Sunday, 11 November 2012

Scotland: The Pipes Call Me Home

I don’t recall how old I was when I first heard the bagpipes and drums. Not very old. Younger than ten, almost certainly. It was a Saturday, and my brother and I were out with Dad, which meant Mum was at work. I know that beyond a doubt because there’s no way my mother would have stopped to listen to bagpipes – no, she would have hurried us past that ‘horrendous noise’. Which is not to say I don’t love my mother, only that her perspective on bagpipes is very different to the rest of the family. 

Mum stopped work in 1992, so my memory of the bagpipes predates that, and hence how I know I was ten, or younger, and my brother likely eight, or younger. Quite small. But the memory is vivid. I remember where it was, and the tartan, and the kilts, the pipes, and the man with the drums with what looked, to my young mind, like pom pom drumsticks. I was fascinated by the way he swung them – not sticks, but on strings, up and over to beat the drum. 

What I remember most, though, is the haunting dirge of the pipes, speaking to my young heart in a way I didn’t understand, but a way that would stay with me for a lifetime. There was something about that unearthly music that cut straight to the soul, and the three of us stood mesmerised by the music for I don’t know how long. It was a sound I have never forgotten, never will forget, and that stirs my blood and conjures images of home. 

My mother is Australian, descended from English and Welsh. Perhaps this explains her deep-set dislike of the noise. For her ancestors, the wail of the pipes was not a happy sound.

My father identifies as Australian, but was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and didn’t legally become an Australian citizen until many, many years after my first encounter with the pipes and drums. My brother and I are Australian-born, but half Scottish by descent, and legally dual nationals. For all three of us, there is something in the sound of the pipes and drums that calls us home, not to a land of droughts and flooding rains, but to the moor and the heath, swathed in purple heather, to the rocky crags of the Scottish highlands, shrouded in mist and rain. 

In 2008, I travelled to Scotland, so great was the desire to see this place of my ancestors’ (indeed, my father’s) birth. We went many places on our honeymoon, but like the pipes, I’ll never forget those first moments in Scotland. 

My husband was driving, and I sat in the passenger seat, staring out the window, with a bemused smile on my face. A huge sense of contentment, and indeed homecoming, engulfed me as I stared out at what was, to my eyes, an unnaturally green landscape.  Despite the fact the scenery itself was alien, a great sense of belonging reverberated through me down to my very bones. The landscape is rugged, harsh, and unforgiving, and you can see how the environment moulded the Scots – tough, resilient, stoic. 

My husband, who also has Scottish roots, later admitted to me that he experienced a similar emotion. Within two weeks of our return home, we were homesick for Scotland, and planning our return. Alas, we’re still waiting, but we’ve set the year – 2016. We’re halfway there now, and the ache in me when I think of it – so close, and yet so far – is deep and long.

Since then, I’ve learned the feeling I experienced when I first heard the pipes (and every time I’ve heard them since) is not unique to me. Many people report feeling the same when they hear the pipes, and they all seem to have Scottish heritage. What is it about the bagpipes that speaks to us, even though we’ve never been to Scotland and may never go? Is this something peoples of other cultures experience? And yet the bagpipes seem unique in being almost universally despised by anyone who doesn’t have Scottish blood.  

I sometimes look for pictures to soothe my longing for the highlands – for it is the highlands specifically I miss, more than the lowlands. But many of the pictures I find, certainly a great number of the commercial images, those in calendars and the like, are not what I remember of Scotland. For instance, an image of the sun breaking through the clouds over Loch Ness. I don’t remember the sun. I remember clouds, and mist and drizzle, and cold, and yet I didn’t care. I am not a photographer, but I’ve shared some of my favourites with you. 

We’d never live in Scotland. We’re too accustomed to the warmth of Australian climes. But if we could, we’d live 6 months of the year here, and 6 months there. Home is where the heart is, and mine is divided, between two different worlds, between Australia and Scotland. 

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Tom Stronach said...

Oh Ciara, great post bring me back wonderful memories, Ishbel and I are heading up to Inverness for a few days next month, so.... When we lived in Inverness we had a VW camper van, strangely never used it for that, go figure, but every weekend, hail rain or shine we would pack the three kids into it and head North and generally west down the length of Loch Ness and then North after Fort William and we would explore the mountains and villages, the kidslaying in tiny lochans on top of mountains looking out across the sea in May,in snow in there shorts and t shirts and then you go and choose one of my two favourite pipe pieces, the other being 'The Black Bear'

Julia Barrett said...

Ah... I'm genetically Scottish but not Scottish - 5th generation American - and yet Scotland has always called to me. I've been there twice. Would live there if I could. It feels like home in a way I can't explain logically.

Julia Barrett said...

Hey Tom - have a wonderful time! Wish I was going with you!

Ciara Ballintyne said...

The Dark Isle is one of my favourite pieces too. Ah, Loch Ness and Fort William... I have vivid memories or my all too few and brief days there. It's enough to bring a tear to my eye.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

I know exactly what you mean, Julia! When talking to me, no logical explanation is required - it's a feeling that defies explanation. Do people without Scottish ancestors think we're nuts? I don't know... I used to think the feeling was something I alone felt, but it fascinates me even more to know there is a community of people driven by the same inexplicable longing and sense of home.

John. said...

We came the other way, born and bred in Scotland, but have migrated to Australia. I do miss the countryside but know that from a photography POV if I went out to get them it would be raining or the sky would be 5 feet above my head.

Ciara Ballintyne said...

Sounds like our trip, but that didn't stop me taking photos LOL. I opened the car window to take photos in the rain! Someof them are my favourites, because the rain and the cloud and the fog was so much of what our trip was about it makes me nostalgic.

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