How I’m Getting Familiar With Scotland

During my growing up years, my family wove a tale of our Irish origins leaving me with the mixed up understanding that I was mostly Irish Catholic with a wee bit of German. Oh, so wrong. I learned that my family had participated in a unique 20th century “forgetting” of their ethnic origins and cultures to blend into this mid-century American white culture of conformity and privilege.

Whew, that’s a lot to unpack.

What I discovered in my adult years is that our family is almost completely the opposite – mostly German Catholics mixed with Protestant Irishfolx, mostly from Ulster and nearabouts. And a somber understanding that rewriting family history was a survival skill, especially in the 20th century two world wars with Germany. There was also the desire to distance themselves from the manifestations of those cultures in American lives often submerged in grinding poverty and despair.

There was an exception – my 2x great-grandmother, Jennie Tarleton Remley Murray (1869-1944) who reportedly emigrated by herself from Glasgow to land in Eastern Ohio, marry my 2x great-grandfather, and endure a pretty exhausting life. So we thought she was our representative Scottish ancestor. That would prove to be wrong.

Jennie is my most “recent” immigrant ancestor among the 16 2x great-grandparents. Everyone else was born in America, some tracing their local families back into early days of the colonizers arrival in this land, others much later. But upon closer examination, I see the same intermarrying of people who were Germanic, English, Irish, and Scottish but in some cases that stretches back to my 10th and 11th great-grandparents.

  • John K. Kerr (1869-1908) – several generations removed ancestry traced to Ulster and Belfast, Ireland; these Scottish regions – Kelso, Rothebay, Edinburg, Montrose, Dunfermline, Aberdeen
  • Sarah A. Butler (1872-1922) – parents from Galway and Dublin, Ireland
  • Sylvester Lescallette (1865-1940) – several generations removed from original immigrants whose ancestry is unknown
  • Anna Gottheld (1874-1949) – both parents born in Bavaria and emigrated to the US
  • Adam Remley (1858-1902) – father unknown, mother’s family emigrated from Bavaria
  • Jennie Tarleton (1868-1944) – born in Glasgow, emigrated at age 17. Many generations extend back throughout Scotland.
  • John Rice (1868-1948) – parents from Ballymena in Northern Ireland,
  • Sarah Ann Campbell (1871-1907) – parents from County Donegal in Ireland
  • James Buchanan Pryor (1850-1933) – several generations from ancestry traced to England and assorted locations in Germany
  • Caroline Ritter (1852-1906) – several generations from ancestry traced to assorted German regions
  • George Hackney (1859-1935) – family in the American colonies for over eight generations, ancestors from England and assorted locations in Germany
  • Alice Jenkins (1873-1898) – family in the America colonies for over eight generations, ancestors from England and assorted locations in Germany, one distant Scottish branch.
  • Daniel Kramer (1862-1934) – parents born in Bavaria and emigrated to Pennsylvania
  • Regina Gallagher (1864-1960) – grandfather from Donegal, grandmother’s family originally settled in Maryland. other grandparents from Alsace-Lorraine
  • Henry Bliss (1858-1927) – both parents born in German regions, emigrated to the Americas
  • Caroline Pfeil (1858-1936) – both parents from Bavaria emigrated to the Americas.

While my heritage is not predominantly Scottish, it is certainly a common theme. The complexity of the “Scotch-Irish” ancestors adds to that mix. And there’s no denying that Jennie Tarleton proximity to my own timeline matters – my father was three when she died. I can’t recall any of my other 2x great-grandparents whose lived experiences were discussed. Most of these people were unknown until I began doing this research.

I really do not know much about Scotland so it was easy to lean into the general American fetishization of Irish culture with a bit of “OMG, Big Ben/Princess Di” thrown in for good measure. As I grew out of that St. Patrick’s day infused vision of Ireland, I gave some thought to my lack of understanding of actual British Isles/UK history. So the student in me is actually quite interested in learning about my actual ancestral lands.

But I also have this curiosity about my actual ancestors, especially their spirituality. My friend Joy once said to me that it would benefit me to embrace my spiritual traditions to resolve my very deep anger with the Catholic Church. The problem is that obviously I’m very European and thus my ancestors pagan and pre-Christian beliefs were smashed by the Romans, et al, and what was left was appropriated by the Nazis. So it is difficult to find anything that isn’t artifice Irish pagan fetish (see St. Patrick’s day fetish only with ethereally thin white women and references to Druids.)

