The Legend Of The Black Bitch: A Scottish Homecoming

‘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]

Once Upon a Time in the Wee Small Hours of Ireland

Agusti Curto Calbet, the Night Manager at The Ritz-Carlton, Powerscourt, in County Wicklow, Ireland, arrived to work for his midnight shift on a cold February evening. Ordinarily, during his scheduled time at the five-star luxury hotel, a guest might phone in for a wake-up reminder, the arrangement of an early morning taxi, or perhaps a bottle of champagne for a romantic interlude. But, as the young Spaniard was about to discover, this fated night was about to become anything but ordinary.

A woman staying in one of the Mountain View Suites with her husband rang the Reception desk after 2:00 a.m. in a most agitated state.

“I hate to bother you at this late hour, but a very valuable item of mine has disappeared from my room!”

“I’m so sorry to hear that Madame,” he replied. “What does it look like?”

Whatever it is, he thought, it surely must be priceless.

“It’s a small, white Teddy Bear,” she explained in between sobs. “One of its button-eyes is slightly broken and…and…it’s irreplaceable! I’ve carried it with me for over 35 years!”

As her voice faded into low sniffles, the 30-year-old Night Manager kept the lady calm and assured her all would be well.

“Where did you see it last?” he asked.

“It was on the bed. Maybe it went astray when the room was cleaned today?”

Agusti told her that the stuffed animal couldn’t have gone far and that every effort would be made to retrieve it.
He first phoned Loss Prevention to see if a toy matching its description had been turned in to the Lost & Found. No such luck. Glancing at the clock, then at the stack of paperwork on his desk, he could have easily passed the call onto the morning staff by writing a note describing the events, but instead, intrigued by the guest’s desperate longing to find her keepsake, he decided, “No. I’m going to do this myself.”

He summoned the Housekeeping night team on duty to meet him in the Laundry Room. Five minutes later, Rafal Mlynarski, Andrzej Koziol, and Cassio Schuler were soon listening to Agusti re-enact the woman’s plea.

The trio was eager to help find the misplaced bear, but suddenly the reality of sorting through mountains of soiled linens made their eyes widen at the sight of the ten or eleven trolleys before them. Each cart overflowed with tightly wrapped bed sheets and soggy, wet towels. This quest took on the classic “finding a needle in a haystack” scenario, only the lost pin in question had paws, and these bales weighed much more than straw. The unpleasant stench prompted Cassio’s much-needed encouragement, “Don’t worry, guys! This is not a ‘dirty’ job. We have to go for it!”

They all agreed, then split into two groups with each duo dumping out the purple bags in unison. Towel by towel, sheet by sheet, they toiled together in the basement. As the heaping 20 kilos of laundry slowly dwindled, it was Agusti who finally discovered the Teddy Bear entwined in the folds of a king sheet.

“Look!” he shouted. “Here it is!”

An eruption of cheers and hoots filled the Laundry Room as though their favorite team had just won the World Cup. Rafal decided to tidy up their fuzzy friend and lightly sprayed its worn fleece with a bit of air freshener.

“Ah, that’s better,” he said, handing it back to his leader.

Even though dawn soon approached, Agusti somehow knew the woman would not mind his early morning delivery. But before returning the precious bundle, he crept down to the culinary department and placed five homemade wrapped cookies inside a green hotel gift sack complete with the wandering bear peering out over the top.

As the woman opened the door in her bathrobe, she found the almost seven-foot-tall Agusti on the other side holding the bag, his dark brown eyes twinkling back at her, with a smile as big as his heart.

“Look who we found in the kitchen looking for cookies!” he regaled, selflessly omitting the painstaking search details.

“Oh! I thought he was gone for good!” she cried out. “Oh, thank you! Thank you!”

Agusti stood motionless as she tenderly removed the one-eyed treasure and clutched it to her chest, her expression showing reverent gratitude.

“You see, this bear once belonged to my little boy,” she confided softly. She explained how she and her husband, now in their 60s, take it with them wherever they go.

