By Calum MacKinnon’s daughter, ‘Lorna’
I’ve always claimed to be 100% Scottish. Both of my parents are from Scotland and every relative I know of is originally from Scotland. So I ought to be 100% Scottish. But with the emergence of commercial genetics tests available through Amazon, I’m worried I’m actually just 78% Scottish and not who I’ve always claimed to be. Now I can be disproven. Maybe I’m
actually 3% German, 4% Norwegian, 5% Irish, 2.5% Eastern European and 1.5% Chinese. I don’t really want to think I might be anything but 100% Scottish.
Two years ago in May, Sam and I managed to make the trip across the pond to Scotland along with my parents who grew up there. I had been many times growing up and, until cancer came along, had every intention of taking Sam and Natalie to meet family and see the beauty of the country. Sam had a similar longing. Being the historian that he was, he’d studied how the MacKinnon Clan fit it to the bigger picture of Scotland, always hoping he could claim ties to royalty. He’d discovered the MacKinnon castle ruins on the Isle of Skye, the MacKinnon family whiskey, and he was secretly working on a plan to become a citizen so he could vote for the referendum. “We need to be free!” he announced to Bob with all the passion of a kilted, sword wielding, 12th century Scotsman.
The trip in May 2016 was a bit scary as Sam had recently endured surgery for some fluid build-up around his lungs. He got on the plane as frail as I’d ever seen him outside of the hospital. But with the doctor’s green light and a high nutrient infusion from the naturopath, we trusted Sam could have this experience. Though tainted with discouragement of cancer’s wrath, it was still deeply meaningful trip to Sam.
Just three months later, on that heart crushing day we realized he was dying, Sam requested that a little bit of his body go to Scotland. The country, rich with story and rugged charm, had become part of his identity.
Exactly two years after Sam’s journey to Scotland, my family returned with a little bit of Sam.
Natalie is less of a historian but managed to watch a documentary of Princess Diana before the trip. She was looking forward to meeting extended family and exploring the old cities of Britain.
The cities did not disappoint, but the defining memories were created on the island my dad calls home, Tiree. At roughly 3 by 12 miles and a population of 600 people and 5,000 sheep, Tiree sits on the outskirts of the Inner Hebridean Islands, within sight of the more well known and spiritually significant, Isle of Iona.
When the clouds are gone, there are four colours on Tiree. The ground is brilliant green, the sea and sky are deep blue. White sheep and homes speckle the island, and an occasional old red phone booth sits along the single lane road. There is not a tree in sight.
Tiree is on the map but rarely listed in the tour books. It’s a secret. While bus-loads of tourists travel the adjacent Isles of Mull and Iona, Tiree sits quietly and blissfully nearby, like the introvert in the family who loves to be alone with a good book regardless of the party taking over the house.
My dad is a fiddler. Not like a bluegrass fiddler, or country music fiddler or even an Irish fiddler. His expertise is Hebridean fiddling and he is exceptional. He grew up learning to fiddle and contemplated music as a profession when he was young. He chose instead to become an engineer, which ultimately brought him to a fulfilling and financially secure 35 year career at Boeing, and Seattle became home.
It was in my middle school years when my dad decided to pick up fiddling as a hobby once again. He practiced late at night in the garage where the acoustics were best, while my sister Cathie and I, with our lack of appreciation for his talent, coined him “the midnight scraper.”
Fast forward 30 years and his list of accomplishments is impressive. But no album or award measures up to the moments where music turn presence into experience.
Sam loved to create an experience. It’s why we say Sam taught us how to live well. He was often pushing to take an average moment to the next level and now I find myself drawn to people who carry that same sort of urge. It’s the people who think “wouldn’t it be cool if….” And instead of leaving that thought with the delight of the imagination, they have the courage (or just enough crazy) to go for it. Like the time Sam took the mic from the worship leader between services at our 1500 member church and jumped up on stage with his iphone sourcing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” while he sang out to an audience of lingering church goers, complete with bald headed head-banging and air guitar.
I love “wouldn’t it be cool if” people. They are the daring ones who jump into the water first, they cut up the dance floor after the wedding ceremony, they put on the wetsuit, they take the mic, and they bring along their fiddles to turn a moment into an experience.
