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What Is It About Scotland?

This question is frequently put to me, often followed by, “Why do you set your books there?” By this time, a swarm of reasons are buzzing in my head, and I reply with another question, “How much time do you have?”

Readers, of course, play a big role, and I am awed by the letters I still receive about a seven book series I published in the early 90’s, THE MACKINNON’S. The majority of the requests are for another Scottish series “just like the MACKINNON’S.”

Just like the Mackinnon’s . . . It’s one of those “I wish I had a dollar for ever time I’ve heard it” phrases, and this is what prompted me to share my sentiments on my website. Something about Scotland is eternal, for she is Niobe, turned to stone by grief, yet weeping still, the symbol of eternal mourning. Tempered by never ending sorrow, Scotland calls out to me, like echoes from the past . . . secret, mysterious, evocative, and eerily stirring, waiting for me to give them a voice. The call is strong—and I wonder if it is the voices of my own Scots ancestors--Graham, de Mormayer, Lennox, Canmore, Robinson, de Huntington, FitzAlan, MacKinnon, MacKenneth, Davidson, and the kings: Pict, Celt, Norse, Dane, Scot, and yes, even the English.

The only thing small about Scotland is the size of the country, for it is a land with a strong heart, long on history, and a tragic past. Theirs is one of the most widely known narratives throughout the world, for it is the nature of us all to retain the sad fragments of another’s past. No other country can match it in sadness, conflict, haunting beauty, and poignancy, or the enigmatic loneliness of the land itself. Theirs is a tale of suffering told in a tragic vein--passions so naturally manifest, and misfortunes so wrenching, that the very soul is pierced. Simple and yet complex, beautiful and dramatic, Scotland rises out of the cold depths of the North Sea like a clenched fist. Even the rugged uplands that separate it from England seem to suggest separation--and losing their independence to England is something many Scots resent to this day. You’ve only to listen to the mournful tunes of a bagpipe to feel it, even now. And when the last notes have faded away, a great silence falls over your soul, while the images are still running around in your head, and you are reminded of all they endured, what they lost, and how much the rest of us were spared. When it comes to woe, Scotland wins, hands down.

In a land ignited by the flame of pageantry that smolders even now, one cannot help but think of Scotland in terms of obelisks and Celtic crosses, the bones of saints, the relics of Vikings, a stone for beheading, the heart of Robert the Bruce. When the wind whispers through the ruins of castles and roofless priories, you feel the stirring of something old and primeval, long dead, and yet alive. You sense that since the first inhabitants arrived they have been haunted by conflict—Angles against Picts, Angles and Picts against Romans, Celts against Picts, Angles and Celts against the Norse, Scots against English, clan against clan, kings against powerful earls, the Scots against the unforgiving land, and you begin to understand how a people could become as flinty as the sound of a Highlander’s Gaelic.

Scotland is a song that will continue to play on your heartstrings; a tale that should be written with a generous spirit in sparse prose. It is a country whose wealth lies in its history, and once you have read it a keen sense of inadequacy surrounds you, like a quiet moment of grief. One cannot help but admire the steadfast strength of a people who have taken the destruction of their clan system, the taking of their land, the eviction and emigration of their families, and the loss of their independence, who can stand upon the wreckage of their lives and build a stronger one where it stood. Through it all, something as fragile and threatened as the genes for red hair and freckles has managed to survive.

And the stones of Callanish still stand near the sea as they have for 6,000 years, eerily reverent . . .


© 2003-2005 Elaine Coffman

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