Heritage, homecoming, and haggis

Across the Atlantic, memories meet DNA, and what ancestors left behind is seen fresh

The Macpherson -Grants have lived at Ballindalloch Castle since 1546.
The Macpherson -Grants have lived at Ballindalloch Castle since 1546. (Peter Mandel for The Boston Globe)
By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2008
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ABERDEEN - My earliest memory is of oatmeal. Not a crib, not a baby's toy. A bowl. Behind it, with a busy spoon, was my grandmother, Nanny Liz, who made it clear to me, even in those days, that I was by half a Scot.

Next year will mark Scotland's first-ever homecoming celebration, along with the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, the national poet. Homecoming Scotland will officially kick off Jan. 24-25, picking up on the annual tradition of Burns Suppers full of poetry and fatty foods. The biggest-ever Burns Supper will be shared across Scotland and around the world.

I decided to get a preview of all this and planned a trip for late last month. I wanted to hear a bagpipe, have a bite of haggis, and be fitted for a McGregor tartan kilt. In honor of Nanny Liz, my grandfather, and the legions of McGregors and Emslies who went before them I would eat oats in the "auld country."

Homecoming 2009, with a year of events scattered around the country, may be the largest celebration ever held here, according to Johanna Campbell of the tourism website Extra Mile Scotland. And it's about more than Burns. "We'll be toasting some of Scotland's contributions to the world," she said. "Golf, whiskey, great minds and innovations, and Scotland's culture and heritage."

One highlight is the International Genealogy Festival planned for July. Reading about it gave me an idea. Using Edinburgh's new center for family research, I would dip into the past on my trip. How much could I learn in 10 days? I didn't know. But my goal was to scope out the farm where my grandmother grew up and as many other family landmarks as I could.

My Scottish side comes from around Aberdeen, Scotland's raw and heathered northeast. The morning I arrive is sunny and the area is as spread out as the sea - and as sparkly. "It's the granite houses," explains my cousin, Greig, who meets me at the station. "The stone is speckled with mica. But doesn't it look like silver?" It does.

The next day, Greig and I drive to the area near Inverurie where our McGregor ancestors owned a farm and market and where the family of my grandfather Thom Emslie were the gardeners at Fetternear, a local laird's estate.

Hills on the horizon are purple with dots and dashes of forest. Fields are full of fat black cows. "Aberdeen Angus cattle," says Greig. "Great steak, great steak." For a few miles we're following The Castle Trail - an area where wealthy families built manors alongside two twisting rivers: the Don and the Dee.

Fetternear estate is easy to find thanks to Greig and to records I've clicked through at the Scotlands People Centre for family research in Edinburgh. The cen ter has collected almost 500 years of census, birth, and marriage records, all searchable online.

I discovered that my Emslie and McGregor grandparents bucked immigration trends when they settled in Montpelier. New England was not a magnet for Scots, not like the Carolinas, the Ozarks, and California.

But now is the time to dig up any traces of the Emslies. Greig and I bushwhack around, scaring a pheasant as we walk. Paths around the estate are thick with bracken. A gatepost lurches sideways.

Are any estate owners still alive, I ask? Greig isn't sure. We can't find a thing that connects to gardening. No potting sheds where Emslies might have worked, no rusted spades, old rakes. No tractors or tools.

Greig sees that I'm disappointed. "There's still the McGregor side," he reminds me, as we huff and puff up a mountain path. We stagger to the top of 1,733-foot-high Bennachie where we can look down at the farmland where my grandmother was born.

I meet up later that afternoon with two more cousins, Stuart and Pat - plus Stuart's orange binder stuffed with family notes. At the end of a gravel road there is Whitewell, the old McGregor farm. Someone's in the garden behind the small stone farmhouse. A sheepdog woofs. Stuart and I rap on the door.

A part of me thinks my bearded great-grandfather James McGregor will appear in period dress. He'll have us in for tea. But no McGregors live here now. An elderly couple blinks at the interruption. "Wha? A farm?" says the man. "Well, 'tisn't one now." He shows us what is left: a row of horseshoes and some stones for stacking grain. "I was an entertainer, y' know," he adds while shaking our hands goodbye. "Held a torch in a movie. An' for this, I got three pounds a day."

"A Scottish film star at Whitewell!" cracks Stuart when we are out of earshot. "Great Granny McGregor will be rolling over in her grave."

For almost a week I take a break from Aberdeenshire and my family search to get a taste of other parts of Scotland. Although Homecoming celebrations haven't yet begun, Edinburgh, the capital, feels crowded, and there's something in the air. Mist, for one thing. Blasts of wind for another. My Scottish flag umbrella is attacked and destroyed.

Maybe it's the wind or the rush of shoppers on High Street's historic Royal Mile but I am hungry. I become obsessed with Scottish snacks. On Victoria Street, my sneakers squeak to a stop. Can this be? It can. Fast-food roast suckling pig. The shop, Oink, has customers lined up for hog roast rolls with crackling and apple sauce, chili relish, sage, and onion. It's a monumental feast. In fact, it's too much. I push the roll to the side.

