Pride of Place

I thought it was time to park this here, now I’m getting ready to run away; an essay I wrote last year.

PRIDE OF PLACE

‘You’re not from here!’

It is neither statement nor question. It is an accusation: I am an imposter, a fraud. A huge

disappointment. Depending how gracious I feel, I might smile tightly and say no, without

elaboration, hoping that will be the end of it. But this is the answer the customer is angling for, and

they will then demand:

‘So where are you from, then?’

On a good day, I answer that well, actually, I am from here. I’ve been here most of my

adult life and it’s the place I call home. Then will ensue a tiresome exchange about accents, and

how I don’t sound like someone from the set of Braveheart. Mel Gibson isn’t ‘from here’, either, I

could add, but I don’t. It’s an argument I can’t win. Isn’t the customer always right?

I landed in this ruggedly remote corner at the age of twenty-four. Too old to pick up accents;

young enough for a place to change me, mould and grow me into the person I am today. The notion

of home, of belonging to a place regardless of where one was actually born, is a complex one and

not something I generally have the time or patience to discuss with tourists.

Visitors seek a fantasy, where everyone encountered in far-flung Highland communities are

directly descended from Celts, Picts or William Wallace himself. No Anglo-Saxon or – heaven

forbid! – Viking blood dilutes the mix; the noble savage never ventures across the mountains and is

charmingly, subserviently unaware of the world outside his village. Here, we provide red-bearded

pipers with furry sporrans; haggis in the heather, monsters in the loch.

‘We haven’t met anyone yet who’s local!’ they wail.

I want to ask them what they mean. Do they live where their grandparents were born? Do

they know of anyone who has relocated? Should the Highlands be preserved as a time capsule, its

inhabitants no more than living museum exhibits? Instead, I ponder on that word, ‘local’, and

consider its significance.

Claire opens the door to me as I hurry in out of the rain. Her porch smells of damp – it’s been a

wet summer – but her kitchen is reassuringly warm as we sit across her pine table. She’s wearing a

thick, woollen jumper she knitted herself.

I ask her what the word ‘home’ means to her and she contemplates this for a moment. Her

gaze lands somewhere between the windowpane, flecked with water droplets, and the single-track

road, where sodden-looking sheep huddle around her gate.

‘I don’t think I ever really felt at home, until I came here,’ she says carefully.

‘What makes it feel like home?’ I probe further.

Again she takes time to answer. She always dreamed of living where the mountains meet the

sea and now she has that. So it’s the landscape, primarily? She thinks so. And community, of

course. And friends.

‘But that’s a different thing, really,’ she adds.

I ask her if her husband feels the same?

‘It’s hard to know,’ she begins, ‘as he’s quite private. But I think he’d be happy anywhere, in

his own home, his own domain. For him, home is a space.’

I can identify with this. I recall a beach shack; tropical rain pounding the corrugated iron

roof, feeling safe and dry inside. With everything I needed around me, I had no desire to be

anywhere else.

I wonder, I say, if home is a place, or a feeling?

‘Yes, that’s it!’ Claire says I have nailed it. ‘Home is a feeling.’

Claire has lived at the centre of this village, where mountains meet sea, for over twenty years and

nobody could think of her as anything but local. But now I wanted to talk with someone whose

connection to the area reaches back through centuries rather than decades, to see if she could

shed any light on the concept of home. To Anne, it is neither a place, nor a feeling. For her, it’s an

identity.

Anne regards herself as indigenous, rather than local. She didn’t grow up here. When I tell her some of

the comments I receive from tourists, she is horrified.

‘They are being colonial!’ she surmises.

As she sets the coffee down, shifting aside a pile of newspapers, we ponder why people ask

these questions. Are they genuinely interested, or just filling the air with words? I tell her it has

given me the idea for an article exploring the nature of belonging and what that means to different

people, and she agrees to share her thoughts with me.

‘Is this home?’ I begin, glancing around the front room of the croft house, from the

wood-burning stove and the comfortable old chair with the sheep’s fleece draped across the back,

to the large picture window. Darkness is falling early today, but the steely grey sea is still visible

on the horizon. A coal-black cat stretches and yawns.

‘Oh, yes. Well, as far as any place can be…’ she falters. Anne has lived elsewhere, and

enjoyed the city life.

‘There’s a history,’ she continues. ‘It’s another layer, if you like. A layer upon a layer.’

We talk about the years she spent in Berlin, in Edinburgh and London, when she could

scarcely imagine life on a windswept croft. What she tells me is becoming muddled in my mind, so

I press her again.

‘So this is home for you, now?’

‘Yes, it is now,’ she emphasises the ‘now’.

‘I made it home. I dreamed of it becoming home… For me it’s complicated…my duty to my

family…I knew I had to come home.’

I sense some contradictions in our conversation and I want to get to the heart of how she

feels about this place, as it seems to differ subtly from how both Claire and I, as relative

incomers, feel about it.

‘So if someone asks you where you’re from…?’

‘I would have real difficulty answering that. I could say I’m from here, but I’m not from

here; I’m from every place I’ve ever lived in.’

I know what she means. Our experiences make us who we are.

‘Where do you feel that you’re from, though?’ If home is a feeling…

‘Oh, I’m definitely a Gael. It’s a cultural identity. So I don’t know where I’m from, but in

my heart I’m a Gael.’

