tea shop in Loch Carron. “Ask him his name,” I nudge Pierre. “Tell him who you are.” But a taciturn nature is also a family characteristic. We drain our four quid cups of tea, zip up our rain jackets and go out to walk the length of the village.
Loch Carron is a “linear village”, the town consisting of a single street of neat stone houses stretched out along the loch. Steep crags and slopes rise up above the loch on both sides, barren even of sheep. Besides the tea shop there a couple of B&B’s, a Tesco general store, a post office and a butcher’s (we investigate… lots of sausage, lots of beef, not a leg of mutton to be seen), an old church with a graveyard in which every other stone bears the MacKenzie name. Later that afternoon we visit the iconic Eilean Donan castle that juts out on a rocky promontory near Kyle of Lochalsh. We are a little disappointed when we make our way across the stone causeway to discover the castle is almost completely a reconstruction, the displays of furniture and kitchenware and Scottish regalia mainly from the early 20th century. Still with highland gale pelting the tall stone walls and the narrow stairways that lead from one floor to the next, the place is atmospheric enough to conjure images of a hand-wringing Lady Macbeth treading the stone floors, or a group of Scottish warlords plotting their next battle stratagem.
At the Inverness Museum, we see the remnants of Pictish and Celtic civilizations, stone fragments engraved with intriguing Pictish runes depicting horsemen and animals and symbols, especially the comb and the mirror, objects of mysterious significance that might indicate status or lineage or mystical significance. Some engravings remind me of petroglyphs I have seen in the rocky outcroppings of Gabriola Island and at East Sooke Park. Many are fairly simple, depicting wolves and salmon, serpents and a mysterious creature known only as “Pictish beast.” Others are more complex and sophisticated: horses and riders, complex cross carvings in bas relief. There are a few bronze bangles and shards of pottery, a stone quern for grinding grain, a spindle whorl for weaving, a few bone combs. But aside from a references to the Picts in writings by Bede and by the Romans (to whom can be attributed the name Pict meaning painted ones), not much remains of this mysterious ancient civilization who inhabited the Inverness area before it was fought over and repeatedly changed hands, the city and castle burned again and again by warring clans between the 11th and 17th century, before fishing gave way to the wool trade and the surrounding countryside was denuded of trees to make way for sheep pastures. Is it my own sense of uprootedness, my lack of clan connections that draws me to these Pictish stones and artifacts? A few years back, my sister in Calgary, also curious about the family ancestry, undertook some research into the murky family past. She maintains that we McCachens are descendants of the Eachen (meaning horsemen) family of Ireland, that our forebears were Pictish princesses who emigrated from Ireland to Scotland around the second century AD (the Pictish were a matrilineal society). When she told me of her discoveries, several years ago, I gave the idea little thought, but now, I have to admit I like the idea of this romantic/feminist lineage. I make rubbings of some of the Pictish designs with pencil crayons from the wood reproductions in the children’s section of the museum to give to her when I get home. As I observe the wolf and horse designs transferred in blue pencil crayon, it strikes me that the human desire for connection to the past, and the urge to create artefacts for the future is both mysterious and obvious—both a spiritual quest and a denial of mortality. Our contemporary stories, like this blog, are endlessly editable, easlily deleted while these ancient stones, like poets and soothsayers, talk to us but refuse to give up all their secrets.
Early on the fourth morning of our European sojourn we catch a second cab (So there are at least two in Inverness), this one driven by a Glaswegian with an accent so thick all I can do is nod and smile, so little of what he says do I understand, and the trip to the station is too short for long explanations. We board a train and Pierre heaves a wistful sigh of regret as the heather and sheep dotted slopes slowly subside, giving way to the flat green farmland of the English midlands. He tells me how it is somehow mysteriously thrilling to experience the Highland landscape, how he would like to come back and hike through the hills, find the standing stones and, now we are over the jet-lag, sample a peaty glass of scotch–say Orange Morangie (We’d passed the distillery with its tasting room on our way to Loch Carron). But I am excited when I see the enormous gothic hulk of Lincoln cathedral loom up onto the horizon. We’ve begun our trip by looking at the past. The conference, or so it claims, is a look into the future, at least the literary future. One plenary session to be given at the Lincoln conference is entitled “Can literature save the planet?” Yes, I think. Of course it can. We live in hope.