I’m writing while on a train through the Scottish Highlands, from Mallaig to Stranraer, along a track cut close into jagged cliffs, skirting the ocean. It is a clear, sunny day, and the landscape reminds me of Cape Town.
Claire and I arrived in Aberdeen a week ago, to visit Peterculter, on its outskirts, where my grandfather spent his early life, and to properly meet his cousin, living about an hour away, in Ballater. We lugged our backpacks through long, grey streets to eventually reach the city’s only hostel, the Aberdeen SYHA.
Aberdeen is constructed entirely from granite. Once a destination for Glasgow’s bucket and spade brigade, come to swim in the freezing North Sea, it was optimistically called “the silver city by the golden sands.” The constant sameness of granite brick upon identical, granite brick provokes a rather loathe respect. The buildings are gloomy, and must be morbidly so in the icy winters, but they are also solid and unmatchably enduring.
We could only be checked in later that afternoon, so we dropped off our bags and found a bus to Peterculter. My grandfather lived there with his grandparents until he shortly before his tenth birthday.
He had sketched me a map from what I imagine to be hazy memories, of both those early years and the few visits since. The map pointed to a Rob Roy monument, the village cemetery, where his grandparents, the Davidsons (my great, great grandparents), are buried, and his old home.
We arrived in the village, once distinct but now absorbed into Aberdeen’s urban sprawl, and set about finding what was once known as 17 Church Terrace, where the Davidsons had lived. The name of the road has changed to Deeside Drive, and, consequently, so have all the numbers.
The map gave a clear idea of where the house should be. It was the ninth house down, coming from Aberdeen, and faced the left hand window of the church opposite, shown to me in an old photograph. Unfortunately the two details contradicted, the ninth house down did not face the church.
An elderly gentleman, unhurriedly trimming his hedge, noticed these two unfamiliar camera slingers pacing up and down his road. He called us over and in the course of a lengthy conversation we learnt that he was 82, the same age as my grandfather, had grown up before aeroplanes became commonplace (he chased after them as a boy), and had only moved to Peterculter two years before “the war”. So he had arrived in 1937, roughly three years after my grandfather left for South Africa. He did not know of the Davidsons and couldn’t remember the road ever being called Church Terrace. He could only suggest that we go to the Council Offices, a little further down the road.
Feeling not unlike the famous five, clutching our treasure map, Claire and I strode down to the converted house now occupied by Peterculter’s Town Council. I felt compelled to knock before entering and tentatively approaching a brusque young clerk. I quickly explained myself, pointing assuredly at the map, while she sat staring at me, bemused.
An older woman eventually appeared from the adjoining office, listened, took note of 17 Church Terrace and Davidson, then disappeared. She reappeared a few minutes later, bearing some manner of survey, but could not help. Her records did not go far enough back.
We did a little research in the pub later on, but only found old men whose memories were obscured by drink. As a last resort, we took photographs of every possibility, hoping that my grandfather would later be able to identify what was once his home.
The next item on this odd ancestral agenda was to find the graves of my very distant forebears. After scouring Peterculter’s cemetery, full of Davidsons and McRaes, we found the correct headstone, bearing the names James Davidson and Flora Leith McRae. Flora would have been known as Davidson throughout her married life, but the Scots mark the graves of women using their maiden names, for reasons unknown to me.
It was notionally strange to stand above the interred remains of my family, dead before my mother started school. I took a few photographs and looked around this cemetery on the banks of the Dee, full of trees in blossom, hills rolling into the distance, but felt no real connection. I’d simply been there, done that.
The problem with travelling is that you inevitably feel like a tourist. We search amongst monuments and museums for something authentic, for telling cultural peculiarities or displays of the broadly human, and perhaps for a feeling of belonging. We are condescending about packaged tours, bundling them up with disrespect and ignorance. And yet, like children believing in a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, we seek the foreign or exotic, knowing it is only the sum of misunderstood and disconnected parts, until it ceases to be extraordinary, and becomes everyday.
Claire and I wound our way along the river bank to the bus stop on Peterculter’s outskirts. We jumped on the first bus that arrived and discovered later, in the Polish driver’s broken English, that it was the wrong service and our tickets were not valid. But he kindly let us stay on.
We worried for a while about where this unknown bus would let us off, battling to communicate with the driver. Our attempts were overheard by a casually dressed woman with red, curly hair. She asked us where we wanted to get to, happily told us she would be getting off at the same stop, and, making use of the opportunity, proceeded to chat, and chat. She did not stop chatting until we parted ways some distance from our shared bus stop.
