It was here, at the northern tip of the Isle of Skye, with the northerly winds ripping at our jackets and mist fogging my glasses, that it felt like I had reached the end of the earth, the terminus of my journey. As the cliffs precariously dropped beneath us to the icy waters of the North Sea, we stood looking out over the mist and rain and I again felt that I had answered the siren’s call, that I had followed a thousand years of my ancestors’ footsteps.
The pilgrimage to this spot started decades earlier, an evolution of many takes, a constant re-shuffling of my sense of self, that started, quite innocently enough, as a middle school homework assignment. As many around the world were probably tasked to do at one point or another, I was asked to talk with my parents and grandparents about my family; about their lives, what it was like growing up, and ultimately, about their own parents and grandparents. They shared stories of sprawling farms or small, urban apartments. Some of these memories were happy, others sad and lonely, but hearing all of them was fascinating for a young boy who’s suburban upbringing had etched into his brain a tilted and quite biased view on how the world worked. In those moments, however, I also began to piece together the first, burgeoning steps of our family’s history. In the decades that followed, my dad and his brother took over my family sapling - many of its branches alone and bare - and, with endless hours of love and care, built what is now a thorough, comprehensive and truly impressive catalog of my family’s history. A direct paternal line to a Viking from 1080 AD; the realization that my mom had two distinct relatives both independently connected to the Mayflower; and the recognition that our family held other influential positions in our country’s young history, mostly as generals in war and politicians during peacetime, were some of the highlights. Among those headlines sat many, many more lowlights, bringing color and balance to the familial equation. But taken in aggregate, looked at through the prism of time, I was able to finally know, quite precisely, where I came from.
On paper, at least.
In recent years, people around the world have been enamored with the idea of discovering their own origin stories. Who exactly are we? Where do we come from?. These are questions that have captured our imaginations since the beginning of humanity’s time on this lonely mote of dust. Silicon Valley, no stranger to the idea of profiting on opportunity, has flooded the market with various avenues in which people can peruse their ancestral histories, going so far as to mix genetic science with tried and true, good old-fashioned research. A simple DNA sample can now open the door to the labyrinth of human migration patterns and ethnic diaspora that ultimately make you the person you are today.
Until relatively recently, this information lay hidden in libraries, church basements, and town halls around the world, sealed behind stone walls and under layers of dust. Only those living close to these bastions of documentation, with more than a hunch and a large degree of luck, would ever find anything of value among the noise. Many records eventually ceased to even exist at all, victims to fires and floods, earthquakes and wars. But today, users are able to instantly connect with their extended and sometimes incredibly far flung families from around the world. They have crowd-sourced their respective research into towering, consolidated family trees with unfathomably deep roots. We could no longer wonder where we came from, or ponder who else may hail from a similar beginning. We now knew exactly which branch we sit upon in our metaphorical world tree. These revelations made the world feel unbelievably small and, almost simultaneously our sense of belonging to something more than just our familiar, nuclear core suddenly much stronger than it had ever felt before.
But so what? We know so much now of where we come from, of how our ancestors got from one place to another, and how they met and mixed with each other to create the perfect recipe of circumstances that led directly to our own creation. We are made aware of the fact that without these countless random acts of life that preceded us, we would quite simply not exist. We have connected information with stories from our relatives around the globe to paint a picture of our shared histories that is more complete and comprehensive than we could have imagined just a couple of decades ago. Humanity now has the power to know more about our own genesis than any single generation in history. So then why, I would sometimes ask, do we still feel such a longing to know more? Why does the picture, so full of history, still feel so incomplete?
One of the side effects of this type of research is the discovery of some amazingly detailed and often humorous outtakes from our ancestor’s daily lives. One can read names, birthdays, death certificates, and burial locations all day long, but it will never come as close to making these people feel real as it does when you read about how a great-great-great grandmother was the first female doctor in Pennsylvania - and was later killed in a horse-and-buggy accident, article below - or another distant great grandfather of a grandfather was a horse thief and notorious town drunk. There were entire broods of children coldly eliminated due to disease, great triumphs of exploration and business, infidelities, scandal, and an abundance of tedious normalcy.
The articles my dad and uncle uncovered amused us, they amazed us and sometimes, they even sickened us. Newspapers in those earlier days, with no TV or internet to feed the imaginations of its readers, wrote stories and obituaries in extraordinary, and often gruesome, detail. Many times, we read as a family an entertaining tale about a particularly colorful character, to only stumble upon the grisly account of how an industrial accident left said individual without a limb. These stories filled the spaces between the branches of our family tree, they were the light that brought these hundreds of faceless names to life. Not only did we know definitively where we came from, but in a very real sense, we now knew how those before us lived and worked, succeeded and failed, loved and died.
I am of mostly Anglo-Saxon descent, the clear majority of my genes coming from the British Isles, France, and Scandinavia. An area of particularly keen focus for my family was Scotland, and our collective history in the country. There, thirty or so miles west of Glasgow, sits a castle that carries my family namesake. For over a dozen continuous generations, a Hunter has lived on the grounds of Hunterston Castle. Originally established on land granted from David I of Scotland in the 12th century, Clan Hunter served as gamesmen for the king, and our family has lived there for almost a thousand years. All for the price of a single, silver penny. Hunterston’s laird symbolically keeps silver pennies, minted many years ago, on hand for payment, if ever deemed necessary to make the royal family whole. My dad and uncle traced my paternal line through this castle, and it was this plot of earth, with a beautiful view over Ayrshire and a nuclear power plant or two within earshot, that served as a catalyst for my trip to Scotland.
