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Scotland, The Brave

Bagpipes are my favorite. They give me this deep urge to throw up my hands and sing, to dance, to laugh and to cry...they have that droning bass that throbs in your soul, makes you feel like you can charge full-speed up a mountain, which flutters in your heart like wings.

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C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” about Mr. Tumnus’ song: “And the tune he played made Lucy want to cry and laugh and dance and go to sleep at the same time.”

When I first read this, I was so moved, and I thought, Yes! This is exactly how I feel about bagpipes — Am I the only one who feels this way?

I was talking to one of the security staff here, a friendly gentleman named Doug, about traditional music, and I explained my feelings. He immediately asked me if I had any Scottish blood.

As it so happens, my great-great-great-great grandfather, Archibald Gardner, immigrated to America from Scotland in 1823. And a few weekends ago I finally got the chance to visit Scotland for myself.

The Royal Mile in Edinburgh is a steep, winding cobble-stone street, which has served as the main path up to Edinburgh Castle since the middle ages. Hollyrood Palace, the Queen’s Scottish home, is opposite it at the bottom. And in between are dozens of shops, pubs and street vendors. The streets are teeming with people from all over the world and street performers playing everything from the fiddle to the musical saw.

On this street is the only remaining family-owned shop that sells Scottish tartans and traditional goods—Neanie Scott’s. I bought a gorgeous Royal Stuart tartan stole. It’s bright red, and so warm and soft!

I began talking to the lady about my great-grandfather, and she looked him up in her book of clans. She told me that the Gardner clan was a “sept” or sub-clan of the Gordon clan, and showed me the Gordon’s family tartan. He’s the only recent ancestor that I know of from Scotland, but through the whole of my trip I felt so proud to be in the land of my Grandpa Archibald. I picture him as a brave Highland lad, descended from the wild, fierce peoples of the far North ... regardless of whether this is true or not!

In a way, going to Scotland felt like going home, as the huge, open landscape reminded me forcefully of the American West, and the mountains and streams reminded me of trips to the Appalachians with my family. The farmland is full of Angus cows and horses, and the people lively and friendly.

I got to climb Arthur’s Seat at sunrise. Arthur’s Seat is an extinct volcano in the center of Edinburgh, now converted to a public park. In stories, I always thought it was odd that heroes would go off to a dragon’s lair in a singular mountain — in my experience, mountains come in ranges, mountains in plural. But there are tons of random mountains in Scotland. They’re so beautiful and majestic.

I also got to eat in The Elephant House, the café where JK Rowling scribbled the first few pages of Harry Potter on a napkin. I ordered haggis, neaps and tatties, and some life-changing hot chocolate — seriously, it was magical! I also saw a Scottish independence rally that was fascinating. And, I heard more bagpipes in one weekend than I normally hear in a year!

I don’t know if I love Scotland because of some cosmic coincidence or if it really is woven into my genetic makeup. But I do know this: I loved every minute of my trip to Scotland. Every time I looked at the hills, the mountains, the sky, the trees, I just felt like I was meant to be there.

We spent most of our time in Edinburgh, but I know one day I’ve got to go back and see it again. And this time, go all over the Highlands and cold Northern lochs ... and I couldn’t get the song out of my head: “Oh, ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye, but me and my true love will never meet again, on the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond!”