I stood outside the hostel later that night, smoking before bed. A tattooed, bare chested cockney, also smoking, started a by now familiar conversation, asking how I happened to be at the hostel. I responded predictably, by asking the same question. He told me that, as he was now 40 and had been divorced for 15 years, and because his children were all grown up, he had left London, where he had been for his whole life and come to Aberdeen. He’d seemingly chosen Aberdeen because it was not London and because he couldn’t afford Spain. His first priority was to find a council flat and after that he’d decide whether or not to work.
Also standing outside, smoking and trying to avoid the rain, were a South African, here to find work on the North Sea’s oil rigs, and a young Aberdonian, thrown out of home because of a drug problem and told to find a job.
Malcolm, my grandfathers cousin, picked us up from the hostel the next day. He had been the Professor of Agriculture at Aberdeen University and lived in the city for many years. He took us on a quick tour of Aberdeen, showing us its older parts: the all important harbour (the city depends and has always depended on the sea), the fishing village on the city’s outskirts, and the university, his former employer. He then drove us to Ballater, with a quick detour at Crathes Castle.
Malcolm met his wife, Avril, in West Africa while in the colonial service. She was born and educated in Cape Town. They considered settling in South Africa, but Avril decided to brave the cold, believing that the liberal Malcolm might find himself on the wrong side of South Africa’s then Apartheid government. I had expected Scottish accents, but neither of them speak with any hint of the local dialect. Their pronunciation is instead the product of good colonial schools.
Our time in Ballater was quickly whiled away in comfortable routine. In between breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner we saw a little of the countryside, climbed a nearby hill called Craigendarroch, shaped like a Christmas Pudding, and caught a glimpse of Balmoral Castle, the royals’ summer escape.
After two easy days we left for Skye, via Inverness. I spent most of the journey in awe, drinking in the view beyond my window. Waterfalls dropped everywhere from the surrounding mountains, their tops only visible when I craned my neck, and lochs had blended, before I noticed, into the sea.
We quickly gathered a few supplies in Portree, Skye’s largest town, before getting onto another, more dilapidated bus. The driver chatted idly to a colleague in Gaelic before starting down the single lane road which lead to our hostel, Dun Flodigarry, in the island’s rural north east. The only passengers left by the time we reached the weathered sign and cattle grid marking the entrance to Dun Flodigarry, the driver made an unscheduled stop, and turned around, cutting out about two thirds out of his route.
I had chosen Skye, and the remote hostel in particular, because of my grandfather’s tentative assertion that we are directly descended from Flora MacDonald. He was told this by his grandmother, Flora Leith McRae. She claimed that the name had been passed through all subsequent generations in the memory of this Scottish heroine, revered for hiding Bonnie Prince Charlie from the English army after Culloden.
Flora MacDonald lived on Skye for much of her life, and farmed in Flodigarry for seven years, on the land the hostel now occupies.
We spent most of our time on the island walking through bog, past terrified sheep, in the rain. On our longest walk we stalked the cliff lined coast for about seven hours, with wet feet, heading towards a hotel, marked on our map. In our cold and fairly wretched state we imagined the smell of syrup and pancakes from about two miles away.
Arriving, elated, we tried to push through a locked door. I looked around and saw a crate of dusty, empty bottles. Circling in desperation I eventually found a sign. “CLOSED” was written in blunt, black capitals. To complicate the disappointment, it was Claire’s birthday, and she had not imagined herself damp, exhausted and starving halfway through it.
We solemnly walked most of the way home, trying to hitchhike, and were eventually picked up by a bus, a few minutes from the hostel.
The next day, with dry shoes, we went on a happier, shorter walk, into the hostel’s neighbouring hills. Skye is rugged, almost bleak. There are very few trees and the ever present sheep roam almost wild though the mountains, the occasional skull suggesting natural deaths. As you climb, the horizon extends to include the nearby islands and the mainland, interspersed by green outcrops jutting out from the tranquil sea. It is not warm, nor idyllic, but I identified easily with the stark beauty.
We clambered down, managing to once again soak our porous shoes. I sat up late that night, drinking duty free vodka, making notes. The sun went down at around midnight, but the twilight remained, a pinkish hue shedding enough light for me to see two rabbits bounce past my outdoor seat. At about two I realised the sun had once again started to rise.
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