“Do you think we’ll see anyone that looks like your nan or your dad in Scotland?”
The question was posed by my wife after visiting cemeteries in her ancestors’ tiny Irish village of Inchigeelagh. We were on the first leg of our summer vacation with friends. Scotland would be next. I thought of Nan — she had eyes as the bluest of skies and a stoic demeanor that masked the most magnificent of laughs. When she was disapproving, she would lower her chin, lips pursed, eyes narrowed and you knew … like my dad.
While ambling over lumpy, sunny grounds, we perused headstones for signs of Kathy’s clan, “Moynihan” finally appearing under words of loving remembrances across numerous weathered tablets.
Other stones bore familiar names of those back home in Lowell, where a rich heritage endures — “Sheehan.” “Murphy.” “McCarthy.” “Creegan.”
Her question had stoked a recent realization of mine. For many years, I have reveled in (and admittedly, at times, rolled my eyes at) all things Irish, whilst barely experiencing my own roots. Irish butter, Irish coffee and Irish cream. “Kiss me I’m Irish” and the wearin’ of the green, but nary a tartan or kilt beyond Hollywood cliché.
So much Emerald Isle, so little Land of Scots.
Although the Scottish did not migrate to the States in the same proportions —in fact, Ireland has yet to return to pre-famine population levels — Nan chose to leave her own small town of Tayport, alone, at age 20. She arrived in Massachusetts to no Scottish community — except for a “scoundrel” of an older brother with whom she ultimately cut ties. We were always proud of our heritage, but it occurs to me that maybe Nan focused more on assimilation than on romancing her past. I now wonder if that’s true and why.
As we drove throughout these two countries, I was reminded fondly of my first trip to Scotland 42 years ago with my grandparents; I also came to realize as many new curiosities arose that, at age 12, I had been more interested in reading books about Scotland than actually engaging with elder Scottish aunts and uncles — now a deep regret.
Along our recent journey I sought to compare Irish vs. Scottish culture and wondered what perspective Nan could have shared? After some “research” at the Jameson Distillery in Cork, as whisky and ginger morphed into the early-vacation drink of choice, I smiled while remembering how much Nan enjoyed her late afternoon “highball.” While visiting St. Andrews, I lamented having been unable to share in her reverence when she spoke so proudly of golf’s birthplace being in her own backyard. As we made our way through the stunning and treacherous Scottish Highlands, I wondered if she had ever been there, growing up nearby 100 years ago. Witnessing hundreds of rowers, hikers and bikers, I wondered if she would embrace Scotland’s liberal lack of trespassing laws, allowing travelers to camp almost anywhere, including private property. During visits to the Dalwhinnie and Oban distilleries in the Speyside region, and then the Western Isles — a new favorite drink emerging — I could not recall Nan showing an affinity for a “wee dram” of her native scotch. Was it simply a flavor preference?
I was reminded daily of her love of scones and jam — items served every morning in both Ireland and Scotland, where hearty breakfasts remain the norm. We enjoyed other past favorites of Nan’s: fish and chips, and steak pie, yet I have no recollection of whether she liked smoked salmon, a prevalent local delicacy. I do recall those pursed lips making clear her disdain of haggis, a common comfort dish still often cooked in a sheep’s stomach! But did Nan fancy any typical haggis accompaniments, such as skirlie, Yorkshire pudding and “neeps and tatties”? (Or were they partly the reason she left home?)
The questions and curiosities continued. We discovered widespread sustainable practices in both countries — comprehensive recycling, prolific replanting of trees, paper straws. Nan repurposed her whole life and wore her self-ascribed badge of “thrifty Scot” with honor. Was that simply economic prudence or a deeper cultural ethic?
In Tayport, we searched fruitlessly for evidence of my kin on the Church of Scotland grounds despite knowing that for all their mysticism and emotional gravitas, cemeteries offer few answers.
As vacation and a harborside dinner wound down, I was drawn to a stoic, blue-eyed Scottish grandmother sternly staring down her precocious granddaughter. I thought of Nan again while Kathy and I alternated spoonfuls of the special dessert — reminiscent of Nan’s favorite “trifle” — and contemplated whether its name, “Knickerbocker Glory,” would have caused her to throw back her head and laugh out loud!
I can see her now …
Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which we’ve archived here on our website.