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Cycle of life in Scotland

Rick Gunn
Special to the Nevada Appeal
photos by rick gunn/special to nevada appeal A British Cancer Society volunteer portrays William Wallace (Brave Heart) on the streets of Edinburgh.
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It was the last place I expected to find myself, tucked amongst the congregation of a tiny church, in the northeast hills of Scotland.

As I waited for the service to begin, I fiddled with the program, stealing nervous glances at unfamiliar faces surrounding me.

Each seemed to tell a tale. Young, old, fair or weathered, each seem to tell a story of a life far from my own. A low rumble filled the room, then instantly quieted as the minister stepped the pew.

“Welcome,” he said, with a thick Scottish brogue, then imparted a gentle smile around the room. “We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Margaret Coutts.

“Beloved by all of us in this room, Margaret was a soul best described as ‘one off.’

“When they made her,” the minister smiled, “they broke the mold. With her love of bicycles and flower-arranging, you could often see Margaret bicycling the 10 miles to Inverurie and back looking like a rolling garden.”

My mind spun off into a vision. It was that of a lovely young woman, pedaling vibrantly through the rich green hills. The thought took me far away, and I stayed with it until I was snapped back to the present by a step into cold air where family members gathered in a snow-covered cemetery.

I stood in the background, silently observing as loving hands lowered Margaret into her final resting place. As the service continued, I stared at the heart-shaped wreath that adorned the shiny oak casket. The minister spoke again.

“And now for as much as it has pleased Almighty God to take unto himself the soul of our sister here departed, we therefore commit her body to the ground. Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”

The finality of it all prompted a flood of emotion from my good friend and Scottish host Tracey Milne. A flood of tears came deep from within, and I wrapped my arms around her. Margaret was her grandmother and recently succumbed to a nine-year battle against Alzheimer’s disease.

I first met Tracey 18 years ago when she spent a year working in America as a nanny. With her kind-hearted nature and twisted sense of Scottish humor, the two of us became friends almost immediately. For 18 years, I’d promised to visit her – and my ancestral homelands.

When my flight finally landed at the Aberdeen Airport, I made good on that promise. When I walked to the arrival gate, I was greeted by Tracey; her mother, Rosalyn; sister, Jaqueline and her kids Diane, JoAnne and Richard. They held a handmade sign with a picture of an American Flag and a note that said, “Welcome, Rick Gunn!”

The first order of operations was celebration. Tracey had it all set up, Scottish-style. She had purchased us two tickets to the biggest street party in the world: New Year’s in Edinburgh.

For those of you unfamiliar with the city of Edinburgh, it is quite simply magic. Lined with a stunning combination of modern and ancient architecture, its streets wind around a hilltop castle. Steeped in the arts, literature and history, Edinburgh has produced a parade of poets, paupers, artists, actors, novelist, grave robbers, fictional characters and eccentrics.

That night, when the sun went down, Edinburgh lit up.

Tracey and I joined a large New Year’s pre-party, where a host of Catalonian artists, dancers and acrobats played to an ever-growing crowd. Stealing the show were two Catalonian hairdressers perched on a small stage, freakishly dressed as queens. The two pulled selected volunteers from the crowd and sculpted their hair into equally freakish constructs of varying shapes and colors. When they finished, it looked more dare-do, than hairdo.

When the new year finally rolled around, we slipped out of our hotel and sardined into a crowd of about 100,000 revelers. As we flowed downstream with a sea of bodies, a large-screen TV issued the countdown. When the clock struck 12, the crowd let out a roar that challenged the amplified sounds of Scottish rocker KT Tunstall, who played from a nearby stage. The night ended with a brilliant display of fireworks.

After Edinburgh, Tracey and I packed our bags again and headed north, this time toward the wide-open highlands in Caithness.

We were joined by Rosalyn, who diligently drove us on a 400-mile road trip as a request to see my ancestral homeland and the Clan Gunn Heritage Center in Latheron, Caithness.

