I get asked a lot if I miss Scotland. I do, but in this modern world, I can video chat with friends and family, I can easily find Irn Bru and decent crisps, and I can watch the same TV channels as people in Scotland. So it’s not too bad. But there are some things that I do miss.
I miss going for a stroll on a crisp clear day and then diving into a pub when it starts to rain or get dark. I miss sitting around with family or friends telling old jokes and reminiscing about the past. I miss being at a soccer match when my team are actually winning. So when I do go back, I try and do as many of those things as possible.
In August 2013, Farah, Dune and I went back to Scotland for almost three weeks. It had been part of our plan in moving back to Austin in 2010, that we would try and spend part of the summer in Scotland. It’s still a goal, although we didn’t make it in 2016. But 2013 was a particularly memorable trip.
We got into Glasgow just in time to spend a day with my old mate Jambo and his new family before they returned to their home in Norway. It’s hard only getting to spend a few hours every year with someone that you used to see virtually every day. But it’s still better than nothing. We actually rearranged our whole trip so that we could see Jambo for a day. He was one of the best men at our wedding and he is still one of my closest friends. We had a picnic in Kelvingrove Park and watched the kids chase each other around.
We then left Duney with the grandparents for a couple of days and headed through to Edinburgh for some kid-free fun. Edinburgh in August is all about the Edinburgh Festival. I always describe the South by Southwest Festival for Scottish people as being like the Edinburgh Festival crammed into four or five days. Well, for those unfamiliar with the Edinburgh Festival, it’s like four weeks of SXSW. But with comedy, theater, music, film, jugglers, and rain.
We went straight from the train in Edinburgh to the Pleasance to see some random afternoon comedy shows, and then went out for dinner and drinks with our friends Vic and Matthew in Leith. Then in the evening Vic took us out to see some live music (RM Hubbert and Young Fathers) at a festival show he was hosting. There was a lot more festival stuff going on all day Saturday, but I only wanted to do one thing.
The entire time I studied at Edinburgh University, no one ever told me about the Water of Leith. I always lived in Edinburgh’s Old Town and although we often went out drinking in New Town and Stockbridge, it wasn’t until I moved back to Edinburgh in 1999 that I first heard about the Water of Leith and the hidden Dean Village.
The Water of Leith is the main river that flows through Edinburgh, but you hardly ever see it because it doesn’t follow the path of many streets. It just winds its way beneath and behind everything else, ever present and all knowing, like the unseen narrator in a well-told story. But there is a narrow path along the riverbanks for most of the route. And walking along that path is one of my favorite things to do in the world. It feels like a secret passageway through Edinburgh.
So on the Saturday afternoon, Farah and I walked all the way from the Shore in Leith up through Stockbridge then on into the New Town.
It was a nice day when we started, but predictably it started to rain, so we popped into a pub in the West End called Teuchters. After a couple of pints of Guinness and some stovies, the rain had stopped, but we decided that we were just fine where we were. Later that night we ended up at one of Matthew’s gigs skanking with Vic.
Back when I lived in Scotland, that might have been just another Saturday. But now those days are very rare. And so they become important. Like a necessary recharging of my Scottishness. Like a blood transfusion of my memory banks.
Not by coincidence, Scotland also happened to be playing a football match against England for the first time in 14 years when we were back in the UK. It was just a friendly match, if matches between Scotland and England can be described as ‘friendly’, and so it wasn’t a big deal for a lot of people, but it was for me.
Farah wanted to go, but the game was down in London and I couldn’t be sure that there wouldn’t be some trouble at the game, so I advised Farah not to come with me. Instead I went with my friend Dougie, who also coincidentally happened to have some work meetings arranged in London the day of the game.
So me, Dougie, and about 10,000 other Scots met up in London. Surprisingly, there was no trouble at all. We even went down to Trafalgar Square where thousands of Scots were singing and dancing in the fountains while getting absolutely shitfaced on the cheapest booze available, and to the credit of both nations, there was not a hint of antagonism.
We got to Wembley Stadium early and the atmosphere was already off the scale. The English must have outnumbered the Scots 10-1 but they were not making as much noise as us. By ‘us’ I mean us Scots. It was incredible. Other than Dougie, I didn’t know any of the people around me, but we were all together. When the teams came out I was in a heightened state. When they played the Scottish national anthem, I was close to tears.
I seem to be close to tears at some point in every chapter.
Anyway, back in Glasgow, my Mum and Dad were watching the game with Farah on TV. Of course they joked that maybe they would see me in the crowd. Sure enough, just after the anthems I got a few texts from people saying that they thought they had seen me singing away like a lunatic on TV.
The game itself was surprisingly good. Scotland scored first after 10 minutes and we all went crazy. Then England scored. At half time, Dougie and I went for a quick beer and bumped into our old school mate Cheesey in the queue. At first it seemed like a huge coincidence. But in retrospect, that’s exactly where I would have expected Cheesey to be.
We had a quick chat about the game and we all decided that we would be happy with a 1-1 draw if that was how it stayed. But then a couple of minutes after half time, Scotland scored again. A brilliant goal by Kenny Miller right in front of us. We were in dreamland. Cheesey missed it. He was still waiting for his beer. So Scotland were winning 2-1. As I recall, that was an amazing two and half minutes of singing at the English fans. Because two and half minutes later, England scored and ruined it. Then England scored again and that was that. We lost 3-2. It didn’t matter. It was just a friendly.