In the end, she concedes we are not so different.

‘You know yourself,’ she smiles. ‘It’s the sky and the sea, the stars and the changing light,

you know, it’s wonderful, and it’s that which ties me’.

I can pinpoint exactly the moment I first felt it; when velvet tentacles reached out and drew me

into a gentle but firm embrace from which I could never fully disentangle myself. I had not long

arrived on the salt-washed peninsular, with thirty miles of mostly single-track road between me

and anywhere large enough to be named on the map. It was an early morning in April. The air was

perfectly still, the only sounds a lark, high above, and the low engine hum of a fishing boat far out

in the bay. The islands appeared to float, flat-bottomed, on a wash of cobalt blue and a warm haze

blended sea imperceptibly into sky. The soft, golden light threw shadows across the narrow road

where I stood, waiting for the once-daily bus. Where was I going? Why did I want to go anywhere?

Suddenly, I understood.

Later, much later, I would hear someone describe this moment of clarity: ‘It got me.’ I had

been seeking this place, without knowing it. I belonged.

In some parts, a stranger will be asked: ‘Where do you belong?’ rather than ‘Where are you from?’

with the implication that the questions are the same. For many, they probably are.

Chris had been in the village for two weeks when I first stepped through the door. We had

both come for the summer, to work in the one small hotel, Chris as the chef.

‘Are you here for the whole season, then?’ I asked him, still wondering how I was going to

manage the culture-shock.

‘Let’s see how it goes, shall we?’ he replied, with just a slight roll of the eyes.

Chris is still here, as am I, thirty-seven years later. Yet the roots put down by marriage, three

sons with local accents and a Michelin star are not deep enough to hold him. His sisters are back in

Sussex, where he grew up. When we meet for a drink, he is thinking of joining them.

‘I think that maybe…’ he looks at his hands, ‘…it’s time to go home.’

I’m reminded of Keith, who dreamed he would move to rural Northumberland once he

retired. It never happened, and now he can not imagine himself up north.

‘It’s like a love affair that’s over,’ he writes. ‘It seemed like forever at the time.’

While Chris has undoubtedly fallen out of love with our village, his ‘real’ home is where

family is. I point out that he has his own family now, but he insists it’s not the same: their roots are

not his roots.

When my parents were alive I was not immune to Chris Rea singing Driving home for

Christmas, as I made the long journey south across the border. Tears flow more readily now,

though, when I hear Caledonia:

‘Let me tell you that I love you,
That I think about you all the time;
Caledonia, you’re calling me and now I’m going home.
For if I should become a stranger,
You know that it would make me more than sad;
Caledonia’s been everything I’ve ever had.’

I, too, grew up in Sussex, moving to Yorkshire when I was fifteen. Before we left, I threw myself

onto the springy turf at the top of the Downs and hugged the ground; I promised the twisted beeches

clinging to the slopes that I would return. When my mother passed away, decades later, I needed to

fulfil my promise, yet life had moved on and taken me with it. The woods were still there; the

branches, lichen-covered now, still creaked in the breeze but were no longer strong enough to

support me. The feeling I sought was a time, not a place. Sometimes, indeed, home does not last

forever.

Perhaps you can’t be sure where home is until you’re away from it. Questions of belonging can be

trickier to answer when in a different country. I’m sometimes asked by non-fluent English speakers:

‘Where are you coming from?’

As if nationality can be temporary. And in a sense, it can be. My response becomes less

specific, the greater the distance. In the forests of Indonesia, I am European. In Europe, I’m from

Scotland. Homing in further, I’m a Highland lass; finally, a West-Coaster. Even within the village,

there are friendly rivalries during the annual tug-of-war. The Uppies’ will challenge the ‘Downies’;

the dividing point, the pier. Always undecided whether the handful of residents from the island are

from ‘up the way’, beneath the mountains, or from down, towards the harbour, they join whichever

team they fancy. Each year on the first Saturday in July, I’m an Uppie, and proud. Assuming, of

course, that we win.

Assumptions about my origins are based solely on my accent, which remains a confusing blend of

everywhere I’ve lived. Vikram Seth, in Two Lives (Seth, V. 2005) suggests that language is home.

This, then, should be even truer with dialects. Durham-born Lee Ridley, ‘Lost Voice Guy’, uses a

specially-recorded communication device. Only when a donor with a Geordie accent was found,

replacing the ‘standard English’ speaker, could he finally feel part of his community once again. It

gives him a bit of his identity back, he points out.

Home is not always where you originate; occasionally, it can be somewhere you’ve never

been. Thousands of North Americans, whose forefathers were displaced during the Clearances, feel

Scottish. Many never return, but for them, home is in their genes. If this were universal, though,

wouldn’t we all be longing for the Great Rift Valley? Perhaps, some of us do.

I enjoy an overwhelming sense of well-being in a hot country. Why I am still immersed in

one of the world’s most miserable climates is a valid question. But just as you can’t choose who

fall in love with, you can’t always predict where you will nest. This seems to be my Hotel

California: I can check out any time I like, but I can never leave.

Home may be a place, a space or a feeling; an identity, heritage or language. It might be family, or

somewhere not yet found. It’s not always forever, but it is wherever you say it is. For me, it’s where

I feel safe. It’s the place I run to, where I can stop running. Quite simply, home is where I’m from.