This week’s blog comes from one of the participants at our recent ‘Exploring Identities’ day at Inverness Museum and Gallery, and reflects on what we did during the day and how we explored the meaning of identity.
Who am I? Do I exist? Where am I from? Who are my people?
These and many other questions popped up on the excellent Exploring Identities Day co-hosted by IMAG and UHI.
I came away from IMAG’s previous event (Reflections on Celts) feeling very European. But this day focused more on British vs Scottish identities, perceptions of identity and teaching of identity. On those darn demographic boxes that now appear on every form, I have to admit that I tick British based on having 2 English parents, 1 Scottish grandmother and 3 English grandparents. But then as Ian Blyth rightly said, we are all from Africa.
Fast forward to the end of the Exploring Identities Day and we are asked to draw on a satellite map of Scotland. I begin with St Kilda just visible as a blur on the far left of the image taken from space. My grandmother’s ancestors, Macdonalds, came from Hirta in the 1840s. They settled in Rodel on the southern tip of Harris and some of the family moved a few miles to Tarbert where my grandmother was born as a Mackenzie in 1901. How she ended up in the Midlands of England, as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK, is a bit of a family mystery.
But back to the map – the islands in the sea are important to me. Following the line of grainy blurred shapes, I add names in orange marker pen as I head up the chain of the Outer Hebrides: Mingulay, Vatersay, Eriskay, Barra, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Harris, Lewis. If only I knew how to speak Gaelic, then the names themselves would become a song of wind chimes strung across the Minch. Today we have spoken of ancestors and of story-telling, of culture and of heritage, yet surprisingly only one song has been sung.
I return to the map and mark on places of yet more significance for me – Luskentyre where I want my ashes scattered, Callanish where the stones can make time stand still. I’ve visited these places many times and they exist also in my mind as places to which I can return to find peace. Once, they saved my life.
Back in the day I was a translator in Paris, suicidally wanting an escape route from work pressure and city rat race that didn’t involve returning to England. The existential questions kept coming at me then – but paramount amongst them was “what did I want to do with the rest of my life?” One day on the bus to work which I had taken a thousand times before, I realised I was asking myself the wrong question. No wonder the answer was beyond my grasp. “What would I do if I had 3 months left to live?” That question was easy – I would return to Harris, the landscape and the seascape of my dreams, maybe I would explore the other Hebridean islands too. After all, I had 3 months to live. Time enough. And so Scotland saved my life. It may have happened a second time, but that’s another story.
So on my map, I add in The Minch and make a start on labelling the Inner Hebrides. I visited them on my Grand Tour when I left France and have been lucky enough to return to many of those special places – Arran, Islay, Jura, Mull, Iona, Staffa, Eigg, Canna, Rum, Muck, Skye. All jewels of the Scottish seas. I often wondered if you have to be an island in order to fall so in love with islands.
The discussion around other people’s maps leads us to the concept of home. My hometown is where I was born and brought up in the Midlands due to the quirk of my Hebridean grandmother landing herself a husband in the very centre of England. However I cannot say it is home. I spent most of my time there wanting to escape. The times I have returned to Harris in the past offered me moments when I felt that the island was the home of my soul. It felt deeply spiritual to return there and it kept drawing me back but I have been away a while now so I’m not sure if the magic still works. I’ve been lucky enough to land on St Kilda a few times but I have no idea whether good fortune will ever take me back there as much as I long to see it appear again out of the morning mist. I still feel that the island of Hirta holds me safe in the palm of its hand (or in reality protected in the caldera which remains visible from space if only the satellite image were a little less grainy).
Scotland always draws me back to its shores. It is magnetic. I have recently returned from exile after family bereavement and a conjunction of other unfortunate circumstances forced me to leave. Two years away seemed much longer. Inverness is home now and I believe that it always will be where I live. Three months I have been back here and it was only last week that I noticed the big red YOU ARE HERE marker on the tourist map board on the street where I live. Life is in transition for me, I am evolving in more ways than it is possible for you to imagine, I am creating a new life for myself, a new “I”, the same “me”. But I AM HERE, finally it has sunk in. My exile is over. I have returned – maybe not exactly triumphant but at least still alive. Now I cannot imagine life without the river, the bridges and the pink castle. The bridges guide me through my own mental maze and the river replenishes me with energy every day. As long as the river keeps flowing, I can keep going. That’s my latest mantra for keeping suicide at bay. Like I say Scotland saved my life – twice.
As for my identity, that is so multi-faceted my Facebook friends tell me it warrants its own blog.
I am male. I am weak. I am my mother’s daughter. I am strong. I am a survivor.
Which of these statements (if any) is false?