I had a night out with the London Pump and then we had another week in Edinburgh with friends and family. Before we left we went to see my Grandma Mackenzie, my Mum’s Mum. She had been ill for a long time, but by then she was confined to her bed and very weak.
Farah and I stopped in at my grandparent’s house in Eaglesham on our last day. Duney inherited her middle name of Mackenzie from them and they loved seeing her energy and her red hair. We talked a lot about who else in our family she looked like, and who else had red hair, before it was time for us to go back to Austin.
It had almost been a running joke in our family that whenever we said goodbye to Grandma she would say that it would be the last time we ever saw her. Well, sadly, this time it was.
A couple of months later, in October 2013, we got the news that Grandma had passed away. I got the news on a Tuesday morning that the funeral would be on the Friday. It was Duney’s 2nd birthday party on the Sunday morning but I had to be there. So we found the first available flight and I went home.
I’d made that last minute journey from Austin to Glasgow for a funeral once before, 18 years previously, in October 1995, and it was hard not to reflect on that. My parents and my Grandpa, now a widow, had asked me to speak about Grandma at the funeral too. So I didn’t get much sleep on the flight over with all that on my mind.
I actually really enjoy public speaking. I get up and speak in court all the time, I’ve done speeches at weddings and formal dinners, both prepared and improvised. But I’ve never been more nervous to speak than I was to do the eulogy at my Grandma’s funeral.
I got back on the day before the funeral and met up with my family, who were all dealing with their grief in different ways. Some were emotional, and some were stony-faced as they dealt with the not-insignificant practicalities of the funeral. I remember the discussion about who would ride with who in which funeral car occupied a lot of the evening.
I’d also forgotten how much people drink in Scotland. Not ‘how much’ necessarily, but how pervasive it is. How accepted it is. How expected it is. I remember thinking that it’s 9am on a Friday morning and we are all sitting around drinking whisky, and that’s totally ok.
All the while, nobody seemed to doubt that I would do a good job talking about Grandma at the funeral, which should have put me at ease, but it only made me more nervous.
The funeral service took place at the Linn Crematorium in Glasgow. Cremation is generally the way things are done in Scotland. Another tradition is that all the guests attending the funeral will wait outside the crematorium until the coffin and the family arrives.
As the funeral cars approach the crematorium, they do so very slowly. Sitting in the back seat, this means that you can see everyone standing there staring back at the cars. No one talking. All these familiar faces. Full of emotion. Silent in their sorrow.
It was then, as we pulled up outside, that I realized this was the same crematorium where we had laid to rest my brother exactly 18 years before. That was a memory I had not retained or thought about since. But immediately all those feelings came flooding back.
I felt alone again, but not as alone as my Grandpa who had just lost his wife of 60 years. We walked in together past all of the familiar faces and we sat at the front. I seem to remember that one of the ministers did a really awful job, getting some details wrong and mispronouncing some of our names. That was terrible obviously, but it did take some of the pressure off me.
My cousin Katy spoke before me. We were both nervous that we were not going to be able to control our emotions. We went up together and she lost it for a bit during her reading. I was just thinking there is no way I’m going to get through this without crying my eyes out. But then I thought ‘So what if I do?’ It’s a funeral. It would probably be weirder if I didn’t.
But I got up there and got through it. I talked about how Granny Annie, as her grandchildren knew her, was a great storyteller. I talked about how she was always there for us as kids, whenever we were sick and couldn’t go to school. And how she would still send me the sports pages from the Scottish newspapers to me in Texas and New York every Monday morning, even after the internet had been invented. I talked about when Farah and I told Grandma and Grandpa Mackenzie via Skype that we were giving Dune the middle name of Mackenzie. I expected her to be delighted, but she just replied ‘Morrison is a nice name’. Morrison was her maiden name.
Then I read this wee poem and said it reminded me of her because she never wanted any fuss:
When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no rites in a gloom-filled room.
Why cry for a soul set free?
Miss me a little – but not too long
And not with your head bowed low.
Remember the love that we once shared,
Miss me – but let me go.
For this is a journey that we all must take
And each must go alone.
It’s all a part of the Master’s plan,
A step on the road to home.
When you are lonely and sick of heart
Go to the friends we know
And bury your sorrows in doing good deeds.
Miss Me – But Let me Go!
My voice went a bit during some of the lines, but I made it to the end.
The next morning, less than 48 hours after arriving, I got back on a plane from Glasgow to Austin via 2 or 3 other cities. I was delayed somewhere and didn’t get back to Austin until after midnight on the Saturday. I was completely spent, both physically and emotionally, but the next morning was Dune’s 2nd birthday party, and I couldn’t miss that.
So I was up early and went down to Dripping Springs for the party. As we were getting ready, there was a dog barking at Duney outside so I went out to see what was happening. The dog started barking at me and I reached out to try and calm him. The dog snapped at me and bit me hard. It sliced open the palm of my hand, and I had to go to hospital to get five stitches at the base of my thumb. And after all that traveling and turmoil, I missed most of the party. (Graphic post-stitches picture here. Not for the faint of heart.)
That’s not really an appropriate end to this chapter but that’s what happened. It was the end of a very traumatic week. Normally, getting your part of your hand bitten off would be pretty bad, but all I could think was that it still wasn’t even the worst thing that had happened that week. It has healed up fine.
And so my memories of those months in 2013 are positive. We had a fantastic summer in Glasgow and Edinburgh, I saw Scotland score a couple of goals at Wembley, and I got to say goodbye to my Granny Annie together with my family. So yes I do miss Scotland, but so long as I can be there for moments like those, I’m ok.