Scotland: A Homecoming Nearly 1,000 Years in the Making / by Christopher Hunter

In recent years, people from around the world have been increasingly fixated on the idea of rediscovering their own origin stories, to finally find out who exactly they are and where exactly they come from. These are questions that have captured the imagination of humanity since the beginning of our time here on this planet. 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 only recently, this information lay buried in libraries, church basements, and town halls around the world, sealed behind stone walls and under layers of dust. Only those close by, with more than a hunch and a large degree of luck, would ever find anything of use among the noise. Many of these records eventually ceased to even exist at all. But now, these family tree applications allow users to instantly connect with their extended, sometimes incredibly far flung, families from around the world. They have crowd-sourced their respective research into towering, consolidated family trees with strong and unfathomably deep roots. We can no longer wonder where we came from, or ponder who else may hail from a similar beginning. We now know 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.

 Me in the Scottish Highlands near Skye

Me in the Scottish Highlands near Skye

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, seemingly random acts of life that preceded us, we would quite simply not exist. We have connected and collated information with 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 must ask, do we still feel such a longing to know more? Why does the picture, so full of history, still feel so incomplete?

I can credit my middle school science class for starting my family down its journey with genealogy. 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. I inquired about their lives, what it was like growing up, and then ultimately, about their own parents and grandparents. I began to piece together the first, burgeoning steps of our family’s history. In the decades that followed, my dad and his brother took my sapling, many of its branches bare, and with endless hours of love and care, built what is now a thorough, comprehensive and truly impressive catalog of my family history. Some of the highlights include: mapping my direct paternal line to a Viking from 1080 AD; the realization that my mom had three distinct relatives all 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. I now knew, precisely, where I came from.

On paper, at least.

 My direct paternal line, where we know a birth and death date, at least for now, ends here. With Williemo Venator (Hunter), circa 1080 A.D.

My direct paternal line, where we know a birth and death date, at least for now, ends here. With Williemo Venator (Hunter), circa 1080 A.D.

One of the major side effects of this type of research is the discovery of some amazingly detailed and sometimes 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.

 An article from the Scranton Republic, written one day after a great relative of mine died in a horse-and-buggy accident involving a train.

An article from the Scranton Republic, written one day after a great relative of mine died in a horse-and-buggy accident involving a train.

 The same article as above, zoomed in a bit to highlight the gruesome detail reporters of the time used in their writing.

The same article as above, zoomed in a bit to highlight the gruesome detail reporters of the time used in their writing.

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 1000 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.

 Hunterston Castle, Ayrshire, Scotland

Hunterston Castle, Ayrshire, 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 fiancée and I actually got to spend some time in. After a couple of days in Glasgow, I picked up my 2016 Jaguar F-Type V6 at the Glasgow airport. For the first time, I was behind the wheel of a Jag (or as  our favorite car-enthusiast orangutan would say it, a Jaaaaag.) And here in the U.K., no less. As I pressed the engine starter, the supercharged V6 engine growled to life. I pulled the paddle shift into first gear and almost immediately I was hit by the realization that absolutely 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 Jag 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, and then back again to the right to make sure I was squarely in my lane. Then finally, and nervously, 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 me at least, incredibly arousing. The power of the supercharged V6 comes on quickly, tempered by the excellent paddle-shift-enabled automatic gearbox, and the steering is connected and heavy when the conditions call for it, and effortless when they don't. It’s also, again to my eyes at least, perhaps one of the most beautiful cars on the road today. 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.

 The undeniably sexy Jaguar F-Type. Equally as alluring was this road.

The undeniably sexy Jaguar F-Type. Equally as alluring was this road.

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 1000 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… even if it was on the other side of the road. Alas, 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.”

 The entrance to Hunterston Castle, my family namesake and ancestral home.

The entrance to Hunterston Castle, my family namesake and ancestral home.

 The grounds of Hunterston Castle

The grounds of Hunterston Castle

 Ayrshire, Scotland

Ayrshire, Scotland

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 exhileration that I typically experience when I travel was quickly replaced by something new altogether. The land didn’t feel foreign, 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 peace.

Much of the trip flew by in an instant. 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 (it gets better, the turret was actually a fully functioning sauna). We explored Glasgow and Edinburgh, cities dripping with an intimidating amount of history and Gothic architecture. In just under four days, we put almost 1,300 miles on the F-Type. We drove hard through the Glencoe Gallop, its sweeping crags of stone looming immensely over us, sentinels of overwhelming scale. We sped through the evergreens along Loch Ness north towards Inverness. We explored the empty quarter of the Cairngorms via military road, 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.

 Our very own fairy tale castle, just outside of Largs. And yes, those turrets were fully functional.

Our very own fairy tale castle, just outside of Largs. And yes, those turrets were fully functional.

 It its element... Jaguar F-Type in the Scottish Highlands

It its element... Jaguar F-Type in the Scottish Highlands

 Glenshee Ski Station

Glenshee Ski Station

 Rain soaked drive to Skye

Rain soaked drive to Skye

It was here, 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. 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 distant. My family would uncover yet another novel truth, but with each new discovery, I felt as though we were just adding one more tab to the spreadsheet. The more we learned, the less it seemed that any one individual 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 spit of earth a hundred feet above the crashing waves of a stormy sea, I could feel 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, I had found it. There was no longer any question that I was where I belonged. Where I had always belonged. Here, in Scotland...

I was home.

- C

 The tip of the Isle of Skye

The tip of the Isle of Skye

 1,267 miles, 4 days, 1 dented wheel and the feeling of being home.

1,267 miles, 4 days, 1 dented wheel and the feeling of being home.