Just a Wee Blether…

About why I love Turkey Day

Turkey Day has come and gone – and I loved every second of it. It is, for me, the most enjoyable, most relaxing and, dare I say, most civilised holiday in the American calendar.

This year was the first time I was able to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, traditionally held on the fourth Thursday in November, as an American resident. It was an excellent occasion spent in the company of family, friends and neighbours.

Thanksgiving Day reveals everything good about the USA. Outsiders, myself included, are often quick to latch on to the negative aspects of American life. But once a year the country rolls out the welcome mat and shows its good side, the kindness and warm-hearted nature of its people.

In the UK there is no equivalent festival, nothing that compares. The general rule over here is that no-one should spend Thanksgiving Day alone. On Thursday the gathering at which I was present included an elderly across-the-road neighbour, friends who had travelled from San Diego, and a single friend of relatives. It was the same story in thousands of homes across the nation.

turkey

The centerpiece of any Thanksgiving Day celebration is a turkey. In our case a 15 pounder – small by comparison – was enough to feed 16 people. There was also baked ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, roasted brussels sprouts, butternut squash, green beans and dinner rolls.

That lot was followed by traditional homemade pumpkin pie, as well as apple pie and pumpkin bread pudding served with Cointreau custard sauce. It was quite a feed. And everyone present made a culinary contribution.

It’s tempting to say that oversized meals like that are symptomatic of “greedy” America. But Thanksgiving is essentially a harvest festival, dating back to the days of the Pilgrims and the Puritans.

In November 1623, William Bradford, the Governor of the Pilgrim Colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, proclaimed, “All ye Pilgrims with your wives and little ones, do gather at the Meeting House, on the hill… there to listen to the pastor, and render Thanksgiving to the Almighty God for all His blessings.”

So food has been at the heart of Thanksgiving right from the start. But you may have noticed something missing, a crucial omission that makes the festival stand out as my favourite American holiday.

Nobody brings gifts or presents; it is never expected. You are quite simply welcomed into people’s houses without question. That is what makes Thanksgiving special, distinct from the crass commercialism that now surrounds Christmas when everyone is under pressure to get the best present.

Of course there is a commercial aspect. The Macy’s Day Parade every Thanksgiving morning is named after a New York department store. But Americans, just for this one day, take pride in keeping it to the minimum.

And they make a great job of it. In my experience, Thanksgiving Day is a happy, family-oriented occasion with the emphasis on simple togetherness and camaraderie.

It’s a bit of a shame that it is followed by possibly the worst day in the calendar – Black Friday – when people are trampled in a headlong rush down department store aisles to get their hands on that cut-price Xbox. But stay away from the shopping malls and you don’t notice the mayhem.

Christmas Day is next on the agenda, and of course I will enjoy that as always. But roll on next year’s Thanksgiving and bring on the turkey again.

Just a Wee Blether…

About my yearning for a Scottish brew

Please don’t take this the wrong way. But there are times when I’m sitting here sipping a cool beer in the November sunshine and think to myself, “I could murder a Sheepshagger”.

Before you get the wrong idea, I don’t mean an Aberdeen football fan – although the thought crossed my mind more than once in the 17 years I spent in that fair city.

Nor does it have anything to do with certain members of Scotland’s rural population – there’s no room for smut or insinuation in this blog.

If, however, you are a fan of the amber brew produced in Scotland, you will know exactly what I mean. Sheepshagger’s Scotch Ale – marketed as ‘the best beer baa none’ – is one of the best-selling brands of the Cairngorm brewery in Aviemore.

You can’t buy it over here. Hardly any Scottish beers make it on to the American market. I once found a couple of bottles of Fraoch heather ale, made by Williams Brothers of Alloa. It was a pleasant surprise but it was a one-off.

Wildcat

Instead I am faced with groaning shelves filled with home-made American beers. We Scots have traditionally looked down our noses at the beer made by our US cousins. We referred to it by a particular four-letter, one syllable word beginning with ‘p’ and ending with ‘s’.

To be absolutely fair, things have changed for the better. Just like Scotland, the micro-brewing industry in the USA has erupted and there are some very decent beers to be had. But I have to say, objectively, that Scotland does it far better.

Some of the beer produced in Scotland is excellent, to be savoured almost like a good malt whisky. It’s a far cry from when I was growing up. Then it was a pint of lager or a pint of heavy and you took whatever rubbish the bar had on tap.

I’m not one of these snobbish beer aficionados. In fact I don’t even drink that much of it nowadays.  I can’t tell the apparently crucial difference between craft beer and cask beer. All I know is that, if I like the taste, then I like the beer.

So what is it that makes Scottish beers so good? Is it the water, the soil, the crops, the fruit, or a combination of everything?

I don’t know but as a matter of interest here are the descriptions of a couple of the beers I would class as favourites.

Maverick, made by Loch Fyne Brewery – a reddish copper ale with an aroma of mixed fruit and caramel malts. Taste is of caramel and fruity malts with a well hopped flavor creating a wonderfully well balanced beer.

