‘Twas off the bonnie banks of Linlithgow Loch, some 350 years ago, the king had sentenced a thief to starve to death ordering him chained to an oak tree on a floating islet. The captive’s faithful companion, a black greyhound, treaded through icy waters with food in her mouth attempting to save her master’s life. When the palace caught onto the canine’s caper she was shackled to a different tree on a nearby islet leaving both prisoner and pooch to perish. From that day forward the townspeople of Linlithgow were so touched by the dog’s loyalty that they started referring to themselves as “black bitches.”
After watching an episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” a TV show that documents celebrities’ searches for their family roots, I enthusiastically joined Ancestry.com. Since I’m not an Academy-Award winning actress, my only option was hands-on investigation (as opposed to having an expert do it for me), which turned into hours upon days spent hunched over my laptop, dry-eyed and jacked up on coffee, slowly comprehending all the mind-numbing background labor that television hadn’t revealed.
During this online hunt for my family tree I’d gape at the screen and wait for green leaves to sprout signaling new revelations of long-departed relatives; in truth, of course, these were complete and total strangers, but because these unknown souls were blood relations, it started to get interesting. My familial branches grew longer and longer, and beneath the Paris surname sprouted several individuals from a place I’d never heard of, Linlithgow, a tiny town (research revealed) located 20 miles west of Edinburgh. (At least that would explain my penchant for plaid and bitter ale.)
Over the following weeks I researched Scotland and its history. One book detailed the magnitude of the country’s diaspora and described a man who lived in New York, but whose heritage began in Scotland. For years he’d accumulated Scottish memorabilia rivaling a museum’s collection. (I could just picture this guy decked out in full kilt regalia wielding an axe.)
Asked when he planned to visit the Homeland, the man replied that he would never make the journey for fear of being “too disappointed.”Despite this, and fully realizing that the backdrop of Linlithgow would not resemble a scene from Braveheart, I longed to go, especially after reading the town’s website and finding the fabulous fable of the brave black bitch. Luckily, I’d be attending a conference over the summer in Wales and could easily travel to the royal burgh historically noted as the birthplace of James V and Mary, Queen of Scots. (Honestly, forget the nobility. I was dying to see if the townspeople, my people, were still living up to the legend.)
I’d arranged to stay at a bed and breakfast called Glenavon House situated on the outskirts of town. The owner, Sue Lindsay, insisted on meeting me at the train station. There was something all too familiar about her. My second sentence after “Thanks for picking me up” was “I’ve got a hideous hangover.”
“Ha! No problem,” she’d scoffed. “I’ve got one, too.”
If “chatty” is a common Scottish trait, then I’d found the leader of my kind. Sue and I sat crossed-legged on a pale yellow divan flipping through her family albums, and our meeting took on the urgency of a high school reunion’s mission – how fast can you cram your life’s history into one evening. Her quick fill-of-the-wine-glass action never faltered or once stirred the resident cat asleep by my side. As nighttime finally fell on the land of lingering daylight, I climbed the stairs for bed and slept for what seemed like seven centuries in a room so lovely it was a shame to close my eyes.
The next morning I hopped a bus into the heart of the village of 12,000 residents, then veered straight into the building that housed public records. Maybe it was futile to think I’d dig up actual evidence of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, John Paris, born there in 1660 – but I did. For a couple of pounds a kindly employee helped access the original page online, which showed proof of marriage between John and Issobel Aitken on November 19, 1682. Not only were John and I born exactly 300 years apart, but he was betrothed on my birthday (a fact probably momentous to no one other than myself).
Still, I would never get to meet him, or even glimpse an old photograph. We’d never share a hymnal during services at the medieval kirk, or stroll together around the grassy lawn beside the castle ruin known as The Peel tossing bread crumbs to the swans. A sense of disenchantment choked me like a triple-knotted scarf. The only scrap to possess was a signature scrawled into a footnote of history?
