“I have an idea that some (wo)men are born out of their due place. Accident has cast them amid strangers in their birthplace, and the leafy lanes they are known from childhood or the populous streets in witch they have played, remain but a place of passage……Sometimes a woman hits upon a place to which she mysteriously feels she belongs. Here is the home she sought, and she will settle amid scenes that she has never seen before, among men and women she has never known, as though they were familiar to her from her birth. Here at least she finds rest”. W.Somerset Maugham
On the island I live the Historical Society is doing research into the past, exploring the “historical and cultural impact of emigration…….hoping to discover aspects of Gaelic island culture that the emigrants took with them and which have been maintained in their new lands by their descendants”.
There are numerous websites offering research into Scottish ancestry and one can even be helped in finding her/his Family Tree DNA. A friend of mine, island born, is exploring her family history, collecting letters, stories, photographs, newspaper cuttings, interviewing people…….and I feel almost envious, lost, excluded because my name will never show in the island’s database, I have no rights, no claim whatsoever to be part of these projects. My Swiss passport shows unequivocally that I was born in Ticino, the Italian speaking triangle on the map near the borders to Italy, a thirty minutes drive to Milan, by Italian speaking parents.
And yet……could there be another kind of belonging? Another kind of ancestry?
As a student, for two years, I was assistant to Prof. Dr. Glutz von Blotzheim who was writing the Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas on the European avifauna (published in German in 14 volumes with comprehensive data on identification, distribution, biology, ecology and natural history).
We were working at two different subjects at that moment in time: the Anseriformes (Geese, Ducks and Swans) and Birds of prey. It was my job to read through the very well equipped library in the studio, to “digest” and prepare articles and notes out of the piles and piles of avifaunean literature. There, for the first time, I came across The Hebrides: through a monograph about the Golden Eagle and a book by Seton Gordon The Immortal Isles. I fell in love with the Isles there and then. I was 27.
Years later Scotland knocked again at my door. A friend took his sabbatical to work at Culterty Field Station (now Oceanlab?) near Newburgh, researching the behaviour of Shelducks on the Ythan Estuary. Paul and Marie-Louise’s letter were full of sea and dunes and beaches and geese and waders and salmon and scones with cream…….
It was the time when my husband was planing his sabbatical too, and, on a very short notice, we decided to join our friends through the summer months. It was a long and very beautiful summer with six weeks of warm and dry weather. Our days were evolving around the feeding habits of small children and the feeding habits of the Shelduck; the main influence in planning our days was the tide, the birds coming to feed on the estuary only at a certain tide level. The Tide! An incredible new experience to the “alpine inland” woman. And in the evenings we would sit on the ledge of the old Ythan bridge watching young otters playing. On a cold, windy and wet October day, the very day before leaving Scotland, I was standing at the beach in Newburgh, looking out into the North Sea with tears in my eyes and I knew. Without having the slightest idea of how it would be possible, I knew I would come back.
A few years later, when struggling through a very difficult time including divorce, I had this dream:
I saw at a motor-way junction a huge signpost with the word EDINBURGH, in big letters, and an arrow showing left. This was the start of incredible coincidences which brought me to meet wonderful friends and made me come almost every summer to visit the east coast (North Berwick) or later Inner Hebridean islands with my children: Coll, Rum, Colonsay, Iona, Erraid….. When on the verge to leave this places, I found myself crying, bewildered by it, because there was no real reason why I should, couldn’t really understand where this pain came from.
Around this time, back in Switzerland, I woke up (in my dream) one morning and saw unknown people around my bed. And they were talking in Gaelic! I didn’t understand a word but I knew the language and knew they were talking about me.
Some more years passed before I was able to come to stay in Scotland and more years before a friend told me about the course in Traditional Music and Gaelic in Benbecula. I was struck like from a lightning hearing this and in a moment I knew I would come to the Hebrides. This was 2008.
I had long forgotten about my first encounter with the islands a long way back in Prof. Glutz’s studio, this is something I just remembered a few months ago.
The moment I arrived I felt home. The landscape, the sky, the sea, the birds, the music…they welcomed me and I felt and feel a strong affinity, respect and solidarity with the women and men living and working presently on the Uists. And the ruins speak of a living lost in time……….