Posted by: christinelaennec | August 18, 2012

Emigration – 20 years ago today

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!”

View over Tarskavaig to the Cuillins, Isle of Skye.

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.



  1. What a lovely post and a very happy 20th anniversary! You’ve certainly thrown yourself into living in Scotland and and embracing so much of what there is here. Learning Gaelic is very impressive indeed – you’ve got one over on most Scots there. It’s great that people move around like you have, and that we can exchange things with other cultures. Britain is all the richer for its multicultural make-up and I’m delighted to hear that the weather hasn’t put you off. 🙂

  2. Thanks for celebrating your emigration anniversary with us, Christine. While my moves have been back and forth across the United States, your post resonates with the sense of satisfaction and joy that I feel about the rightness of where I have lived in the past and presently where I am living now in Boring, Oregon…which is not the least bit boring =)
    Happy weekend to you and yours, too.
    Gracie x

  3. This was a really wonderful story. I wonder how you met your son? I’m so glad you did:) It was brave to leave for the Us for a new life in Scotland. One of my best friends left for Australia quite a few years ago, to live with her husband in his country. They now have a daughter, but she’s torn between the two countries – and dream to come back. But good that you like it in Scotland! At least you have a lot of fog, we never have fog!!!

  4. Congratulations on twenty years in a true home.

  5. What a lovely story! I don’t know if you taught at Wesleyan or ISU. I am a proud alum of ISU and still live in Central Illinois. I would certainly love to live in Scotland and can understand how you came to love it. I do hope though that you still have at least a few positive memories of Central Illinois. Anyhow, I enjoy it here in my grid of cornfields. 🙂

  6. I very much enjoyed reading this story; thanks Christine. I’ve often wondered what your voice would sound like. I still have very little real idea but I can now imagine something a little more specific. I find it interesting to wonder what such a migration would be like. As you know, my brother migrated from Sydney to Dundee, and I’ve read quite a few (fiction) books by North American authors about people who traveled from the UK to Canada and the USA, but I have never been outside Australia myself (I don’t even have a passport), so the experience is (and will probably remain) in my imagination. As for learning Gaelic, it must have helped enormously to help you feel a real part of your new country and not just a temporary visitor. I’m afraid I’d be one of those people who desperately cling to their own language and I’m hopeless at learning new languages. I’m having trouble even coming to grips with the few Scottish (dialect unknown) phrases on the tea towel my brother gave me!

  7. It’s nice to hear that you are happy with your decision to leave your homeland and make a new start in a foreign land, a very difficult thing for some. But you have embraced the challenges of a new dialect and customs with enthusiasm (not many people can learn new languages, especially Gaelic!) and curiosity that you share with all of us on your many lovely adventures. It does sound rather romantic to follow your true love across the sea to such a beautiful land of castles, moors, lochs, tartans, and royalty. A lovely story, indeed. xx

  8. So glad you came!

  9. I admire you for making the leap to a new life, Christine. And I’m heartened to know that you and your family have found happiness in your surroundings. Wishing you well, as always.

  10. Happy 20 anniversary as Scots 🙂 I loved reading your story. I don’t know why, but I always thought you had moved on your own, and met your husband in Aberdeen. Now I’m curious about your teaching life 🙂

  11. What an interesting reflective post! I wish I had the same affection for Aberdeen, but sometimes “home” is not where you want to stay!

  12. It was nice to read the story of how you ended up in SCotland. You must have so many interesting memories from the last 20 years. Daily I am thinking and dreaming of what we will do during our 6 weeks in Scotland next fall. I am surrounding myself with all kinds of delightful books.

  13. I really enjoyed reading this post. I’m glad you decided to come to Scotland, and having had the pleasure of meeting you, I agree that you do have a lovely, soft accent. I’m not sure I’d be brave enough to put roots down in another country….well done! xx

  14. A lovely memoir of your arrival here. Did you expect to be celebrating such an anniversary one day, I wonder, or did that just seem like a lifetime away?

  15. Happy 20th anniversary! 🙂
    Scotland is a lovely country and hubby and I have met many fab people, but I think the rubbish weather will put me off sooner or later…

  16. Happy 20th Anniversary, I celebrated my 25th anniversary of living in the UK on July 7th but I have not been in one place all this time. However, I feel very much at home in the UK and couldn’t see myself living in Germany again.
    Here’s to many more happy years from one foreign girl to another.
    Hugs and xx

  17. Dear All,
    Thank you very much for celebrating with me!

    Lorna – as you know so well, there is so much to see and do in Scotland. I’ve always felt welcomed by the Scots – like yourself!