But the next afternoon I am at it again. From a butcher's ready-to-eat case I consider macaroni pie, pasta and cheese oozing out of pastry. Next to it sits a larger, even more mysterious blob: "Lasagna in a crust," explains the clerk. "Sauce and meat and cheese and noodle. Oh, an' a bit of fat." Fat? I ask. "Just a bit. Just to stick it together."

Feeling full, but slow, I decide to take in some scenery sitting down. I book a berth on The Royal Scotsman, a private train that loops through the Highlands while encapsulating its passengers in a plush Victorian world of polished woods and bone china cups. There are several Homecoming events planned for this remote region, but this is my chance to see the lochs and glens before the tour buses arrive.

We sleep and dine inside restored railway carriages that ought to hold at least one famous detective - a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot. But I have my own mystery to solve. When it's time to dress for dinner, I am puzzled by the belts and straps of my rental kilt.

Since I am part McGregor I have the right to wear the tartan of my clan, a plaid of red, dark green, and white. Since the days of famous clansmen like Rob Roy, we've been a violent bunch and I am yanking the expensive fabric trying to get it to lie flat, look right, and stay up.

Do the pleats go in the back? Does the decorative dagger slide inside the knee sock? Will I gash myself with the kilt pin and drip blood into my tongue-less, twisty-laced shoes? When, at last, I reach the dining car I get stares. I have forgotten my sporran, the highland wallet that hangs at the front of a kilt.

"You're an American, aren't you?" says a passenger in a tartan dress. "Uh, yeah," I admit. "But, well, I'm trying."

At this very moment the train is chugging past Bennachie. In less than an hour we will be back in Aberdeen. I have two days left to turn into a top detective.

I go back to the computer. To my cousin Stuart's notes. And when I get frustrated by the lack of an Emslie trail, back to eating fatty snacks.

It is when I am about to try some kind of meat and turnip tart that I get a call. It's Greig. "I'm coming to get you," he says. "We're heading there right now. Down toward Inverurie. Back to Fetternear."

There's no time to argue. Before long we're in his car, flying past blurry hills, coiled-up cigars of straw, more cows. He tells me that his mother, Margaret, who is in her 80s, had a sudden memory. Knowing I was in Scotland, she'd been trying to remember my middle name.

"It's Beavan," I tell Greig.

"Exactly," he says. "Your Emslie granddad's middle name was the same - and everyone called him Beavan. The name put Mum's mind in gear: She knows where Beavan Emslie's house is."

I am nervous as we get to the edge of the estate. It's silent when we get to a granite cottage. Ivy covers its walls and row after row of potted flowers guard its door. Marigolds. Just what my grandparents grew.

No Emslies live here now, I'm sure. But I don't care.

Seeing light from a kitchen window, I get closer. Something glints, the mica in the stone. Just inside, by a sink, is a box I recognize: a familiar, old-fashioned brand. Scottish steel-cut oats.

I think of someone mixing them with steaming water. Pouring sugar and salt. Stirring and spooning.

I am hungry again. I am remembering.

I am home.

Peter Mandel can be reached at


If You Go

What to do

Homecoming Scotland 2009

Marks the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns's birth with a yearlong program of cultural events. These include a slate of celebrations in Glasgow (Jan. 24- Feb. 1); the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow (August); and an International Genealogy Festival at the University of Strathclyde. The first day of the festival (July 21) is focused on Scottish descendants across the Americas.

Scotlands People Centre

Edinburgh's new family history clearinghouse with birth, marriage, death, and census records. A full day's search costs about $15 (free two-hour tryouts are available). You can do research online using the website.

The Royal Scotsman


A private train that evokes the glory days of passenger rail runs April-October making scenic loops around and through the Highlands. Fares start at $3,410 per person including meals and accommodations.

Geoffrey (Tailor)

57-61 High St., The Royal Mile, Edinburgh


This friendly and knowledgeable family-owned business has a wide selection of tartan kilts and accessories for sale and for rent, plus advice on how to wear Scottish traditional clothing.

Where to stay

Atholl Hotel

54 Kings Gate, Aberdeen


A cheery, small hotel in a tree-shaded neighborhood. Doubles start at about $155.

Mercure Point Hotel

34 Bread St., Edinburgh


Cool, sleek, and in a central location, this is a fun alternative to inns full of tea cozies and tartan upholstery. Doubles start at about $228.

Where to eat

Cafe Royal Restaurant and Bar

17a West Register St., Edinburgh


One of the city's most historic and charming eateries, the restaurant and pub are next-door. In addition to excellent Scottish dishes, the bar has a wall of 1886 tile murals of famous inventors at work. Entrees start at about $14.


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