I didn’t really know much about Scotland before we went there. Or I knew what everybody knew. I knew Braveheart and I knew Trainspotting and I knew, what, Macbeth, I guess. I had read Irvine Welsh’s breakout novel in college when it was recommended to me by a friend as “the greatest novel ever written.” After I finished it, I agreed with that friend for about a decade. But then again, I’d thought The Crow was the best movie for about a decade, so there’s no accounting for taste with these things.
The hustlers and skag boys and shooting galleries were absent from the Edinburgh that I saw when my family visited the city, but Braveheart was very, very visible in the city and in the country, with statues that resembled Mel Gibson more than any living or dead Scotsman and even a streetside tour guide whose face was made up to resemble the war paint worn by Hollywood’s version of William Wallace.
We went to see the Fringe Festival, although I can’t say I remember much of it other than a terrible UK comedian who insulted Americans (this was during the reign of the younger Bush, and we’d come abroad expecting some abuse) and executed an elaborate, belabored bit on people misusing the word “surreal,” which felt like it might have had a bit more bite to it if it had landed back in 1995. I also remember a street juggler who, when he accidentally dropped one of his bowling pins, pointed in a random direction and shouted, “Look, a duck!” to distract the audience from his blunder. Not that it was an effective tactic, just saying that I remember it, is all.
Other than that, my memories of the trip are somewhat fragmented. I don’t remember what I ate at a fancy restaurant but I remember the vigor with which the waiter toweled off a diner’s leg after the waiter had accidentally dropped a jam filled tart on it, leaving a long, blueberry-colored smear down the pant leg. I remember a cashier, a young teenage boy, asking me a question over and over that I didn’t understand until finally his mother wailed, “Oh fer god’s sake, d’ye want chips wif yer gyro?” I remember eating haggis and thinking it tasted better than scrapple. I remember my sister’s friend being surprised that I knew who Sayyid Qutb was, and an elaborate analogy he tried to make about Qutb’s politics that involved harming people so they would learn not to drink poisoned water. There was also a large hill involved somehow. In hindsight it’s easy to tell he was only half-serious, but at the time, just a few years after 9-11, I wondered if it was the kind of conversation I was supposed to describe to Scotland Yard. (Or whoever.)
Most of all, I remember walking and riding the bus and walking and riding the bus with my parents and sister. I remember listening to tour guides and weapons experts in old, drafty castles with my parents. I remember walking behind my parents to make sure they made it up the four or five flights to the walk-up they’d rented for the family. And I remember my dad talking about the story of Robert Morrison that he’d heard, and an itch he had to get to the bottom of the story.
I didn’t know then that he would be doing anything to solve the mystery of Robert Morrison’s connection to University of Edinburgh other than looking for the bust in the main hall of the place. (That a Scottish university had some kind of well-trafficked repository of illustrious busts is maybe an assumption I should have known not to have.) I didn’t know that my dad cared enough to go to the university library, and I certainly didn’t know that he’d be able to uncover anything useful there if he did go. I didn’t know that he’d be sussing out clues that would take our family to the Virgin Islands and to Toronto and to two cities in Ireland. I didn’t know his work in Scotland would eventually wind it’s way into a side business in genealogical research and a missing cousin and more. All I knew then was that dad was curious about the bust of one of my mother’s ancestors and that he was politely waiting until I was gone to go look for it.
There was one guy I remember quite well from that trip, a tour guide at Sterling Castle. Blonde haired and older, he wore a kilt, which was no doubt his uniform but somehow seemed to suit him. He had a brutally intense Scottish brogue—or is it a burr?—and he was trying very hard to enunciate clearly enough for the group of international tourists to understand what he was saying. I never felt like I lost him, but he was really sweating it. Sometimes he closed his eyes and pinched his thumb and forefinger together, giving a little poke gesture with, every, word, he, spoke. I didn’t pity him. I felt like I knew what that felt like–to struggle with what to say and with how to say it. To feel like it took you four times as long to say anything because you knew that, if you didn’t, nobody would know what the hell it was you were talking about. I got that guy. I remember him, and I remember how hard he tried. Thanks, man. I want you to know that we all got what we needed that day.