Around the world, Scots and their kinfolk will gather to celebrate Hogmanay, wistfully farewelling the old year with joyful thanks at having survived the past year’s calamities and curved balls. And then, the glorious New Year will be welcomed in with the bright and shining hope that any forthcoming life lessons be gentle on the spirit and the purse. Aye and a few lost pounds wouldn’t go astray either!
There will be the obligatory whisky drinking and some of the young ones might even lose their way home in a fog of beer and vodka. Others might relish a quiet night in, waiting patiently for the fireworks on the telly. Sydney’s are always the best!
First footing will preclude any bloke with a willful thatch of red hair from crossing over the doorstep whilst the first dark-haired man bearing a gift will be welcomed – a sign of good luck for the future. A Scottish meat pie – large, rectangular and unctuous – might be a sought-after treat for supper, consumed some time during a night of singing and story telling. Regardless of what family traditions come into play, it is a time for reflection and celebration.
I have been thinking too about what Scotland means to me. Some of you will know that my book, Sisters of The Bruce, saw the light of day back in October. At times it’s been a dream as well as a nightmare for the writers amongst you will recognise what a struggle it is to publish in this contrary competitive world, but I don’t regret the challenge.
At times, it felt like some bizarre obsession, writing a novel about another country’s history, After all, I am an Australian – and very grateful too, for the stunning landscape, diversity and freedom this amazing country offers.
However, my passion for Scotland runs deep and strong, almost overpowering my senses at times.
When I visit Scotland, I feel as if I have come home. A part of me wants to lie upon the earth and breathe in all its aromas, to grasp the lush grass and never let go. You’ll be relieved to know that I don’t physically do this – I’d be mashed to a pulp at the border by a hefty horde of eager tourists.
My response, though, is so visceral it is frightening.The whirl of the pipes sets my pulses racing and the sight of men in kilts – well enough said! To be honest, I am besotted by the romantic view of Scotland but the history hooked me long ago.
I remember when I first learnt through our Scottish relations, that our family was descended from Robert the Bruce. There was no bravado about this conversation, just a quiet firm conviction based upon solid historical research.
Initially, I viewed this revelation with some skepticism for our Scottish ancestors were known to be a mix of displaced crofters from the Isle of Skye, a game keeper and a bevy of miners from Fife – hard working Presbyterian folk, some of whom later came to Australia seeking a better life.
My maternal great grandfather escaped life underground by taking ‘the king’s shilling’ at Stirling Castle. The British garrison in Hong Kong was his home until the Boer War flared. Tales abounded too, of how he played the base drum, shattering the glass in the windows – with the pig skin, too tight – as the band marched up Princes St in Edinburgh. Glorious stories which delighted our family!
My great grandmother suffered from life-threatening asthma and Australia’s dry climate was recommended. After enduring a three month voyage, they arrived with four young children: leaving a babe behind in a Scottish graveyard; then losing another son, a toddler, here in Queensland a year or two later. But they were resilient. No doubt, my great grandfather’s love of whisky and the pipes stood him in good stead but he was a hard worker as well, building a home and transforming acres of rough Australian bush into a successful orchard. But he loved to party as well and my grandmother told the story of him dancing on a table so much, the legs of the table sunk into the ground! I wonder if that happened on their farm one long ago night at Hogmanay! I hope so!
This connection with Robert the Bruce is an interesting one, quite common too as many around the world share such a history. It certainly motivated me to seek out those places associated with the Bruce family for which I am exceedingly thankful: my research has taken me to many places across the UK as well as Norway and France, resulting in a huge, colourful tapestry woven in my mind’s eye over a decade and more.
But one of the most bizarre things happened this year when I discovered, quite by chance, that our family was also linked to two of Robert’s sisters, Christina – or Kirsty, as I call her – and Mathilda. For me the pieces of the puzzle finally slipped into place. I knew then why I had felt such urgency, an inner quest if you like, to research and write about their lives. My fascination knew no bounds. History had virtually ignored Robert’s sisters. Few people knew about Mary’s time in her cage nor Kirsty’s incarceration in the Priory of Six Hills. Isabel’s time as Queen of Norway was unknown as well amongst many Scots. Here was Robert, lauded as a hero, but his sisters’ extraordinary contribution to Scotland’s proud history lay dormant, unrecognized for the past 700 years.
So at this year’s Hogmanay, I will lift a glass of Laphroaig and drink a toast to all my ancestors who have brought me to this wondrous place in my life. I thank them dearly for their many sacrifices.
Happy Hogmanay to you all. May all your dreams come true in 2014!
Mine will be attending the 700 year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Perhaps I’ll see you there!