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Discovering the Roots of My Homeland

Published in the Alabama Celt, Spring, 2003

Click for PDF of full article as published

Outside my window, I listened to their baa-ing chiming together in harmony on the Isle of Skye. I peeked out my window and saw two lambs jumping and playing beside a recently shaved ram. Before the rest of my family woke up, I opened the door to the bed and breakfast for my early morning walk, and a baby lamb bleated and jumped to the protection of its mother, scaring me as well. I walked across the green hills surrounded by white and black sheep grazing on the rich grass, where white clouds rolled over the hills to the edge of the loch, picking up seashells, pondering how many years the shells had been buried in the rich soil.

Sitting on a crag breathing in the landscape, Dunvegan stands like a beacon across the loch calling my name. I squinted in the morning rain, and in the distance, I could barely make out misty images of long ago like a mirage. The MacLeod's charging over the hills, protecting their land in battle, raising their swords in defiance.

Later that day, as my family and I approached through the gates of the castle Dunvegan, my eyes took in the beauty of the gardens and the massive castle that my ancestors lived in many years ago and the chief still resides there still today. We took our time looking around the outside of the castle. Finally, we entered the castle; the great bullhead mounted greeted us above the foyer. We signed our names to the great "MacLeod" book, commenting on our homecoming.

From the great bullhead in the entrance, I am reminded of the MacLeod motto, "Hold Fast" which runs through my veins, a motto born from a feud with a Campbell marking the challenge of the MacLeod's. The MacLeod's supported the chief to hold their ground, and this stubborn streak still runs through the MacLeod's in my family today.

Walking through the living room, the MacLeod's crest is imprinted on the carpet in the center of the room. A picture of a lion gleamed at me from one corner, and on the other side, a small window overlooking the loch, where chiefs discussed battle plans. Looking at the traditional chief's elephant horn, the magical fairie flag, the swords that

survived battle but now lie on display for the tourists to see, I stood among these relics of the past and saw the warrior preparing for battle, a young man preparing to become chief, a prisoner in the dungeon, and the women in the kitchen and tending the gardens.

Looking at the photographs of years past, a mirror images of my father when he was young, the curly hair and curve of the nose. Photographs of marriages and events lines the walls, but we will never know who these MacLeod's were, for their words are lost in time. Now they are only shadows of ourselves.

Inside the kitchen, where women baked bread and stew, is a hiding place for the Celtic ruins that had lay weathered from years of rain and sun in the gardens outside. A woman statuette stands in the corner, labeled as the sundial, but may have actually been the edge of a fireplace. She is wearing a bonnet, her stone hands are held in front of her, the details of her face weathered to a smooth and hidden surface. She is silent, though the smoothness of her weathered face speaks of the ages like wrinkles of the elders.

Also held in this room is one of the original Claymores; now broken, it is no longer its original length. This sword is a mark of death as it was used in many battles, yet it is incredibly beautiful. There must be tales of how it was broken, though no one speaks of them now.

We walked past the dungeon, smelling of its dark past and emerged through a back door to the outside of the castle, where cannons lay in position to defeat its enemies, and a well in the back with a stone walkway to the edge of the loch.

While my father, stepmother and half brother took a ride to see the seal colony across the loch, I wandered through the gardens alone. I sat on a bench and wrote words of living history. Beneath a tree, I pulled out my notebook and wondered about the life of the mysterious Mairi Alasdair MacLeod, a writer born in 1569 and a nanny at the castle, for I have fallen in her fate of writing even with the disapproval of others in the family. Little is known about her except for the sixteen surviving poems, though notes about her life mention she was banished to Mull for her writing, allowed to return some years later.

I wandered through the gates of these secret gardens, and again the misty rain fell on my face. Waterfalls sprinkled water on my hands, and a rabbit raced across the way to

its burrow. Irises of blue and purple lined the sides of the gardens, and in one corner, vines climbed and spread across the stones walls.

Coming to Scotland, the land of history rich with fierce emotion was tracing the history in my genes, the contour of my hands, the color of my veins. We listened to the mixed Gaelic and English of a family from Isle of Lewis while they danced their traditional Gaelic steps to an accordion player, then watching in wonderment at my stepmother danced North Georgia buck dancing, much like clogging. Toasts of cheer and blessings to all wrapped around us like the water on a beach. My father and half brother played pool while my stepmother and I drank a bit of scotch.