    Gracie – You’re so right. Having been brought up on the West Coast and spent years studying and working on the East Coast and the Midwest of the USA, I think those moves really are like an emigration to another country. I felt far more disoriented moving from Oregon to Connecticut than from the States to Scotland! I’m so glad you like Boring. I hear from other people too that it fails to live up to its name.

    Mali – Emigrating wasn’t particularly brave for me, but I know others who, like your friend, remain torn and I’m very glad that hasn’t happened to me. You just never know until you’re in the situation. It was the social work department who “matched” us with our son, after many months of interviews and references and approvals by panels, etc. The Dafter then arrived in the normal way, astonishing everyone! Such a cliche but it’s true.

    Sigrid – Thank you. I have yet to do the “Where I’m from” exercise! I think most people end up emigrating one way or another, if only from how a place was in the past to how it is in the present.

    Jan – We taught at ISU. “To gladly learn and gladly teach” I believe? (Nevermind the split infinitive – Chaucer perhaps?) I have many good memories of Illinois. Amongst them: Bishop Hill, Arthur where the Amish live, cross-country skiing in the winter, frozen custard (in summer) and the railway/bike path where I used to skate for miles! My fondest memories are of my students at ISU. They were so humble, unpretentious and genuine – a joy to teach. I loved participating in their discoveries with them.

    oldblack – I think my accent depends quite a bit on whom I’m speaking to. If I’m on the phone to my mother or sister, I become much more American. Yes, learning Gaelic was the passport to a world within a world for me and my family. But I think that can happen in many ways, if one is lucky. Does your teatowel not come with a CD for pronunciation? 🙂

    Karen – yes, I am lucky to have been so very happy here. I guess it does sound romantic, the way you put it. Of course there have been a lot of parts of it that have been very ordinary – it’s all a matter of perspective! You lead a bit of a fairytale life yourself, seen from the outside.

    Jill and Martin – thank you both so much!

    Dorit – Lovely to hear from you! Most people in Aberdeen assume my husband must be in the oil industry and must be American. There isn’t a category for “returning academic Brit”! My teaching history is roughly: French and Women’s Studies for over 15 years, and for the past 8 years, academic skills particularly academic writing. Not very interesting but fun for me!

    Roobeedoo – clearly we ought to have been switched at birth! You would love Portland, Oregon. I will say, though, that it hasn’t always been the coolio city it is now. You would have found a lot of provincialism there years ago, I think. By the way, did you see the Annie Lennox exhibition at the Art Gallery? There until the end of September I think. Very funny indeed.

    Heather – how fun, planning a six-week journey to Scotland! I hope you have a fantastic time. Let me know if you think I can be of any help.

    Tina – well I’m glad you don’t find my twang too grating! As for making a leap, I believe you know yourself that love gives one amazing courage.

    fifona – You know, there was one time, a few weeks after we’d moved here, when I was going past St. Peter’s cemetery on King Street and I suddenly thought, “I might end up there!” I had a real sense of permanency.

    Kia – I imagine if you’ve grown up in a country like Italy you would find Scottish weather an ordeal. I think it’s just what a person is used to – or gets used to. After living in the extreme cold and heat of the US East Coast and Midwest, the temperate weather here is bliss to me.

    Karibu – Happy 25th Anniversary! So nice to know it’s not just me who has taken root.

  18. Christine, what a lovely post. I am only catching up with reading your posts now but how wonderful to read your story and that you are so accomplished in the Gaelic language. I had no idea that cats had to be quarantined so long.

    • Hi ajb, I’m glad you liked this post. Gaelic is a beautiful language, and I don’t use it as much these days as I wish. Yes, animals from outwith the EU must be quarantined for six months to be sure they don’t have rabies. I think pets within the EU can come and go from Britain with valid vaccination certificates now. I hope so anyway!

  19. loved hearing how you ended up in Scotland and the beginnings of your new life there…so fascinating for me.

    • Dear Lisa, I’m glad it’s interesting to you! Your life, with all your hectic sporting events, seems very different from mine too. But the core values are pretty similar – family, faith, needlework… 🙂

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