Scotland: A Homecoming

30 Jul 2009, Posted by Jennifer Iannolo in travel

When I visited Scotland for the first time with my mother in 2004, I didn’t have so much as an inkling what my life would be like 5 years later. At that time I barely knew a certain chef named Mark Tafoya, and though I had a food blog, it was the “old-fashioned” kind, without tags or permalinks or anything of the sort.

How wonderful it feels to know that now, in addition to sharing some snippets with you from the road, we’ve also captured some of my family’s history on video, and that story can now be shared with cousins from both sides of the pond, and even those in Australia — simultaneously. We are all taking part, whether virtually or in person, in Homecoming Scotland 2009 — and you are right here with me. Do you know how amazing that feels? For the first time you’ll get to see my mom go crazy for her sweeties, and share stories about putting on her Wellies and picking fresh mushrooms after a rainstorm. She is a very special lady, and those around her know it for certain, but now I get to share her with you, too. This trip was as much about her as it was about Scotland, and though we hauled her around through a pretty tight schedule, I hope she’ll be as pleased with the results as we hope to be.

We started our journey in Inverness, where she was born, and these pictures barely capture the bucolic majesty of the Scottish Highlands. It is a land of mist and green, with the first buds of heather just starting to peek out. Soon the hillsides will be resplendent with waves of purple, but for now there is a gentle tease of the colors to come. If you ever get a chance to see it first-hand, I implore you to do so, because the sight of those hills dotted with sheep and heather will take your breath away.

The most important stop of our “Heeland” journey was in Culloden, the site of the most famous battle in Scotland’s history. The first time I visited Culloden in ’04, I noticed that the cairn (monument) there was built by Duncan Forbes, my ancestor. I was so overcome with the magnitude of that battlefield’s history that I actually wept as I took it all in. I felt proud that our family commemorated the bravery of so many men, but was a little bit disappointed that the family name did not appear on any of the clan gravestones. This was a bit of a bummer.

What I didn’t know — and what truly blew me away — was that during the battle itself, an earlier Duncan Forbes was actually the Lord President of Scotland. This was getting good. I also discovered that members of the Forbes clan fought on both sides of the battle, but many fought under the name of the Mackintosh clan, so they were hidden in plain sight from mine eyes.

All of this wonderful news was delivered to mom and me by Hugh Allison, who joined us in full regalia (yes, that includes a kilt) to explain what happened during the battle. He even gave me a little lesson in weaponry, and I found that the swords are my kind of weapon. Of course, they do resemble knives, so that makes sense.

When we had afternoon tea at Culloden House afterward, I discovered that it, too, was owned by Duncan Forbes, and in fact housed the bed where Bonnie Prince Charlie slept the night before the infamous battle. This was all delightfully overwhelming, as I did not realize the weight the Forbes name carries in that part of Scotland. When I heard the sound of bagpipes as dinner was escorted in to the Culloden House’s guests, I did in fact get a bit misty. The sound of those pipes always stirs something deep in my soul.

Needless to say, Hugh Allison has become one of my new best friends, and he will join me for an upcoming Food Philosophy podcast to discuss the history of Culloden in further detail. We shot some video with him to give you an overview, so look for that to come out in the next couple of months. If you want to learn more yourself, you can read Hugh’s book Culloden Tales, which gives a moving account of the battle and clarifies that it was not, as many think, a battle between the English and the Scottish. As it turns out, there was a little bit of both on either side.

It is such an incredible feeling to find out where you come from. As a first-generation American I feel a little bit lost sometimes, like I am straddling the fence of three cultures (American, Scottish and Italian), but this helps to put it all in perspective, because all three comprise important parts of me. There is much more to tell, and it will all be done in due course, but I wanted to give you a little snippet of my experience so far. I also want to know if you’ve explored your roots in any way like this. Is it important for you to know where you come from? What blood runs through your veins? I hope you’ll post a comment if you’ve had a similar experience.

Now, I would be most remiss if I did not mention the joy that is afternoon tea. There is nothing quite like curing the afternoon blahs with a pot of tea served with sandwiches, cakes, biscuits and scones with a dollop of clotted cream. It’s downright decadent, and Mom dove in like a starved woman. (If it comes with whipped cream, she’s in.) The photos here are from our afternoon tea at Culloden House, which was incredibly inviting after a day of driving and touring.

Incidentally, I’ve noticed something interesting about myself in the UK, and it’s happened on the three separate occasions I’ve been here. If you know anything about me, it’s that I am a coffee freak. I live for coffee, could bathe in the smell of the beans, and simply can’t get enough. Unless I’m in the UK. Then all I want is tea, and I want many cups, all day long. I think it has to do with the chilly dampness in the air — nothing cures it like a cuppa.

I’ll try to send as many updates as I can from the road, so make yourself a cuppa and check back for more. We’re off to Wales tomorrow! You can also see more photos of our trip on my Facebook albums for the Highlands and Culloden.