Wildcat, by Cairngorm Brewery – A smooth deep amber coloured ale with a complex malt, fruit and hop flavour. Strong and distinctive like the powerful sleek Scottish wildcat it is named after.

Believe it or not there is a beer made in Arizona called Kilt Lifter. It’s marketed as a Scottish style ale. It is actually pretty good and, as you can imagine, the name appeals to the female beer drinking public.

But it’s just not the same. And purely in the name of research of course, I feel compelled to try as many of these fancy American beers as I can.

Nothing though can beat a good glass of Sheepshagger’s – or Wildcat – or Maverick  – or Fraoch heather ale.

So if anyone reading this is coming to America and fancies stashing some in their suitcase I’ll happily provide you with an address where it will be gratefully received.

Just a Wee Blether…

About the secrets of our ancestry

If there’s one thing Americans love, it’s finding out where they came from, discovering their family history. In a country where everyone – with the exception of the Native Americans – is descended from immigrants, it is natural to want to know where your ancestors started off. I have met many people of Scottish descent since I came here – and a ton of wannabe Scots.

Genealogy is a fascinating subject if done properly and carefully. The key is to dig up the real life stories behind the names of ancestors that are scrawled on marriage licenses, census documents and death certificates. Behind those faded names lie a million gripping tales.

But a word of warning. Do not expect royalty or aristocracy to show up in your bloodline. Genealogy is not for the squeamish. Expect eye-popping scandal to come jumping off the pages at you. Believe me it is far more fun.

For the past few years I have been engrossed in genealogy and have put together fairly comprehensive family trees for myself and my wife. It has been a bit sad, a bit shocking but most of all it’s been an eye-opener.

In terms of sadness and tragedy nothing touches the story of my maternal grandfather’s three oldest siblings. My great-grandparents Alexander Macdonald, a farmer, and his wife Ann Mackintosh lived in the remote farming community of Bohenie in Lochaber – look on Google Maps and you’ll see how remote it is.

In 1889 they had two daughters and a son, aged 14, 13 and 10. Within a six day period that December all three children fell victim to a diphtheria epidemic. Apparently their three coffins were laid side by side in the living room of the old stone farmhouse where they lived.

Scotland dominates my family line, but I discovered an unexpected Irish influence that my immediate family knew nothing about – and what a disreputable bunch they turned out to be.

A great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side, Peter McSorley, came to Scotland from County Tyrone in the 1820s when the potato crop was failing. Peter was a mason by trade and worked as a canal builder.

He died in April 1860 while working near Fort William. I then dug out his death certificate. It read that he had died on the “high road” between Blaich and Duisky on the shores of Loch Eil and that the cause of death had been “exposure to cold and wet while intoxicated”. (pictured is a recent photo of the road where he was found)

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So poor Peter didn’t make it home that night, but worse was to come. His son, William McSorley (who later changed his surname to Sorley) was my great great grandfather. He was living in Ratho, Midlothian, when he died aged 45.

This time the death certificate from 1882 revealed he had suffered from pneumonia for 13 days and “delirium tremens” for three days. In other words he died an alcoholic.

Am I ashamed of any of this? Absolutely not. What it proves is that our ancestors were real people, not just names on old documents, and lived life to the full.

So that side of my Irish ancestry produced some juicy scandal. But another Irish discovery turned up an incredible coincidence.

My paternal grandfather came to Scotland from Downpatrick, County Down. My wife grew up in Pennsylvania as part of a family descended from European countries including Germany, Lithuania and England.

But way back in the 1700s my wife has a 5xgreat grandfather by the name of John Crickard. His son Michael left home in Ireland and moved to Staunton, Virginia – John may have gone with him. And where did they live in Ireland before sailing the Atlantic? Downpatrick, County Down. It’s a small world.

The secret is not to accept your ancestors’ names at face value but to dig deep. I have uncovered many other incredible stories that illuminate our family trees and I’ve only scratched the surface. Resources are abundant – family members, libraries, Internet – but just be prepared for the unexpected.

 

Just a Wee Blether…

About Sleeping Through the Earthquake

There was nothing unusual for me about the night of January 15, 1968. I was always a sound sleeper and I had gone to bed around 9pm, slept like a log and woke up the next morning in time for primary school.

It must have been a bit windy outside when I closed my eyes and dozed off, I honestly can’t remember. What I do remember quite clearly is my mother saying to me in the morning, “I can’t believe you slept through all that”.

She and my father had been up all night, terrified as she put it “that the house was going to blow down”. We lived in an old house – long since demolished – that had a flat roof where the washing used to be hung out. All the poles had been blown into nearby streets.

What I had slept through is now referred to as the January gale or the January storm. It started in Bermuda, moved across the Atlantic, battered the Clyde Coast and hit Glasgow with an absolute vengeance. The winds reached 140mph across the Central Belt.