I struggled a bit in blocking out this piece. On one hand, this trip was a way to connect to my ancestry, to see for the first time a place that I am intrinsically, even genetically, connected to. On the other hand, this visit to Scotland was about a car and a castle, a different castle than Hunterston, one that my fiancee and I actually got to spend some time in. After a couple of days in Glasgow, I picked up my Jaguar F-Type at the Glasgow airport. For the first time, I was behind the wheel of a Jaaaaag, here in its home in the U.K., no less. With a press of a button, the supercharged V6 engine growled to life. I pulled the paddle shift into first gear and almost immediately I was faced with the intimidating, but unsurprising, realization that everything was backwards. To my right, where typically more than 50% of a car’s mass would sit, was a window out to the street. To my left, where I for many years rested my arm against the door as I drove, sat a suddenly, unnervingly-bulky second half of a car where the person I loved most in the world sat... it felt like I was driving in a mirror. I inched the coupe forward, my eyes darting to the left to makes sure I didn’t crash the wide left fender into another car in front of everyone. Then, with knuckles of pure white, we started off on our drive towards Hunterston.
I’ll spare you much of the details about learning to drive on the other side of the road, and I won't spend too much time on the car itself. I ultimately decided this piece should be about Scotland, its scenery, and what it felt like for one of its wayward sons to return there. But this trip was also a driving holiday in an exhilarating car, and take it from me, the car is brilliant. The noise it makes is guttural, primal, and, to not just me, incredibly arousing. Driving it through tiny Scottish villages left heads turning, and if its looks didn’t draw attention, the pops and burbles of the exhaust as I pulled away certainly did. At one particular fuel stop - of many, unfortunately - some young boys came up to me, asking if they could take a picture of the car. I nodded, leaning up against the fuel pump smiling as they posed in front of the car, snapping away Instagram posts on their iPads. This car had an effect on people, this much was clear.
As we pulled away from Glasgow, heading towards our castle for the next three nights, and towards that second castle that my family has had ties to for almost a thousand years, the intoxicating mixture of this car, this scenery, and these roads was like eating the perfect meal prepared by a Michelin chef at the prime of her craft. Through long, sweeping corners, the F-Type dug its haunches into the tarmac and then, approaching precise hairpins, the Jag would grunt off its excess power, twitch its nose into the apex, and accelerate out with subtle ease. I never wanted to stop driving. All too soon, less than an hour later, the car was parked in a driveway and I found myself walking around the green acreage of Hunterston Castle. At the entrance sat a sign, one that I will always remember for the goosebumps it gave me: “Hunterston Castle. Strictly Private. Clan Hunter Visitors Only.”
Clan Hunter. Those words clung to me like a warm blanket. It was here that I started to shake off the nervousness of the drive, and the unfamiliarity of being in a new country. The sensations of adventure and exhilaration that I typically experience when I travel was quickly replaced by something new altogether. The land didn’t feel alien, even though I had never been there before. I didn’t feel that incessant need to move on and discover something else. My mind stopped racing and my wanderlust ceased. For the first time in my life, while in an entirely new place, I was at rest. While much of the trip flew by in an instant, the time spent on this hallowed, Hunter ground, didn’t.
We spent three nights in a beautiful, freshly renovated castle atop the hills surrounding Largs and Ayrshire, with views from our own turret out over the lochs of Western Scotland. We explored Glasgow and Edinburgh, cities dripping with an overwhelming amount of history and Gothic architecture. In just under four days, we put almost 1,300 miles on the rental. We drove hard through the Glencoe Gallop, its sweeping crags of stone looming immensely over us, sentinels of an overwhelming scale. We sped through the evergreens along Loch Ness, seemingly forever north towards Inverness. We explored the empty quarter of the Cairngorms via military roads, stopping at a shuttered and empty Glenshee ski station, the only noises for miles coming from a bubbling river, a lone bird, and the roar of the Jaguar as it skirted along the beautiful ribbon of tarmac that was the A93. And then, in our ceaseless attempts to absorb all the visual splendor Scotland had to offer, we found ourselves at the wind-battered, northern tip of the Isle of Skye.
It was here, on an icy spit of rock staring into the abyss of the North Sea, that I found answers to those earlier, still lingering questions, fleeting thoughts regarding humanity’s constant wistfulness and sense of belonging. To find out where you come from, you must return to where it all began.
For years my family collected and poured over an almost infinite sea of data points, connecting fathers to sons and mothers to daughters. We unearthed thousands of names, all of them my family, and read hundreds of stories of both the fantastic and the mundane. But through all of that, I had grown disinterested. My family would uncover yet another novel truth, but with each new discovery, I felt as though we were just adding another tab to the spreadsheet. The more we learned, the less it seemed that any one person’s meant to me, their impact on my life diluted and diminished to a single drop of rain in an ocean of lifetimes that echoed out from a millennium before me. But here, two hundred and fifty miles away from my ancestral homeland at Hunterston, on a cliff of rock a hundred feet above the crashing waves of a stormy sea, I felt it. As if by some cosmic conductor, the whispers in my soul that had constantly questioned who I was, where I belonged, and who I would become, were suddenly silenced. I was where I was supposed to be, with the person I was supposed to be there with. Thirty-five hundred miles from where I live and work, eat and sleep and where I had made my life, it was here the whole time. There was no longer any question that I was where I belonged. Where I had always belonged. Here, in Scotland...
I was home.