On August 18th, 1992, Michael and I left Normal, Illinois where we had taught for four years. We were bound for Aberdeen, Scotland to make a new life. Our two beloved cats, Tinker and Mischka, had been airshipped six weeks earlier and so had already served part of their six-month quarantine sentence. The crates had been packed, our house sold, many things had been ticked off of long lists, and we were very eager to start the next chapter of our lives. We’d been planning and saving for our jump across the Atlantic for a long time. I remember when Michael took the job in Aberdeen, a friend from graduate school said, “Well you’ve been talking about it for years but I didn’t actually think you’d do it!”
For Michael it was a jump back home. The fact that he didn’t want to settle in the States was an understanding we’d had from the beginning. For me it was a jump to a place I believed I would feel at home – although prior to this day twenty years ago, I had actually never set foot in Scotland. I’d been to Ireland and England many times since I was a teenager (and had lived in France, which is quite a different thing). Especially in Ireland, I’d experienced the sensation that many other people have described to me, a kind of feeling of homecoming. I was thrilled by the prospect of learning Gaelic, and of being in a Celtic country. Michael had taken lots of photos during his interview days, and I had read up about Aberdeen – one of whose nicknames, like Portland’s, is the City of Roses. After four years in a grid of cornfields, I was longing for curvy roads and TREES.
The flight from London took us over cloudless skies and up along the East coast of Britain. As we came into land in Aberdeen, all I could see were golden fields! It looked suspiciously like Illinois. (Jill of Land of the Big Sky will know just what I mean.) “But you promised there would be trees!” I said, alarmed. “There are – on the other side, you just can’t see them.” I held my breath as the plane banked. Gradually, the Grampian mountains and the dark green of forests swung into view, and I let out a true sigh of relief. We took a taxi to a B&B, and all the roadsides seemed to be graced by the purply blooms of what I now know is rosebay willowherb.
Every year at this time, when I see the rosebay willowherb in bloom, I feel happy at the memory of coming to Scotland. My instinct was correct: I have felt very at home here indeed. There were lots of things to get used to and for the first few months I felt incredibly incompetent – like being 13 again. Lord knows how many loads of laundry I ruined the first few weeks, how many confuzzled conversations I had with people where I either couldn’t understand a word of their Doric, or the things they were talking about had no meaning to me. Driving out to visit the cats was a bit of an adventure for the first wee while. But I have been very happy here. So many of my ancestors have travelled the other way. I have the journal of one of my great-great-grandmothers who was brought from Switzerland to Utah by the Mormons. Her journey was far more perilous than mine, and she probably never saw her family again, whereas mine have loved coming to visit me in Scotland.
I was able to study Gaelic for four years, and strangely we met our son – who was born in Aberdeen at almost the exact time we left the USA to come here – the day after my last examination. He and the Dafter both benefited from Gaelic Medium Education and for many years our family was part of a very special Gaelic community, not only in Aberdeen but also including so many friends in Benbecula, Harris and Lewis. We have made amazing friends in Scotland, and I have found a church home here as well. Needless to say living in a rainy and cloudy part of the world, with forests, mountains and the ocean close by, doesn’t bother me. Scotland has always reminded me very much of Oregon.
We’re still a slightly transatlantic family, as I’ve written about here. I have tried hard to keep my American accent, although I think it probably has migrated a bit too. Scottish people often say I have a “soft” American accent, while Americans will say, “Boy you sure have a Scaaddish accent there!” I do tend to pronounce my Ts (KaTy not Kadie) and now am more likely to say “Styupid” or “syuitcase” rather than “stoopid” or “sootcase”. I don’t generally say “aye” but “och” has taken a very useful place in my vocabulary (often followed by “well”). However, I cling to the expressions I grew up with, and the speech of my grandparents still rings in my ears. This is the same as for so many emigrants to America – all the Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans who keep some of the old ways despite a generation or more distance.
So this year it has been 20 turns of the wheel since that arrival. It seems amazing to me! Many things have happened and changed, but fortunately I still feel as happy to live in Scotland as ever. (Or “as ever I did”!)
I hope you’re all having a relaxing weekend.