A total of 20 people died in Scotland that night. In Glasgow – 30 miles from my home town of Largs – 300 houses were destroyed and 70,000 homes were damaged. Four people died when a six-ton chimney stack crashed through the roof of a tenement in Partick.

Largs officially escaped the worst of the storm but I remember walking to school that day and seeing debris all over the streets. I have a clear memory of turning into the town’s Boyd Street where a lamp standard had been bent double in the wind and was only inches from crashing through the roof of a parked car.

There were many bleary-eyed people who had had little or no sleep – but it hadn’t bothered me in the slightest. I had slept through the great January gale, one of Scotland’s worst natural disasters, as if it had never happened.

I didn’t think I could ever top that. But this week I went one better, I took “sleeping soundly” to a whole new level – this week I slept through an earthquake.

black canyon1

It wasn’t huge but it wasn’t tiny either – 4.1 on the Richter scale. The epicentre was 70 miles away from us in a one-horse old town called Black Canyon City (pictured).

I was out for the count but my wife was having trouble getting to sleep. She got up, left me snoozing, went through to the next room and lay down on the sofa – and the earth moved for her.

She described a sensation as though someone had been very subtly shaking the sofa, like a gentle wobble. It happened at around 11.30pm then again a few seconds later. She took a mental note of the time and when we were listening to the radio news in the morning, sure enough, it was the lead item.

Nearer the epicentre it was a lot more noticeable. A friend of mine said he thought a train was rushing past his house; people were reported to have felt their homes shaking and seeing the lights in their living room moving.

One man told the newspaper that he had heard the noise and gone outside to fetch his gun. Well this is America after all. When an unexplained and unexpected natural phenomenon occurs, the natural instinct is to shoot the damn thing.

Arizona doesn’t get many earthquakes and certainly nothing as powerful as neighbouring California. But when they do happen they are alarming. Not that I have first-hand knowledge of course, this is just hearsay on my part.

Having lived all my life in Scotland I have never experienced an earthquake. I hope I’m awake the next time one comes along in Arizona – or at least that it’s loud enough to wake me up.

Just a Wee Blether…

About Halloween American-style

My new American friends have learned two more things from me in the past couple of weeks. Not that I’m on some sort of educational mission over here but I was asked the same questions umpteen times.

First of all, yes, we do celebrate Halloween in Scotland, we have for as long as I can remember, it’s a centuries-old tradition and an important date in the calendar. In fact, refer to Wikipedia and you will discover that the word Hallowe’en derives from an old Scots term for All Hallows’ Eve.

The festival was largely unheard of in America until mass Scottish and Irish immigration in the 19th century and celebrations started to get popular in the early 20th century.

So the answer to ‘do you celebrate Halloween in Scotland?’ was lesson one. The second came when I dressed up as the children’s character Where’s Wally (or Waldo as they say here) and was asked several times ‘do you have Where’s Waldo in Scotland?’

Yes of course, I answered, politely as ever. And if you turn to the self-same Wikipedia you’ll find out that Wally – not Waldo – was the brainchild of an illustrator from England called Martin Handford.

There was a fair amount of eyebrow-raising when people realised that a festival and a children’s character they thought were quintessentially American were actually nothing of the sort.

But even though America was late on the Halloween scene, they have more than caught up with the Celts who started it off. It’s fair to say that Americans go crazy for Halloween. The belief that everything is ‘bigger’ in the US is true in many cases, and Halloween is no exception.

This week I’ve mixed with a very cool-looking Pharrell Williams; possibly the world’s first transgender deer (ok, a doe complete with a set of antlers); Ursula from The Little Mermaid; the Jolly Green Giant; a brown bear; a hopelessly unfashionable 80s rocker; and a very excited little pumpkin.

After discarding my Where’s Wally costume, I morphed into a Scotsman. Tricky I know. But a Jimmy hat and some face paint and I looked just like Mel Gibson.

The Halloween build-up here lasted for several weeks. Children were taken on pumpkin hayrides, pop-up shops appeared selling zombie masks and all sorts of scary costumes and people of a certain vintage reminisced about the Halloween series of horror films from the 1970s – and how they weren’t really frightened when they watched them first time round.

Some folk went completely over the top of course. A neighbour a few doors down erected a giant screen on the side of his house and broadcast Star Wars movies all evening. He dressed as one of the X-Wing Fighter Pilots, handed out strips of wookie beef jerky to visiting children, and even had several rows of seats in his front garden where people could watch the films.

The big difference between the US and Scotland is the tradition here known as ‘trick or treating’. In Scotland we go out guising – from the word disguise – and I always remember having to earn my penny dainties, monkey nuts, and maybe a few coppers. If you didn’t have a song to sing or a poem to recite then you weren’t very well-received.

In America it’s all over in seconds. Trick or treat, the bag is held out, sweeties (candy) are thrown in and off they go. I far preferred the fun, and the satisfaction, of having to work for the treats.

But Halloween American style has been a lot of fun – and now a handful of folks in a corner of Arizona know that, like most things of any importance, it started in Scotland.