The lady looked up at Agusti and whispered, “He’s now an angel in Heaven.”

Agusti knew his decision to “own” this guest’s problem was meant to be, for his beloved father had passed away before he was even born. His mother had raised him and two older brothers on her own in Barcelona.

As he bid the woman good-night, he asked if he could assist her with anything else.

“I don’t think there’s anything you could do better,” she said sweetly. “It’s as if you’ve given me back my son.”

He was all too familiar with the power of a mother’s love and right there, in the wee small hours of the morning, let go of his tears.

Jill Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been featured in The Best Travel Writing 2009, The Saturday Evening Post, Travel Africa, Thought Catalog and other publications. She has an M.A. in Humanities and a Master of Professional Writing degree from USC. She travels for the inexplicable human connection.

[Flickr image via neal]

Orkney Islands Serendipity: Discovering The Best Place I Never Wanted to See

“You’ll need to catch the bus to Stromness,” says the lady at the tourist information office. She’s the cheery sort you’d expect to find working here — that rare employee who genuinely seems to love her job.

I arrived in Kirkwall, the largest town in the Orkney Islands, less than an hour ago. I’ve come to ask the best mode of transportation to the Orkney Folk Festival, three nights of continuous musical acts held over the long May weekend.

She removes a pamphlet and turns it around on the counter. She circles the schedule time leaving tomorrow night at 5:15 p.m. Her name tag simply states Kathleen.

“How long does it take to get there?” I ask.

“About a half an hour with stops,” she says. “Are you going to the festival?”

“Yes!” I say.

“How are you getting back? The buses stop running at ten.”

“Oh?” I question. “Could I take a taxi?”

I can see by the look on her face this is not an option. I keep forgetting Kirkwall has about 7,100 residents and where I’m headed tomorrow, less than a third of that number.

“You know, I think my brother is going there. He could give you a lift back.”

Before I can say no, she’s picked up the phone. After a few moments she says it’s all set and he’ll meet me in the foyer after the concert. His name is Alistair. He’ll be with his significant other, Marie.

Ordinarily this goes against everything I learned as a kid: Do not accept rides from strangers. But surely this adorable woman – Kathleen – would not be arranging dangerous pick-ups from the Kirkwall Tourism Office. That would be bad for business. No, I’ll take the risk. The scariest thing I’ve seen so far is a shocking lack of sunshine.

“Thank you! That’s so kind of you,” I say. “I’ll meet him after the concert then.”

Everyone had questioned my decision to visit this place. Nobody had ever heard of it – including me. When I’d studied the map of Scotland, something had drawn me to this archipelago of 70 islands located below the Shetland Islands. My mother had said I might as well go to the North Pole.

“Look!” Mom had screamed. “It’s practically off the page it’s so high up!”

Before leaving Edinburgh this morning, I’d asked the bellman if he’d ever been to the Orkney Islands. He hadn’t, and he was Scottish. True, Edinburgh has a lot to offer: the Royal Mile, the ghost tours, the castle. All the attractions most travelers consider Places of Interest.

“Why are you going there?” he’d asked as I was leaving.

“I’m going to the Orkney Folk Festival. This marks its 27th year,” I’d told him. “For three full days and nights, musicians from all over the world come and play.”

He’d offered a nod and quizzical smile in return.

*****

The next evening I exit the Albert Hotel (one of about six in the entire town) and walk four blocks to the bus station. The rain has kindly stopped. For the past two weeks I’ve never been without a raised umbrella. I step onto the small bus that reminds me of a shuttle at an amusement park. I am seated behind the driver. He cracks a joke as the door shuts that the strange barking noise that sputters from the exhaust pipe is meant to be a dog. Everyone laughs. There are not more than ten people on board. The sun has suddenly appeared for the first time.

As we pull away I notice scruffy sheep standing in a nearby field upon grass so green they seem surreal. A young girl galloping by on a dark horse jumps high over a rail. Whoosh. There are two girls seated across from me. One is holding a large box on her lap and her friend says whatever’s in there smells amazin’. She’s bringing it to an annual barbecue and somebody’s even flyin’ in special.