When we finally reached Caithness, a winter storm was whipping off the coast from the North Atlantic.

When we entered the small town of Latheron, I spied a sign that read, “Clan Gunn Museum,” and we turned.

We pulled to the front of the center, which is housed in the old parish church of Latheron, near the Church of Scotland, perched near a cliff overlooking the ocean.

Within its gates is a graveyard with the new and old graves of crofters, farmers and local fishermen. I stepped out of the vehicle, and a vicious winds nearly blew me to the ground. As I was struggling to shoot a photo, a car pulled up.

It was Ian Gunn, current commander of Clan Gunn. I had contacted Ian earlier, and met him briefly in Edinburgh in hopes of learning more about my heritage and also to get a look at the center, which in usually closed in winter.

“Come in, won’t you?” Ian invited.

When he hit the lights, I was visually bombarded by all things Gunn. There were kilts, tartans, books and flags.

After a few pleasantries, Ian escorted us to the first display – a diagramed lineage pertaining to the origins of the name “Gunn.” The display stated that the name originated from Gunni, grandson of Svein Alslefarson, the “Ultimate Viking,” as well as the earls of Orkney, albeit through a female bloodline.

Another chart displayed a dizzyingly complex diagram of family lines, names, branches and offshoots. I stared at it with a confusion saved for complex algorithms.

In another corner of the museum stood a scale model of Gunn Castle, which represented the clan castle that had been built on a precipitous column of rock by Snaekoll Gunni’s son in the mid-13th century.

Located in nearby Bruan, the castle was said to have been destroyed by the king of Norway in revenge for his daughter’s death. This was hardly the end of the clan’s conflicts.

The 14th and15th centuries seemed to bring an array of skirmishes. These included battles with their neighbors, the Sinclairs and the Keiths, who’d obtained land grants from the new Scottish king.

At one point, a reconciliation with the Keiths was arranged. Each clan agreed to bring 12 men on horseback to the signing of the treaty. When the Gunns arrived, the Keiths had treacherously brought two men on each horse, and the Gunns were instantly overcome.

A son of the Gunn Clan who had escaped wreaked revenge on the Keith chieftain by supposedly shooting him through the throat while he toasted his troops’ victory.

After learning of this story, I better understood the Gunn Clan motto, “If not peace, then war.”

When we finished the tour, Ian invited us back to his home. We followed him down a driveway, through a long tunnel of trees to a classic Scottish laird’s home, built in 1750, and a stone’s throw from the ocean.

When we stepped inside, the house filled with warmth and a marvelous array of British decor.

“This is my wife, Bunty, ” Ian said.

After settling in, we spent the afternoon lazily sipping Scottish malt whiskeys, eating a gourmet lunch, and exchanging stories from comfort of easy chairs. As I looked fondly on Ian, Bunty, Tracey and Rosalyn, I realized that my time in Scotland was nearly up.

My heart became grateful to these warm human beings and their precious offerings of friendship. While the others listened and spoke, I realized that the brief investigation of my Scottish heritage had left me with expanded view of who and what I am.

I returned to Aberdeen several days later, and looked over my bicycle before I prepared to go. For a moment, I thought of Margaret Coutts as a young woman, rolling with careless grace through the Scottish countryside. It occurred to me that although the wheels of my bicycle had temporarily stopped, the ever-turning cycle of life had certainly not.

Editor’s note: Rick Gunn, former Nevada Appeal photographer, is on a two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way he is raising money for Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org. To read a complete list of his journals and see his photos, go to http://www.rickgunnphotography.com.

Where in the world is Rick Gunn?

WHEN: Dec. 18-Jan. 8, 2006

WHERE: Scotland – Aberdeen, Stirling, Edinburgh, Inverness, Caithness, Dornoch

MILEAGE: 6,630

ELEVATION: 0-1,500 feet