[This is the first chapter of my long-awaited auto-biography, Extra-Ordinary. When I published the Preface a few weeks ago, a clamor arose from the collective throats of Silverbacks, Silverbelles, Silverbucks, Silverbabes, and Silverpups saying “We must have more!” I’m lying, of course.
When I was a traditional book publisher I learned about “throat-clearing,” the portion of a submitted manuscript that precedes the point where the author actually begins telling the story. Once you are familiar with the phenomenon, it’s easy to cut the section and get right to the action. In this chapter I attempt to deal my later-in-life attempts to put my own life into historical context. It’s classic throat-clearing, and I apologize in advance for inflicting it on you. It won’t make the final draft. SB SM]
Who Am I? And Why am I Here?
Without wanting to incite a biblical debate, the human species has been around for about 200,000 years. My story (yours, too) started in South Africa. In time homo sapiens, my species, migrated north, then east, then west. According to my genome analysis (as provided by National Geographic for $100) I have genes that went in both directions. This surprised me, as I thought I was a pure-bred British islander with roots extending into Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. When I visited “my people” by returning to the supposed ancestral homeland in 2013, I learned that there really are no inigenous Scottish people. The Scots are a mongrel breed consisting of Celts from Ireland, Vikings from Norway, Picts from wherever Picts came from, Normans from France, and all manner of English slime.
(Similarly, my wife, Sandy, proudly claims Sicilian heritage, and her National Geographic test backs her up, but her father was Hungarian, and the Sicilians are a minestrone of Moors, Greeks, Normans, Phoenicians, and Arabs. Everyone has had their way with the Sicilians. More mongrels.)
We’re all mutts, making race, and its artificial distinctions one of the world greatest granfalloons, the proud, but meaningless, association of humans as defined by Kurt Vonnegut in his mind-altering novel Cat’s Cradle.
Other notable granfalloons are political boundaries and organized religion. How many wars have been fought for race, nationality, or religion? How many lives have been lost, over nothing really.
It’s no different with canine mutts. Great Danes and Chihuahuas are the same species. Put a male and a female in the same room when the female is in heat, and they will find a way to copulate. (Don’t ask me how; I can’t figure it out either.) Three or so generations of this and you’re back to the ubiquitous mutts that are universal from Puerto Rico to New Delhi. Rescue dogs.
Humans, like dogs, can interbreed. It’s been happening for 200,000 years. It’s not going to change.
I discovered an organization called Clan Hunter, and they would welcome me for a $35 membership fee. Pretty reasonable for a legacy. Moreover, the clan has a motto (Cursum Perficio– “I will complete the course,” meaning the hunt), a tartan, and even a castle! The clan can date its roots to 1107, when WillielmoVenator (translation “William the Hunter”) was granted lands by King David I in the years following the Norman Conquest. The mighty Hunters fought alongside William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in the Scottish Wars of Independence, and they defended their homestead against repeated threats from the Vikings. The castle dates from 1374 when the British Crown granted a charter for lands for the whopping annual sum of one silver penny.
We arrived in Edinburgh (Edin-burrah, not “burg” as in Pittsburg) and immediately beat a path to a tourist shop featuring all manner of Tartan chotchkes. “I’m a Hunter,” I told the store clerk. “So am I,” she answered, “it’s about the most common name in Scotland, kind of like ‘Smith.’”
Undeterred, I purchased coasters, key rings, postcards, and even shot glasses festooned with the clan markings. Yes, the shot glass cost $17.00, but where else are you going to find a shot glass with Cursum Perficio on it?
A few days later we were in the village of West Kilbride to personally tour the ancestral home. Keep in mind, there is not a single scrap of evidence to connect me with this place, family, or clan, other than the Scottish proverb that says “he who would have a gown of gold is sure to get a sleeve o’it.” This was my sleeve.
Oh, there have been a few changes since 1107, when the first land grant was recorded. At one point the grounds upon which Hunter Castle (called “Hunterston”) sits were taken by the English equivalent of eminent domain, and not one, but two nuclear power plants were built just beyond the tree line visible from the castle ramparts. There is no love lost between the Scots and the Brits.
I’m no expert on Scottish history, but I know that the misty look that comes over the eyes of Scottish-Americans when they sip a wee dram and blubber about the “auld sod” is based on the dram more than the reality.
Scotland lost its quest for independence at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Bonnie Prince Charlie, a wannabe King, had rallied the Highland forces into what proved to be a suicidal attack against the disciplined English forces. Although the prevailing image is of kilt-clad Highlanders brandishing swords and shouting Braveheart-worthy war screams, the truth is that the battle lasted barely an hour and was an utter rout for the Scots. The Prince stayed well clear of the front lines, escaped and went on to live as a degenerate exile on the European continent. The vanquished Highlanders, by contrast went into an extended period of poverty and cultural repression.
Scotland, at this time, was a country of hereditary land owners (lairds) and subsistence farmers (crofters), who rented their modest holdings from the lairds. This system worked ok when times were good and the crofters could afford their rent, but throw in the occasional famine and the lairds began to think that it was more profitable to have sheep rather than those pesky crofters on their lands. In what has become known as The Great Clearances, the crofters were evicted, often by force, and forced to seek asylum in Ireland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States.
This, in all likelihood, is what happened to my ancestors. While the Hunter family still has the castle and estate, my people were the ones who got the boot. I am one of the huddled masses whose ancestors were deemed less valuable than sheep. In all likelihood, we left Scotland and stayed a while in Northern Ireland until the Great Potato Famine chased my people to the New World.
I don’t know what I expected on my return to the homeland, maybe the Royal Dragoon Bagpipe Band, but what I got was a humble come-uppance.
Some people in my family still grumble about Culloden and Bonnie Prince Charlie being restored as the rightful heir to the throne, but I’ve let it go. I’m glad to be in America publishing Curations from the Human Jungle. To that I raise a glass with a wee dram and say “I will stay the course!”
Loved it, cousin! Brought back wonderful memories of our own visit to the homeland and Hunterston Castle. “Comeuppance” is the right description for the visit. I also was expecting to be told our ancestors went down defending William Wallace himself at “The Battle”. Finding out they were initially given the lands by the English King because they were such good hunters…who would have guessed?
Check out John McFee’s “The Crofter and the Laird.”
History is not a fairy tale, is it? I loved your essay! I have researched my own family and found it the “mutt” theory of lineage applies to me as well. The Scots have a fascinating history, but it is a mix of glory, poverty, in-fighting, betrayal and everything good and bad human beings are capable of. Anyway, thanks for this tour of your “homeland” and your observations on these clannish folk who are so full of contradictions.