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Finding Heritage in the Highlands

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I felt a deep connection to Scotland before arriving here. My grandfather was extremely proud of our Scottish heritage and made a point to talk about his love for this country and culture as frequently as possible. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, the roots of which trace back to Scotland. There was even a Scottish Sunday every May when bagpipers would come in, everyone would wear their family’s tartans, and we’d share shortbread. I originally intended on studying abroad elsewhere, but when my grandfather heard my best friend wanted to go to Edinburgh, I came under fire. Why would I ever want to study anywhere else? I remember texting him a picture of Edinburgh Castle, referring to it as my “dorm for next year” when I got into the University of Edinburgh for the Fall 2023 semester. He was thrilled.

When my grandfather passed away earlier this year, bagpipes played at his funeral. My going to Scotland was very much inspired by him and made me feel incredibly close to him these last few months.

The most incredible academic experience I’ve had has been taking Scottish Studies 1A: Conceptualizing Scotland. This course allowed me to place myself in the wider historical context of Scotland and learn about the Scottish diaspora, the people who have left the physical land of Scotland. I learned about Scottish identity and belonging in this country. My last name “Gillespie” identified with the highland clan MacPherson, so hearing about Highland culture was, in a lot of ways, hearing about my family’s history. I learned about those bagpipes my grandfather loved so much. I learned how to participate in Scottish culture without perpetuating harmful stereotypes and the ways to discuss Scotland with local populations in an engaging, respectful way. The class connected me academically to a country I’d known only as a farfetched ancestral place.

In pursuit of a more physical connection, I went on a Highland Tour with IFSA in mid-October. We explored all around the for a weekend, covering the Scottish Folk Museum, Culloden, Inverness, Glencoe, and Stirling. At every stop, I tried to find paraphernalia related to my family’s clan. Without fail, at every spot that had a gift shop, I found little nick-nacks related to the clan, from little informative booklets to pins to tartans. It was incredibly cool. I shared some of my family’s history with other people on the trip and was envied for being in a place with such a direct tie to my family. I was surprised by how interested the other students were in my family’s history and filled me with pride for my ancestry. I asked them about their families and learned about how all of their families found their way to the US. The students had heritage all over, from England to Turkey to Ethiopia. It turned into a celebration of our heritage, and I’m so grateful for everyone who shared and celebrated with me.

Later in the semester, I was able to visit the old mill in Deanston where my family worked in the 1860s. The mill has since been converted into Deanston Distillery. I elected to take a tour even (I have to admit, I don’t drink and the smell of whisky makes me cough, so I can’t speak to the quality of their product). When I went on a tour of the distillery, I learned about the process by which they make their whisky but also about the mill that once stood in its place. The bulk of my family worked in the weaving industry of the mill and lived and worked in Deanston. It was an incredible thing to see.

When coming to Scotland, I expected two things: rain and bagpipes. While I most certainly experienced both on an almost daily basis, I experienced so much more. I feel more connected to my ancestry than ever before and more grateful for the
stories passed down through generations, not just in my family but also in the families of my friends. I love
hearing about peoples’ pasts and am looking forward to carrying this appreciation with me for the rest of my life.

Alexandra Gillespie (Colby College) attended the University of Edinburgh in the Fall of 2023 through IFSA’s Scotland study abroad program.