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OPINION | RICHARD MASON: Connections with a Scottish past

by Richard Mason | April 4, 2021 at 9:00 a.m.

Sometimes when traveling in the South, I feel like I've been there before. Those places happen to be so mid-Southern that they resemble Arkansas. However, there have been occasions when my ancient heritage flashes, and a little bell in my brain says "Been there" when I have never even been close.

That happened a few years back when we took a family driving vacation through Scotland. Arkansas has a connection to Scotland in Lyon College at Batesville, whose athletic teams are the Scots, and which also has a great bagpipe band. It once played at El Dorado's MusicFest and was the hit of the festival. Many Arkansans identify with Scotland.

Our kids Lara and Ashley were 14 and 16 when we flew to Edinburgh, took a shuttle train into the center of town, picked up a rental car, loaded up, and plunged straight into a maze of traffic--driving on what an American considers the wrong side of the road. I roared into a roundabout and tried to stay in the left traffic lane while whizzing around at 50-plus miles per hour while the entire family screamed, "You just passed our exit street!"

After maybe six circles I managed to ease across four lanes of honking traffic and finally got out of my first roundabout. After observing a bit, I realized that you yield going in and have the right-of-way exiting. It is a very efficient way of moving traffic, and Arkansas is getting around to installing them.

That's when I got the feeling I'd been there before.

After a few hours driving on the wrong side of the road, it started feeling as if it was the right side of the road. My Scottish heritage may have been coming through, or maybe it was because I'm a lefty. As we continued into northern Scotland, sometimes on one-lane roads, I felt right at home having to pull over to let another car coming my way pass. Heck, Arkansas is full of one-lane roads.

When we reached Inverness, I spotted a Baptist church, and we decided, since the next day was a Sunday, to attend. It was rather small, and when we walked in every eye turned to look at their visitors. We were treated royally, and after virtually everyone came by to welcome us, the service began.

That is when I had another "been there" moment. As soon as the pianist hit the first chord, I checked the hymnal, and sure enough, we were going to sing "Amazing Grace." However, this church's version had 13 verses.

The front two rows were filled with ladies, who stood and turned around toward the seated congregation. I'll always remember being surprised that the choir was the front two rows and that they were all women. Every woman was dressed differently, and all were wearing hats. It looked as if they had stepped out of the 1940s.

Then, as we joined our fellow Baptists singing every one of those 13 verses, that "been there" feeling swept over me again. Vertis and I sing in our church choir; we have fairly strong voices, and our kids knew "Amazing Grace," so after about 10 verses our row really went after that old hymn.

When the service was over, it was as if we were old friends who had returned.

We next headed to where one-lane roads were ordinary, and ended up on the bare Atlantic coast in an old inn. It was one of the most scenic spots we had visited, and easily the most remote. The old inn was pleasant enough, and the food was fine. But with two teenagers and no TV or even radio, things got a little tense.

Hearing "What are we going to do today?"' repeated every 30 minutes resulted in a long hike through the heather. It took hours, and most of it was uphill. We passed ancient fortified hilltops, miles of stone fences, and saw dozens of Highland cattle, a long-haired breed native to Scotland. As we were passing a corner of a stone-stacked fence, there was a man repairing it. After I nodded hello, he spoke.

"Americans?' he questioned.

With workout clothes, shoes, and baseball caps, we sure didn't look local.

"Yes, we're here on vacation," I answered.

"Don't see many Americans 'round heah."

It was a rather heavy Scottish accent, and I had to translate for Ashley. The repairman was roughly dressed, and reminded me of Arkansas farmers setting posts and barbwire.

"Got a brother in a place called Tennessee. Know it?"

I nodded and thought of his brother, and if he had said Mountain Home, it wouldn't have been any different. We spent another few minutes talking about the weather.

On the final leg of our vacation, we stopped at historical castles. One of the best preserved featured oil portraits of early Scottish kings. We were almost ready to leave before returning to Edinburgh when Ashley came back from where he had been nosing around and said, "Y'all come see this picture." Why would a 14-year-old boy want his family to see some oil portrait?

Lara mumbled, "Probably somebody getting their head chopped off." Knowing my son's likes and dislikes, that is what I figured.

Ashley went ahead and turned into the gallery where he was taking us, and when we walked in he was standing by a full-length portrait of King Cuilen, who reigned in the 900s. Ashley pointed to the portrait and said, "Look."

He didn't need to say another word. There stood my son with his bright red hair pointing to an ancient Scottish king ...with bright red hair. It was a tug at our senses, another "been there" moment.

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