But, still I wondered. Occasionally, I flashback to this exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of History that featured ‘The Bog People’ – Laura and I went to see it circa 2005. I was mesmerized. I can still hear the music in my heart and feel this deep resonance with these Iron Age people. I did not know at the time that there were bogs in Scotland, but I do now. And that was a little “a ha” bit of insight. I also did not know that bogs were the primary source for the Bogeyman, a character who plagued my childhood here in Pittsburgh.

That’s when I began my little journey into learning more about Scotland. I tried documentaries, but they were heavy on the royal battles and light on the history of everyday people. I read what I could find on Picts as I am deeply interested in the archaic spiritual systems, but a lot was pure speculation guised as certainty – I find the point of view of modern white men no less irritating than that of Roman men. My therapist came up with a great idea – mystery novels. I had pretty steadily read Nordic noir mystery novels and found myself learning a great deal about Scandinavian and Nordic countries through all the backstory and context. Why not do the same with Scottish mysteries?

I learned there was a Tartan noir featuring two prominent lesbian authors, Val McDermid and Denise Mina among others. That intrigued me, so I dove in and started reading. I’ve made it through seven of Mina’s novels and two of McDermid’s so far, plus the tv series of Karen McPirie on Amazon Prime. They are really great, but so intense. I’m learning quite a bit about cultural context although I have to Google most of the slang and geography. It is a pretty good way to learn.

We did make a stop IRL at the local Ligonier Highland Games this fall. It was dismaying and sad, almost like watching a disappearing culture only one based through a very Americanized lens fade into the mists of time. After our fantastic experience at the Seneca Powwow in the summer, it is hard to imagine any experience being so authentic but yet openly welcoming to allies.

On the way home, I decided to find a Scottish podcast to offset the cultural abyss of the festival and came up with Stories of Scotland. This is really interesting. And that podcast led me to a Christmas present – a subscription to Wee Box.

To be fair, I feel like these are bits and pieces, but missing a solid survey course about Scotland. And then there will be questions about my ancestors – where did they actually live? Why did they leave?

Jennie Tarleton is sort of the totem for all of this. I grew up on the “Grandma Jennie left Glasgow to come to the United States on her own when she was 17” narrative. After that, her oral history is a bit discordant, but the documentation (thank you, newspapers) introduced me to her. I don’t know why she came or how she ended up in Washington County, Ohio. I do know she lost two husbands, an adult daughter, and lived in grinding work class poverty. I do know she ended up in a state asylum for the last decade of her life. I don’t know why. She doesn’t seem a very nice and warm woman, but she kept body and soul together through horrible times. She was a Nativist so ugghhh. She married a German-American, but looked down her nose at her Irish-American daughter-in-law.

Did she find the better life she sought?

In honor of her tenacity, we named one of our feral cats ‘Jennie Jane’ – she lived nearby, ate on our deck for months, disappeared and then reappeared with five kittens. We trapped all five and they are thriving. We trapped Jennie who was pregnant again, had her spayed, and she was released. Now she’s part of the colony. She lives in a ramshackle abandoned house and uses the shelters. She eats, she lounges on the elevated pet beds. She responds to my voice. She’s probably close to six which isn’t young for a feral cat. But she’s making a life for herself with our help. She’s a tough broad.

Community cat colony
Jennie Jane the cat at her colony

I cannot wait for my first Wee Box. I’m making my way through the Stories of Scotland podcasts, but I have to admit I’m constantly distracted by their meandering storytelling and end up pursuing all sorts of rabbit holes during each episode. The podcast does really explore how the land itself, the mountains and rocks and waters, are intertwined with the culture. Given my visceral response to the bog people exhibit, I can’t help buy wonder if there’s a connection. I also find it interesting how the hosts speak of ‘the land’ in a communal way, much more than an American property way. I wonder if that’s unique to Scotland?

So give a listen to the podcast and/or find others tied to your ancestral lands. Dive into works of fiction that immerse you in different cultures. If you feel a spark of interest in something like bogs or mountains or waterways, even if you are not an outdoorsy person, open yourself to fanning that flame.

Am I planning to travel to Scotland? Sort of. My wife and I have decided that would make for a great trip celebrating her 60th birthday this year and retroactively my 50th birthday from 2020. But we also have to replace our AC unit, lay new floor in the living room, and replace our rickety fence. Travel is hard when you live on one income plus my SSDI. Soe we’ll see …

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