After a ferry ride across the islands, we arrived at Kisimul Castel, which is a smaller castle literally surrounded by water on the Isle of Barra. Kisimul is the MacNeil castle, ancestors of my stepmother's family. The castle of Barra is quite small, but includes great humor, as one of the first "outhouses" is located in the castle, a long hole leading into the crashing sea waves below.

One afternoon at Barra, we split off on different hikes, and as I walked up a hill alone, a horse in white galloped down to greet me. Again, I felt the land calling my name, and the horse looking into my eyes, sharing the secrets of history for me to find. I climbed the hill to a cairn and standing stones placed in a circle, a ceremony of long ago. I stood on a rock and looked over the hills, and it was like seeing the fingerprints of God, as each crevice was delicately carved out, reaching out to the sea.

As we left Barra by ferry, wind whipped my hair back as I stood on the deck of the ferry, rain in the distance, and rainbow upon rainbow skipping the rocks and hopping across the islands. Seals swim close to the beach, playing, dipping into the waters as human feet traced the edge of the land. A colony that once lived on an island called Mingulay is now covered by sand; this land was harsh and unforgiving. We walked past abandoned furnace in the schoolroom, ruins of stone houses built long ago, and puffins burrowing holes for their babies, their wings sounding like beating drums as they hovered above. On the ride back, we prayed as the waves crashed over the top of the rocking boat, with no more islands to provide protection from the turbulent seas.

During our time in Scotland, my family skipped from island to island, completing the circle in Iona. We arrived late afternoon as all the day tourists were leaving their pilgrimage to this holy place. I attended every service held in the Abby where the sound of silence, prayers to God, and songs echo along the stonewalls. I sat in the prayer corner, surrounded by a Gaelic and English Bible, candles to light, poems to read, benches to rest and pray, calling us to be still. Celtic crosses decorated the walls outside the Abby. Just a couple of weeks later, I would ask my friend visiting Iona to add my mother's name to a cross listing and praying for those who were recently deceased.

Sitting on a bench with a black cat stretched out, napping in the sun and the cuckoo bird calling the time of day. I made wishes as I skipped across stones inside Fingal's Cave, the thunder of water booming like the rhythm of an orchestra. Wandering is the island of Iona, I found a little used bookstore filled with books of history, poetry and language dripping from its walls. As a token, I found a book of poems by Robert Burns published in 1867, an old book with gold edged pages and filled with etchings, which I managed to carry home with little deterioration.

Walking upon the colored stone beaches of Iona, the land seeped into my skin. Rocks with history etched into their surfaces, lines of time and age. Home to the sea, they have found they have found their way here, beaches of rocks, thousands of colors and shapes. My heart was open to the movement of the rocks, the movement of the earth. Here in this place, the sky, the sea, the trees, the earth, the rocks, all blended into one.

Our trip to Scotland was not without its challenges as well. Riding bikes during a thunderstorm, all wet, tired and frustrated, the challenges of traveling with family, crossing the path of a bull on my walk in Iona. Yet, what is etched in my memory are the rainbows across the waters, the bleating lambs, a bird circling eights, gliding the tailwind of the ferry, the mist over rolling hills of Skye, rich with heather and peat, the stones of Iona washed ashore, and the standing stones of the Celts.

This homecoming was a place to rest, to renew, to soak up my roots, to know where I came from, to find out who I am. The woman statuette in the kitchen of Dunvegan and the words of Mairi Alasdair MacLeod reminded me of the perseverance to

speak the words running through my fingers, the role of women in the clan, and the rich history of the Clan MacLeod. Stones from Iona whispered history of the earth as we rubbed our hands over smooth edges and vibrant hues.

Upon my return home lay the greatest events of my life, and has challenged every fiber of my body and spirit. When I was overwhelmed, I held my stone from Iona to remember the peace, the tranquil wind and water dripping off the rocks, the move of the ocean, the warriors defending their land, and I breathed through the obstacles ahead, forging on, holding fast. In traveling to Scotland, I lost myself and found myself, scraping off the excess and uncovered the center of my being so that I may walk on.

Hold fast, my friends.