Dandelions spring out of the ground like hedgerows. Their whitish heads are so dense they probably have ten-times the wishing power when you blow on their parachute balls. Dozens of tiny lambs look like little earthly clouds. There are beige cows, black cows, sitting cows, grazing cows. A sign posted along the road reads Blind Summit. I think it’s a warning we’re about to “fall off the page,” but luckily it’s just a steep hill, and the bus stops at the bottom in front of someone’s house. The slate planks stacked on top of the stone wall look like books tilted on a shelf. More baby lambs are running and kicking like pronking gazelles.

A teenage couple hops on and the girl says to her boyfriend, “Aw, you paid for me?” He blushes. She slides her hand in the back pocket of his jeans. The label says Mish-Mash. As the door closes, the scent of earth smells rich like wet peat moss. Someone has left a newspaper on an empty seat with the headline: Dead Heifer Washes Ashore. In a place where the animals outnumber the residents, missing cows are front page news.

The bus arrives in the tiny port of Stromness. Boats of all sizes painted in primary colors float on calm water. The bar at the Stromness Hotel contains performers carrying musical instruments and it looks as though their idea of a good dinner is the same as mine — a pint of Guinness. The room reminds me of the Old West with its oak interior and worn velvety furnishings. Even over laughter I can hear the floor creak with each step. The bartender, a dark-haired woman with tattoos, has silver hoops up the entire edge of her left earlobe. My second beer comes with a surprise – a shamrock etched in foam, almost too perfect to sip.

At just past seven-thirty, though it’s colder, the sky remains bright blue. A cluster of seagulls fly above the harbor as people on the narrow street gravitate toward the Town Hall. As I approach the entrance, it feels more like a church social; someone’s even selling raffle tickets.

“I’ll take three, please.”

A ginger-haired woman tears off a handful of hope in the form of three stubs.

“Good luck,” she says.

“Thanks. I feel lucky,” I say, stuffing numbers 35, 36, and 37 into my coat pocket.

I ascend the staircase and a man holding a clipboard says I can sit anywhere in the top section. I choose the first row to the left. The seat is barely wide enough to sit upon. My knees are knocking against the wooden casing. A woman finishing an ice cream cone waves to somebody she recognizes. I’m probably the only outsider at this music festival, an event so small, I had to get lodging on the other side of the island, take a bus here, and get a ride home from strangers.

The hall fills quickly. Some four hundred Orcadians are in attendance, a vast difference from the concerts back home. A man and his daughter squeeze past and sit beside me. He asks me where I’m from and if I’m going to the Bagpipe Concert in Kirkwall tomorrow night. His child, a beautiful girl around the age of fourteen, has brown bobbed hair and a mouthful of metal, and is missing both of her hands. I tell him that sounds like fun and maybe I’ll try to crash it. The girl smiles at me, yet never speaks. I think her face may be the purest thing I’ve ever seen.

A voice shouts, “Order, order!” The lights dim and an all-male trio take the stage. The man playing an accordion with holes in the knees of his jeans leads another man banging a keyboard while the other strums a guitar. Toes are tapping and heads are bobbing. Someone’s foot shakes the pew behind me. Here, in the dark, I cannot bring myself to clap, and stomp the floor instead, like the handless girl seated next to me.

I am more aware of the crowd than the players. My mind flashes back to the girl on that horse leaping over a high, white bar. I feel like a wild pony, mane flying, nostrils flaring, running through a green-green, greener-than-anything field.

I’m spellbound by a singer named Karan Casey. Her voice holds more emotion in each note than anyone I’ve ever heard perform live. Oh, to be born with such a gift, to move an audience, bringing tears to the eyes of those you’ve known all your life, the people of interest in unremarkable places. I wonder how many other wee towns there are in the world worth visiting. The ones so small nobody’s ever heard of them.