Christina is my dad’s fiddle student, and a “wouldn’t it be cool if” kind of person. Having taken lessons since age 8, Christina has mastered the authentic Hebridean sound. Now at age 25, she resides in Scotland immersed in Medieval studies with an emphasis on 7th century Celtic Crosses.
Christina and her parents, David and Karen, joined my family on our journey to Tiree.
So that makes two Hebridean fiddlers and one 7th century Celtic cross scholar in the Hebridean Isles and region of the first Celtic crosses were sculpted. When travelling to a Hebridean island with a Hebridean fiddler, someone ought to bring a fiddle.
When Calum MacKinnon is on Tiree, word gets around. Exploring Tiree with Calum means we get invited to “Islander” stuff. We get to drive past the “no cars beyond this point” signs and we get to have tea in the homes of old ladies with whiskers on their chins and a handshake as strong as a fisherman’s grip. I’ve been to Tiree enough times to recognize the difference between a Glasgow accent and an authentic Hebridean accent. Original islanders’ speech is soft and musical, with joyful jumping intonations and restructured phrases, difficult for us Americans to understand.
Though I had been to Tiree many times, I’d never been invited to a boat turning event. I didn’t know there was such a thing.
Back in the heart of winter, several islanders launched a boat building project in a small unheated wood structure down by the ferry docks. Tiree winters are the reason the homes are built with two foot thick walls and coal fuelled stoves that burn continually. The building crew had plans and tools and a lot of wood glue. What was missing was heat, and anyone with boat building experience. But with Tiree fortitude, and nothing else going on, they built a 18 foot long wooden row boat intended to launch at the July Regatta.
At some point in a wooden boat building process, the boat has to be flipped over from upside down to right side up. But the 5 or so folks bold enough to build the boat were not enough to lift and flip with care. So the task turned into an invitational event with a date and time and a full run of show. It just so happened to be during the week we were visiting Tiree.
My family (AKA Calum MacKinnon’s family) was invited to the boat turning ceremony, and an evening on Tiree I will never forget.
Thankfully, Christina brought her fiddle.
The islanders located a second fiddle for my dad and invited a sweet young harper and her sidekick guitarist because music is the secret recipe of any Scottish gathering.
Even on a vibrant clear blue skied evening in May, I needed my down jacket zipped to the top. The large barn doors facing the sea were open for guests to stroll in. There was just enough space for 25 folks to gather all the way around the pale unfinished wood boat and wonder how complicated this task might be. The chatter was friendly among men like Alasdair and Lachie, who wore wool sweaters and drove rugged range rovers and found no need to disguise the teeth they’d lost over the years.
The long time island doctor has been retired for just a year and has embraced boat building as a new hobby. Clearly well respected, John Holliday began by thanking people for their hard work up to this momentous day. Alasdair gave instructions to all the designated boat
flippers, and then there was music.
What a great idea this was. These boat builders created an experience out of a simple task. We would have shown up in response to the need to flip the boat, regardless of the festivities surrounding the task. But some people delight in creating an experience. The boat turning was the necessary task while food, whiskey, music and words of gratitude created an experience.
Bob and David found a spot around the boat to assist with the lift, flip, and return while I snapped photos and wished they could capture how the cool sea air and authentic sounds of four stringed instruments and Hebridean accents perfectly complemented the event.
The boat was walked outside and set down for a pause. Bob met another man named Bob who wore Hawaiian shorts and told jokes. He was not native to Tiree, or even Scotland but he indulged in the culture and appeared to live well. The chatter was rich both inside and outside the
barn while the music continued. Greetings turned into story-telling and music turned into step dancing lessons on pieces of plywood so the rhythm of the dance could be appreciated.
Alasdair guided the boat lifters to gently turn the boat over and walk it back inside and on to its carefully constructed boat stand. After a successful flip, the whiskey was poured and smiles spotted the space.
Sometimes experiences have too much going on and satisfaction is lost in overstimulation and frenzy. Maybe that’s just a personality thing. Maybe my 100% Scottish roots are the reason I find such delight in a boat turning event inside a cold open barn on a remote Hebridean island.
Some moments are just moments. Boats need to be turned over once in a while. But with all the right elements, a moment becomes the kind of experience we love to remember and crave. They happen when beauty, purpose and community come together, and when someone remembers to bring the fiddle.