Exploring my Scottish ancestry
Brewster Scholarship Travel Diary – Eli Geist
At some point in the late 19th century, my great-great-grandmother, who lived the first part of her life on Mull, a small island off of the west coast of Scotland, took a boat across the Atlantic and settled in New Hampshire, a state in the northeast United States. There, she started a family and incorporated both Scottish and American tradition while raising her children and grandchildren. One of her grandchildren, Jean Mackinnon, my grandmother, took a particular liking to this Scottish heritage, and, due to the relatively large number of people with Scottish roots in the New England area, she was able to stay in touch with her ancestral origins from across the pond.
Though she spent a lifetime of travelling and living outside of the US, my grandmother never had the opportunity to visit Scotland. For her 90th birthday, my mom and dad brought my grandma and my grandma’s best friend over to the UK so that they could both see Scotland. I was fortunate enough to receive the Brewster Scholarship so that I could join them on their trip and learn a little more about my own ancestry.
Days 1-3 – London and Oxford
I will not go into too much detail on these first few days, because they were not the main part of the trip, but I will just highlight some of the stuff that we did.
My parents, grandma, and her friend arrived at Heathrow after taking the red-eye flight from the States, and though their initial excitement kept them alert for a decent portion of the day, I could tell that jetlag started to hit them in the afternoon. Nevertheless, they were still able to see a good amount of London on that first day. It had been almost fifty years since my grandma had been to London, so we walked along the river from Vauxhall to Tower Bridge, taking in the sites along the way. In the late afternoon, we had a nice meal at the Black Dog in Vauxhall, and afterwards they all went to bed early to try and catch up on sleep.
The following day was spent exploring London again. Having lived during the Second World War, my grandma and her friend were keen on seeing the Churchill War Rooms, after which we walked through St. James Park, the theater district, and other nearby attractions. The next day, we all took the train up to Oxford so that they could see the city. They all enjoyed it very much.
Day 4 – Oxford to Edinburgh
The first “real” day of the trip was mainly a travelling day. We took the 0900 train from Oxford up to Edinburgh, which was scheduled to take about 6 hours. We figured this would be quicker or about the same amount of time that it would take to fly, given all the time-consuming steps required for modern air travel.
The first leg of the trip, Oxford to York, was relatively easy. The others took this opportunity to sleep, and I was able to do some reading and sightseeing as we moved north. The second part of the trip was slightly less comfortable. When booking the train tickets, I had completely forgotten that we would be travelling to Edinburgh during the middle of the Fringe festival. The train was completely full with, what is safe to say half of the population of Northern England, and though we were able to find seats for my parents, grandma, and her friend, I enjoyed the three hour train ride from the comforts of the crowded train carriage junction with all of the baggage. Despite the slight discomfort, the scenes of the coastline out the window were particularly beautiful and kept my mind occupied during the trip.
After a long day of travelling, we arrived in Edinburgh in the evening and settled in at the Airbnb. We went for a brief walk on the Royal Mile and had a quick bite to eat at a small café.
Day 5 – Edinburgh
On our first full day in Edinburgh, we spent the morning walking around the city and getting familiar with our surroundings. We started off down by Holyrood Palace and the Scottish Parliament building, and slowly worked our way up towards the Castle, meandering through the side streets along the way. The city was very beautiful and particularly lively because of the Fringe. In the early afternoon, we toured the Castle. Everyone enjoyed reading about the various exhibits, and the views of the city from the top of the castle were stunning.
After the castle, we walked through more of the city, passing by the University of Edinburgh, and eventually settling in at a pub for dinner. With our stomachs full, we trudged back up the hill towards the Castle to attend the Royal Military Tattoo, something that my grandma was particularly keen to attend. The Tattoo was opened by a special guest, Nicola Sturgeon, and it was an entertaining show. My grandma was particularly fond of the highland dances, something that she had participated in when she was younger. About halfway through the show, we were, in true Scottish fashion, hit by a deluge, soaking and chilling everyone in the arena to their core. To my surprise, no one in the stadium left, despite the thunder, though I am sure everyone was comforted by the prospect of a post-show whisky.
Day 6 – Oban and Mull
In the morning, we took our rented van and headed west from Edinburgh towards Oban. We skirted along the northern end of the Trossachs on the way out there, which offered some very scenic views on the 3-hour drive. We arrived in Oban, which was a very picturesque town, and walked around for a few hours. We ventured into shops and walked along the water, eventually ending up at the Oban Distillery. After a few hours of walking through the town, it was time to catch the ferry across to the Isle of Mull.