When the concert finally ends, the raffle begins. There are five prizes to be awarded tonight, says the lady in burgundy supervising the gentleman reaching into a jar and pulling out random tickets. The crowd listens carefully. None of my three numbers has been called and she’s about to announce the fourth prize.

“Number thirty-six,” she blurts.

“That’s me!” I cry louder than anyone else who’s won so far. The people seated around me applaud and pat my back like a friend as I descend the staircase two steps at a time.

I’m given a large tin wrapped in green and blue paper and tied with a gold bow. Whatever’s inside sure is heavy.

I follow the crowd through the exit doors and wait in the lobby. I see the red-haired lady still seated at the entrance table. Now she’s selling CDs from the acts that have just performed.

“Look!” I shout, flashing a big smile her way, holding up my present.

“Oh, that’s just grand,” she says.

There go father and daughter. The girl grins at me one final time. I can tell she knows I won’t be at her dad’s piping concert tomorrow evening. All the venues around town are sold out. I’d bought my ticket online to tonight’s show weeks ago and had it sent to the Albert Hotel. The price was less than eight dollars.

It’s after ten o’clock and I’m startled by a noisy murder of crows from the tree in the courtyard, the one next to the restrooms.

“Jill?” a man asks.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“I’m Alistair and this is Marie,” he says. He has a pleasant face and is wearing wire-rimmed glasses. His friend appears to be in her forties and is quite pretty without as much as a stroke of mascara. I can see the resemblance between Kathleen and her baby brother.

“So nice to meet you,” I say.

“Did you enjoy the show?” Marie asks.

“Oh, yes!” I declare. “It was better than I could have ever imagined.”

“Are you ready?” Alistair asks.

I’m never ready to go home.

“I guess,” I say sadly.

Alistair quickly senses my lack of historical knowledge when he mentions the Ring o’ Brodgar and the Standing Stones o’ Stenness. I stupidly ask if they have something to do with hobbits. I am oblivious that last year an archaeologist named Dr. Colin Richards spent time excavating these megalithic monuments. The standing stone circles are one of the main attractions here in the Orkneys.

“Dr. Richards said that the great ring may have been built around a pre-existing pathway and passing through it may have altered a person’s state, a bit like entering a church and moving towards the altar,” Marie shares.

Alistair pulls his car off the road and parks. As he opens the door a gust of bitter cold air sweeps through the backseat. Across the marsh on the other side I see a man fishing in a small boat. His dark outline is striking against the reeds and rippling water. He’s motionless.

Marie and Alistair have already climbed the slight incline toward the Ring o’ Brodgar’s standing stones. I’m stepping cautiously as each footprint sinks into the soggy soil. The wind swirls around me as I approach the monument.

“Touch one,” Alistair says. “They’re supposed to bring good luck. We’ll get a photo of you if you’d like.”

Selecting one of the largest stones I inch toward the twenty-foot-tall, flat rock and throw my arms around its base. Golden lichens and frosted white markings cover the surface above me like ancient graffiti. I’m hugging a mystical chunk of the world, standing in a place I’d never heard of before with total strangers.

Walking back down the hill toward the road, I hear a scuffling noise.

“Look,” Marie says, pointing. “Over there, beyond the fence.”

I see the faint outline of a cow kicking its heels up behind it, like a rodeo bull gone mad.

“Wonder what she’s so happy about?” Alistair jokes.

We all laugh, but it almost feels like I’m cutting up during a preacher’s sermon.

After a few more minutes, we finally reach the familiar town of Kirkwall. Alistair knows a shortcut to my hotel. I cannot thank them enough for the ride and the unexpected tour. Waving good-bye and watching the car drive away, I suddenly feel terrible for not giving them the prize I’d won as payment. I don’t know what’s underneath the wrap, but feel certain it’s definitely worth seeing.

Jill Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her essays have been featured in The Best Travel Writing 2009, The Saturday Evening Post, Travel Africa, Thought Catalog and other publications. She has an M.A. in Humanities and a Master of Professional Writing degree from USC. She travels for the inexplicable human connection.