There had to be more I could take with me. I decided to recreate John Paris’s footsteps around the square known as The Cross, which was completely vacant. As I passed a stony wall near the church, the atmosphere grew eerily quiet. My stride reduced to slow motion as I spied the tops of ashen tombs.
I wandered into St. Michael’s Parish (once used to stable Oliver Cromwell’s horses during a battle) to glimpse the altar where my ancestors most likely had worshipped. Only months before their names had been unfamiliar like characters in a novel, but as I stood proudly on Scottish soil they somehow became genuine, dear, people to remember. I noticed a collection of inspirational cards available for a small donation. Instantly, my hand reached for a lavender offering titled “What is Dying” by someone named Bishop Brent. I dropped a pittance in the collection box and tucked it away. When a woman asked if I needed further assistance, I asked if I could see the burial plot locations and gave the year of my relative’s existence. She informed me that he was probably buried beneath the newer dead people due to “lack of space,” which meant there would be no visible indicator.
I ventured out to the cemetery grounds traipsing atop crumbled bits of illegible markers. Time had erased almost every name etched onto the headstones, many broken and scattered below cypress trees. The only other living creature within the gates was a petrified hare with a sideways glare. Kneeling down, I peered into a rabbit hole underneath what may or may not have been anywhere close to John Paris’s final resting place. Staring into blackness, I thought – herein lay a fragment of my family, a piece of me. A warm sun shone down and lit the churchyard like a thousand sacred candles.
Later that same Monday afternoon, I sipped on a beer as my eyes surveyed the dark-wooded interior of The Black Bitch, one of the oldest pubs in Scotland. Within minutes a man named Archie asked if he could buy me another pint.
“Sure,” I said, wiping froth from my upper lip. “That’s so sweet of you.”
We’d only just met inside the empty haunt and after my solitary morning it was a relief to hear the town’s motto, “St. Michael is kinde to straingers,” rang true.
“Ya know, when ya ordered dat,” he said pointing at my drained glass, “I t’ought it was fer somebody else … that you were waitin’ fer someone,” Archie chuckled. “Ya don’t usually see a woman drinkin’ Guinness.”
I had to laugh for in a way I had been waiting for someone who couldn’t possibly ever turn up. I shrugged jovially at the gray-haired charmer and wondered in between chimes from a corner slot machine and his friendly banter if I dared tell why I’d come. Fumbling inside my bag, I removed the little card recently purchased at the church. Its message seemed to preach directly at me:
A ship sails and I stand watching till she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says, “She is gone.” Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large as when I saw her. The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her, and just at the moment when someone at my side says, “She is gone,” there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout, “There she comes!” and that is dying.
I took it as a sign that somewhere up there my ancestors had just acknowledged me. I began explaining to Archie, the bartender, and one other man about traveling all the way to Linlithgow from America to raise a glass in my eight times great grandfather’s honor.
“Doesn’t that … make me a … black bitch descendant?” I questioned in a lame stutter, praying I didn’t commit some secret breach of “bitch” ethics.
They all quit talking and looked at me. The pub’s heart seemed to stop beating for a couple of seconds.
All of a sudden, the gentleman at the end of the bar wanted to buy me a pint as well. What a priceless tribute! Together we lifted our glasses in unison – the townspeople and me – and continued our discussion about nothing much at all.
After about an hour, I announced it was my turn to treat.
“No, no, no!” Archie barked. “Always remember, Jillay,” he advised paternally, “it’s nice to be nice.”
I felt like knitting him a sweater or something, but remembered I didn’t know how.
On my untelevised walk back to Sue’s I felt sorry for that man in New York so far detached, admiring his trinkets and treasures, presumably some too valuable to touch. If only he’d visit the Homeland and meet some of his people. Perhaps he might discover that the worthiest possessions in Scotland are stored within the living legends and cannot be bought.
[Photo Credit: Above, Glenavon House, Jill Paris. Below, Jill Paris]