The ferry ride took about an hour, and again, the sites from the boat were beautiful. By the time we docked in Craignure, it was already the early evening, and everyone was rather tired after a long day of travelling. While the others settled in, I decided to take a walk down by the harbor before heading to bed.
Day 7 – Mull and Iona
After a hearty breakfast at the hotel, we took the van westward across Mull, again amazed by the breathtaking views that the island had to offer. I think this was a particularly special moment for my grandma, as the island had remained relatively unchanged since her grandmother had left over 100 years prior, so she was able to enjoy the same sites that so many members of her family had. After an hour ride in the van, we arrived at Fionnphort and took the ferry across to Iona.
On Iona, we walked along the coast and stopped at the Abbey, where we toured the museum and surrounding sites. While reading about the long history of Iona, we learned that the last Benedictine Abbot of the abbey was also a Mackinnon. We spend a bit longer walking around the island, after which we took the short ferry ride back to Mull and started our journey back across the island. As we were heading to Tobermory, a town on the northeast coast of Mull, we took a different, slightly more circuitous route back across the island. We were again rewarded with beautiful sights during our drive.
Once in Tobermory, we walked around the town for a bit and stumbled upon the Tobermory Distillery, where we were able to sample a few of the local offerings. We walked around the harbor and went to Café Fish for dinner, where we had an excellent meal while overlooking the water. Stomachs full, we piled back into the van and went back to the hotel for the evening.
Day 8 – Mull to Glasgow
This day was another travelling day, as we made the somewhat long journey from Mull down to Glasgow. After a bit of delay due to a ferry malfunction, we eventually took the boat from Mull back to Oban, where we started the 2.5-drive to Glasgow. In order to break up the drive, we stopped at Loch Lomond and walked along the banks for a bit. We hopped back in the car and headed off on the final stretch towards Glasgow. After settling in at the Airbnb, we ventured out into the city, walking along the river and through the city center. Being in the proverbial “curry capital” of Britain, I thought it would be negligent if I did not insist that we went out for Indian food that evening. We had a nice meal just outside of the city center and ended the evening by walking through the city back to our accommodation.
Day 9 – Glasgow to London
We had an easy-going morning in Glasgow, venturing out to a café for breakfast and slowly strolling around the city before our afternoon flight. At around midday, we collected our luggage and drove off to the airport, where we flew back into Heathrow. After landing at around 1700 in Heathrow, we settled into our hotel, which was conveniently located next to the terminal that we were departing from the following morning. My mom, grandma, and her friend were all rather tired from a week of travelling, and they decided to spend the evening in the hotel. My dad and I, on the other hand, wanted to venture back into the city for a last meal, so we took the train from Heathrow to Paddington and subsequently hopped on the Tube down to Tooting. We went into the market in Tooting and then made our way to Mirch Masala, where we had a very nice “last supper.” After our meal, we made the journey back to Heathrow and flew out the next morning.
I wouldn’t consider myself to be a world-class traveler, but from my experiences on this trip I can at least offer some general advice that may come in handy to subsequent recipients of the Brewster Scholarship or the general traveler.
• If you or someone you are travelling with requires a wheelchair and is flying into the UK, the wheelchair rental at Heathrow worked really well for us. The chair was relatively light and maneuverable, and the rental process was very efficient.
• If you are looking for a quieter experience in Edinburgh, try to avoid travelling there during the Fringe festival. The city is, expectedly, quite crowded during this time.
• If you, like me, are doing this trip at the end of your course and you have already moved out of accommodation in Oxford, try to avoid lugging around all of your things on the trip. I was carrying around all of my possessions from school throughout the trip, and it was difficult at some points. My recommendation would be to either pay for luggage storage in a city to which you will be returning or ask a friend in Oxford to store it for a few days if you plan on going back to Oxford before leaving the UK.
• The old quality over quantity argument applies to travelling as well. While I was happy with the number of places that we were able to see, it would have also been nice to stay longer in certain places and get to know them better. It will all depend on what you want to do.
Overall Thoughts and Acknowledgments
Through this trip and others that I was able to take over the course of the year, I was always amazed by the characteristics/traditions that differentiated even the closest towns within the same country. I was also comforted by the fact that, despite the differences that made these neighbors unique from one another and from myself, I was always linked to the people I met along the way by common values that make us all human. This realization is, I believe, the most important aspect of travelling to new places, and I am thankful for having the opportunity to do so.
My ability to go on this trip would not have been possible without the Brewster Scholarship, and for that I would like to give my many thanks to Univ. It was a privilege to live and study in Oxford for a year, and I am eternally grateful that I was able to do so as a Univite.