Last week we took a much needed trip as a family. Not a visit mind you, as that’s something we do fairly regularly to see our family, which spread over three different countries, but a trip. An actual vacation. Our first one in over three years.
Despite his wacky British-meets-New-Jersey accent my husband is Scottish, with two very Scottish parents who trill their r’s and refer to our girls wee smashers and have an unapologetic fondness for oatcakes and haggis. I often forget this, but this past week I gained more unexpected insight about both my husband and his side of the family, than I would have ever thought imaginable in what was in essence a ‘family road trip’. It never ceases to amaze me the power of experiencing a culture up close.
Having gone through the rigmarole it takes to become a British citizen, I thought I had a fairly good understanding of the UK’s history, via my studies for the life in the UK test- a compulsory exam required to pass in order to advance the citizenship process. And yet, as we drove through the idyllic rolling green hills of the Scottish Highlands, heaving with bleating new lambs and big mama sheep and little else, I learned for the first time why this area of the country had more livestock than people. The Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in the King commanding the English army to burn down thousands of local homes, driving out families and farmers that had spent generations on their land. Thousands of Highland Scotts were forced into exile, either to the Scottish coast, where the kelp industry was dying and the land was not rich enough for farming (so basically they were strapped for both food and income) or abroad to Australia and North America, that is if they weren’t killed on the spot or sold into slavery. The newly ‘acquired’ land was swiftly re-purposed for the lucrative business of sheep rearing for wool, sheep now considered more valuable than the people who had previously lived there.
The paradox of looking out of the window at this beautiful landscape, and the shock of hearing its bloody and brutal history for the first time, left me utterly speechless. It served as a reminder that the histories that we are forced to learn no matter where in the world, whether as children, adults or as immigrants, will always be written by the victors and those in power. It highlighted the importance of continual curiosity for the real story and history, not just what is promoted in the average text book.
Other points that were brought to light during our trip, which endeared the Scottish culture to me even more was learning that both speaking of Scottish Gaelic and the playing of bagpipes were outlawed during the Highland Clearances; the bagpipes in particular were deemed as an ‘instrument of war’. They were continued to be played in secret, keeping the tradition alive. My mother-in-law was insistent that bagpipes be played at the engagement party she threw for us (there were also flamenco dancers there from Granada but that’s another story altogether). At the time I thought it was just a sweet cultural gesture, but I now understand the significance and power behind her request. I too can appreciate the desire and pleasure taken in appreciating and celebrating something ingrained in your culture that was once forced to be hidden. (Though as an aside I’m slightly comically baffled at the idea of secret bagpipe playing, given their strength of sound! Like secret tuba playing..) Other traditions that were banned as a form of oppression also included traditional Highland dress and tartans, all of which provided a sense of history, connection and lineage. To think that simultaneously land was being seized to produce wool and yet the tartan, which uses a considerable amount of the product in order to keep warm was forbidden…it’s all a bit baffling.
Given all of this newfound knowledge, mixed with the picture-book landscape, I actually found myself feeling somehow a bit more patriotic and kindred towards all things Scottish, including the haggis at which I had previously turned up my nose. It didn’t hurt that with each restaurant, cafe or bar offering their own unique version if it, I was able to try a few really delicious versions, rather than being held a captive audience to the once-a-year, zero-choice offerings I had previously experienced. I also appreciated both the frugality of using the offal mixed with barley and spices, as well as the versatility and innovation of the sheep’s stomach that traditionally is used as lining- making for the perfect ‘take away’ or ‘to go’ vessel for back when men would make the journey from the Highlands down to Edinburgh to sell their livestock. Genius really… The flow of beer and whisky and the tablet chasers didn’t hurt the tastings either.
I have always been keen on travel. My mother jokes that from about the age of twelve I have always had a suitcase at the ready ‘just in-case’ (much like my dad’s mother). Living apart from family of course gives us good reason to travel. But this trip highlighted another form of travel that I love just as much, for very different reasons. Now that the girls are old enough to actually appreciate the experience, I find this practice of visiting new places more important than ever, and I will do my best to prioritise it as much as possible. Being able to show our children the world whilst experiencing all its history, nuance and magic right along with them has got to be one of the best gifts we can give to them, and ourselves.