A SENSE OF IDENTITY
We hear a lot about “Identity Politics” nowadays, whereby some people form exclusive alliances based on skin colour, social background and religion among other things, rather than traditional politics. In Scotland they have an inclusive saying, “We’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns,” meaning that we’re all God’s children, (see e.g., Acts 17:28-29). And God’s invisible hand is behind where and when we live: “From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands” Acts 17:26.
I’d have to say that my nomadic meandering around the globe has given me a sense of belonging. Whether Toronto, Winnipeg, Brisbane or Hobart I am ever accosted with the question: Where are you from? Upon which my brain-muscle immediately starts to do a Pilates’ regime as it tries to figure out the depth and width of the probe. Do they mean which suburb or which country? Is the question because of my accent or are they just trying to make conversation? I imagine myself stretched out on a psychiatrist’s leather couch as I try to formulate a sane reply. What do you mean? is how I usually reply. Then a strange look of puzzlement inevitably comes across their face. And then I think that they think I’m a bit far behind in my education, so I quickly hit them with “born in Canada, raised in Scotland, went back to Canada, now I’m here in Australia. I got fed-up shovelling snow in Canada and moved to sunny Queensland!”
Mind you, sometimes I do find myself short-circuiting their inquisition by simply saying, “Scotland, the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond” – even singing that last part! Therefore, the Vale of Leven is the place with which I have most affinity. Toronto has a very slight pull, but not Winnipeg where I lived for ten years, or Hobart where I lived for five.
Why the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond? Well, I’m sure it’s because the eighteen letters of the Gaelic alphabet are embedded in my DNA, one for each of the years I lived in Scotland. Where’s the Gaelic in the Vale of Leven you ask? It runs all the way from Dumbarton to Drymen (aye, I know!), from Bon’ill to Balloch, from Dalreoch to Dalvait etc. It’s on every island that floats on Loch Lomond. Oh, and it’s on my name tag “McKinlay” (MacFhionnlaigh).
The people who ask me where I’m from expect me to be an expert on all things Scottish. So, over the many years I’ve felt the need to do at least a wee bit study of the country’s history, geography and culture. To do so is to fall in love with the place and its people! It’s to discover who you are, i.e., who I am. It’s to find my identity. Sure, like Abraham I too look “for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God”, but unlike Robert the Bruce, who wanted his heart buried in the Promised Land, I would be happy for my dust to be buried in the dust from whence it was hewn. “Up the Hill” (a euphemism for the local cemetery) would suit me fine, especially if my grave has a clear view of Ben Lomond!
I identify with the Vale folk. We have a shared collective memory and a shared history, from Silk Factory fires to drownings in the Loch, from old red sandstone ornate buildings to wide empty ugly spaces with random rundown social boxes. Yes, the January Storm, the year(s) the Loch froze, the Stirling Railway Line, the old Bon’ill Brig, the Strand Picturehoose, the Christie Park putting green, and dare I mention it? – the Vale Hospital!
And then there are my personal memories of family, friends and fitba doon the Argyle, rowing on the Leven and the Loch, swimming in the same, sailing on the Maid, sliding off your seat as you go around the Fountain on the top deck of a 132 bus. The schools I went to. The fights I got into. The lassies I fancied. The goals I scored. The fish I caught. The hills I climbed. The walks in the woods with my dog and my pet jackdaw, and then my crow. The cafes I ate in. The pubs I drank in. The church pews I (albeit infrequently!) sat on.
Yes, I love my adopted country of Australia too. Of course I do! But it is true what they say, “You can take the boy out of the Vale, but you can’t take the Vale out of the boy.” Its extended hand of culture with its five fingers of genetics, genealogy, geography, history, and language is what holds my homesick heart. The Welsh call it “hiraeth”, but I call it home, dachaidh. As in the song, “Beautiful Vale, beautiful Vale, beautiful Vale of the Leven!”
I am made of the dust and soil of the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond and her refreshing waters flow through my veins. An image of Ben Lomond has been burnt into my retina and my heart beats in time to the waters lapping on the Loch’s eastern shores.