Sunday, December 7, 2008

Finding Myself In Scotland--part 3

It was Sunday and the village slept. Few people were about. Our beautiful bed and breakfast sat up on the terrace overlooking the village of Portgordon with a great picture window giving us an unobstructed view of the North Sea.

“Is it everything you dreamed?” Linda asked


It had been a long road, from Toronto to Portgordon and an even further distance back into my family’s history. My father had never talked about his past, but years of research had led me to more information about him and his family than even he likely knew.

His father Charles, wrestling with alcohol abuse, had deserted the family when my father had been ten years old forcing my father to leave school and take on the adult burden of support for his mother and two sisters. He took on two jobs to provide for his family.

And then his mother, Catherine, died of a perforated gall bladder.

My grandfather, Charles, I had learned, was the youngest son of a large and highly religious family. He had two sisters who were nuns, a brother who was a priest, another who was a Monsignor and a sister who was to become the mother of a Bishop. But none of them seemed to reach out to help. And for Charles, well, he had fled to Chicago and it was a different type of spirit that moved him.

Now I understood some things about my father that changed dramatically the way I thought of him. Now I understood his deep religious commitment, his near illiteracy, his lack of simple car and home repair skills, his lack of interest in playing with his children.

His drinking.

His searing hatred of my grandfather.

He had never had a childhood. He had been a man from the age of ten.

“What are you thinking,” Linda asked.

I shook my head. “My great grandfather. When Charles took off, why didn’t he step in to help? I've really come to admire William. He did extraordinary things. Moved his family to a new country, became an architect, a teacher, raised some amazingly talented children. What Charles did must have been terrible shock. A terrible disappointment. Why didn't he step in to help?”

But Linda had no answer,

When I went to the post office to buy a local map the next morning, the woman in line behind me heard my accent and asked, “Aye, you must be the Canadians staying wi’ Mrs. Crawford?” And when I went to the grocery to buy a soft drink the woman at the checkout told me I had to be the one staying at Katie Crawford’s. While there were few signs of people in town, news travelled fast.

My great grandfather left Portgordon 140 years ago and to the best of my knowledge, I am the first family member to return. Looking at the clean and prosperous village and the great expanse of sandy beaches, I wondered why he had left. But his were very different economic times and I don’t doubt the spirit of adventure was strong in his young man’s heart. Somewhere in town William’s father had been an Innkeeper and grocer (and harbour master and fish curer and grain merchant etc). But we have yet to discover which of the buildings were his.

But we did know Dryburn, the farm his family had built on the Duke of Gordon's estate, around 1720, and in which they lived until 1902. Years of research had led to the discovery of the names of every generation of the family. I knew something of their struggles and their toil.

Walk to the western edge of Portgordon and look up and Dryburn sits on the distant hill. But sadly, we had learned it wasn’t the Dryburn my family had known. A month before leaving for Scotland, the current residents of Dryburn had visited us in Toronto, bearing pictures and some devastating news. There had been a great fire in 1902 and Dryburn had burned to the ground. We were assured the house had been immediately rebuilt, but the current home was not one in which any member of my family had ever lived.

We were invited for dinner at Dryburn and graciously welcomed and fed. We were given a tour of the home and were shown photos of the neglected ruin the current owners had revived. I wondered if at least the great stone-walls had survived the fire, but the family had no idea.

So I paid more attention to the grounds and the view that must have remained in tact over the centuries. Five generations of my family must have stepped out the back door of the house and been greeted by the view of the land sloping down to the North Sea and the huge breakers that ran onto the beach. I stood alone and drank in the view not wanting to use either the camera or video to capture it.

This was my connection and I wanted to experience it directly.

The next day I was meeting with two local historians who would have some remarkable things to tell me that would change my understanding of William as dramatically as my view of my father had been changed.