The cycle of life rolls on in Scotland
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of journal entries from Rick Gunn, a South Lake Tahoe photographer, detailing his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is soliciting donations for The Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read his complete “Wish Tour” journal, go to rickgunnphotography.com.
It was the last place I expected to find myself. Tucked amongst the congregation of a tiny church in the North-East hills of Scotland. As I waited for the service to begin, I fiddled with the program, stealing nervous glances at unfamiliar faces surrounding me.
Each seemed to tell a tale. Young, old, fair or weathered, they seem to tell a story of a life far from my own. A low rumble filled the room, then instantly quieted as the minister stepped to the pulpit.
“Welcome,” he said with a thick Scottish brogue, then imparted a gentle smile around the room. “We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Margaret Coutts. Beloved by all of us in this room, Margaret was a soul best described as ‘one off.’
“When they made her they broke the mold,” the preacher said. “With her love of bicycles and flower arranging, you could often see Margaret bicycling the 10 miles to Inverurie and back looking like a rolling garden.”
My mind spun-off into a vision. It was that of a lovely young woman, pedaling vibrantly through the rich green hills. The thought took me far away, and I stayed with it until I was snapped back to the present by a step into cold air where family members gathered in a snow-covered cemetery. I stood in the background, silently observing as loving hands lowered Margaret into her final resting place. As the service continued I stared at the heart-shaped wreath that adorned the shiny oak casket. The minister spoke again. “And now for as much as it has pleased almighty God to take unto himself the soul of our sister here departed, we therefore commit her body to the ground. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”
The finality of it all prompted great emotion from my good friend and Scottish host, Tracey Milne. A flood of tears came from deep within and I wrapped my arms around her. Margaret was her grandmother and recently succumbed to a nine-year battle against Alzheimer’s.
I’d first met Tracey 18 years ago while she spent a year working in America as a nanny. With her kind-hearted nature, and twisted sense of Scottish humor, the two of us became friends almost immediately. For 18 years I’d promised to visit her, and my ancestral homelands. When my flight finally landed at the Aberdeen Airport, I made good on that promise. When I walked to the arrival gate, I was greeted by Tracey, her mother Rosalyn, sister Jaqueline, and her kids Diane, JoAnne and Richard. They held a handmade sign with a picture of an American flag and a note that said, “Welcome Rick Gunn!” During the middle of a long-awaited embrace, she said, “I can’t believe you’re finally here!”
The first order of operations was celebration. Tracey had it all set-up, Scottish style. She had purchased us two tickets to the biggest street party in the world, New Year’s in Edinburgh. For those of you unfamiliar with the city of Edinburgh, it is, quite simply, magic. Lined with a stunning combination of modern and ancient architecture, its streets wind around a hill-top castle. Steeped in the arts, literature and history, Edinburgh has produced a parade of poets, artists, actors, novelists, grave robbers, fictional characters and eccentrics.
After Edinburgh, Tracey and I packed our bags again and headed north. This time toward the wide-open highlands in Caithness. We were joined by Tracey’s mother, Rosalyn, who diligently drove us on a 400-mile road trip, a quest to see my ancestral homeland and the Clan Gunn Heritage Center located in Latheron, Caithness.
From Aberdeen, we traveled north through Inverurie and Huntly until we came to the town of Keith. The town got its name from Clan Keith, former arch-rival of the Gunn Clan. When I stepped out of the car and into a nearby bakery, I half-wondered whether the woman behind the counter would draw a sword or a scone.
We left Keith, and turned south and took a brief detour to the historic Bulvanie Distillery, distillers of authentic Scotch-whiskey since 1886. In hopes of a tour, we hopped out of the car to find a sign that read, “Closed for renovation.”
Tracey would not take no for a answer. She walked into the office and spoke briefly with a manager, and before long team-leader Denise Slater led us on a private tour.
The next morning, I hopped back into the car, as we headed north out of Inverness. When we finally reached Caithness, a winter storm was whipping off the coast from the North Atlantic.
When we entered the small town of Latheron, I spied a sign that read “Clan Gunn Museum.” We pulled to the front of the center, which is housed in the old Parish Church of Latheron. Within its gates is a graveyard with new and old graves of crofters, farmers and local fishermen. I stepped out of the vehicle, and a vicious wind nearly blew me to the ground. As I was struggling to shoot a photo, a car pulled up. Out of it came a distinguished-looking man who walked up and put his hand in mine.
“Hello, Ian,” I said.
“Hello,” he replied
It was Ian Gunn, current commander of Clan Gunn. I had contacted Ian earlier and met him briefly in Ediburgh in hopes of learning more about my heritage, and also to get a look at the center, which is usually closed in winter. Once inside, I was visually bombarded by all things Gunn. There were kilts, tartans, books and flags.
After a few pleasantries, Ian escorted us to the first display, a diagrammed lineage pertaining to the origins of the name Gunn. The display stated that the name originated from Gunni, grandson of Svein Alslefarson, the “Ultimate Viking,” as well as the Earls of Orkney, albeit through a female bloodline. Another chart around the corner displayed a complex diagram of family lines, names, side-branches and offshoots.
In another corner of the museum stood a scale-model of the Gunn Castle. Located in nearby Bruan, the castle was said to have been destroyed by the king of Norway in revenge for his daughter’s death. This was hardly the end of the Clan’s conflicts. The 14th and 15th centuries seemed to bring an array of skirmishes. These included battles with the Clan’s neighbors, the Sinclairs and the Keiths, who’d obtained land grants from the new Scottish king.
At one point, a reconciliation with the Keiths was arranged. Each clan agreed to bring 12 men on horseback to the signing of the treaty. When the Gunns arrived, the Keiths had treacherously brought two men on each horse and the Gunn’s were instantly overcome. A son of the Gunn Clan who’d escaped wreaked revenge on the Keith Chieftain by supposedly shooting him through the throat while he toasted their victory.
After learning of this story, I better understood the Gunn Clan motto, “If not peace, then war.” When we finished the tour, Ian invited us back to his home, and we followed him down a driveway, through a long tunnel of trees, to a classic Scottish Laird’s home built in 1750, and located a stone’s throw from the ocean.
When we stepped inside, the house was filled with warmth and a marvelous array of British decor. “This is my wife, Bunty,” Ian said, and as Rosalyn shook her hand, the woman’s face curled into a question mark.
“Do I know you?” Rosalyn asked. “Your face looks familiar.”
Bunty explained that she was once TV personality on a popular British children’s show entitled “How.” Both Tracey and Rosalyn were familiar with the show. After settling in, we spent the afternoon lazily sipping Scottish malt whiskeys, eating a gourmet lunch and exchanging stories. As I looked fondly on Ian, Bunty, Tracey and Rosalyn, I realized that my time in Scotland was nearly up.
My heart was grateful to these warm human beings, and their precious offerings of friendship. While the others listened and spoke, I realized that the brief investigation into my Scottish heritage had left me with an expanded view of who and what I was.
I returned to Aberdeen several days later, and looked over my bicycle before I prepared to go. For a moment I thought of Margaret Coutts as a young woman, rolling with careless grace through the Scottish countryside. It occurred to me that although the wheels of my bicycle had temporarily stopped, the ever-turning cycle life had certainly not.
Dec. 18 to Jan. 2006
Aberdeen, Stirling, Edinburgh, Inverness, Caithness, Dorno
Mileage log: 6,630
Elevation: 0-1,500 feet.
“O Scotia! My dear, my native Soil! For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent; Long may the hardy sons of rustic toil be blessed with health, and sweet content.” – Robert Burns
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