“A shieling on the braes”

Last Thursday afternoon at Moniack, a group of us signed up for a hike. I expected the trek to be stepping out the front door — there were plenty of scenic hillsides near Moniack Mhor all around. Instead, though, we divided up and hopped into cars to get to the Abriachan Forest Paths, about ten minutes away.

“We have a choice of where to go,” the guide said. “To a forest of tall old trees, or up a bit to see a shieling.”

“Oh, a shieling!” I put in before anyone else had a chance. “I’d love to see one.”

No one objected, although I had a hunch most had never heard of shielings. I knew about them because of a description in Alistair Moffatt’s “Highland Clans.”

In springtime clansmen undertook the ancient journey of transhumance, driving their black cattle and sheep up the hill trails to the high pastures and the shielings. These were temporary huts and in the light northern nights they were where herdsmen (often women and children) summered out with their animals in the mountains. In Gaelic the shielings were known as summertowns and the clachans as wintertowns. Around the cooking fires in the high pasture tales were told, songs sung and away from the older people, understandings exchanged.

I had pictured a shieling as a wooden lean-to structure. No doubt the style of them varies from region to region. This shieling had a turf roof, so it blended well into the heather.

Haggis and a wee dram

The culmination of the fiction retreat at Moniack occurred with a dinner of haggis and clapshot, a menu designed, I was informed by the Scotsman next to me, to line the stomach for an evening of whisky drinking.

The haggis was served with “Burns Supper”  ceremony — the “piping in of guests” by Hamish, and the “Address to a Haggis.” Thanks to Harpal for providing this photo.

Boggy brogues

Research in books is all well and good, but I find conversations especially rich. Asking weird questions at improbable moments elicits some of the most intriguing ahas! Today, I was talking to this Irish guy about history, and Scottish history, and Ohio history. We were ranging over a wide variety of topics when I thought of an account I’d just been reading about an immigrant Scot in the mid-1700s taken captive by a Native Americans. I told him how I’d been especially impressed by the report of how the Native Americans had traveled great distances with their captive to avoid the British troops, running over 30 miles a day.

“So I’ve been wondering about that. How do you think the Highlanders traveled? I mean, other than by boat, do you think they ran? Before roads and carriages and such? They didn’t ride horseback, did they?”

“No, I don’t think by horseback,” the Irish guy said. “Actually, I doubt they ran. I think it’s more likely they trudged. It has to have been more like trudging, doesn’t it? The land here is so boggy.”

“Right, I’ve just discovered that, trying to walk in the woods out here,” I said. I had an inkling now of what he meant by boggy, having veered off into a forest near Moniack the other day for a quarter mile or so. I couldn’t believe what difficult going it was, the cushiony-deep, mossy ground. It was the oddest sensation, like walking across couches.

An example of boggy ground, the pillows of mosses and heather to the side of this spring

“Sure,” he went on. ” It’s like that in Ireland, too. You can see it in the brogues we wear. The bogs make for slow going, and they’re so wet. These holes in brogues originally had a purpose. The Irish designed them that way because the land was so boggy, when their feet got wet, all they had to do was lift up their shoes in such a way as to let the water run out of the toe holes. It’s one of the Irish contributions to the world, really.”

I gaped at him in disbelief, but tonight, a quick internet search proved him right. My Grandpa Lindsey, and my Grandpa Patterson, Scots-Irish and Scottish, always wore brogues. Hmm.

A peek outside and in


This morning I woke to a rainbow pillar, stunning, and it turned out, a warning that gray clouds heavy with rain were headed our way. No matter, after a couple of hours at the desk trying to unscramble copious notes and plotlines, I managed to get outside and stretch my legs and take these photos, especially so I could give you a better idea of the Moniack Mhor Centre.

The inside is pleasant as well — a large farm-style kitchen, everything labeled and organized (I cooked with my team the first night, so am off the hook for the rest of the week).

Breakfast is on your own, lunch prepared, and dinner is a shared affair. I’ve been getting in walks, as well as writing. These flowers I found in an obliging field.


From airplane-roaring loud to peace and quiet

When I arrived at Heathrow Airport, in some ways it felt like I’d never left Seattle.

Once in Inverness, when I climbed on the “Stagecoach” bus from the airport into the city center, I knew I’d left for sure. Not just because of the eye-bending colors, but also because the driver’s seat was on the right (wrong) side of the bus. It had been a long, loud ride across the top of the world, just a little farther to go.

A short time later, I was loading into the Moniack Mhor shuttle for the last leg of my 24 hour journey…

and taken straight to my pleasant, silent room with a view.

If I kneel on my bed and peer out the window, I have a view of the Hobbit House studio as a foreground to the mist-soaked, patchwork countryside. It’s so very quiet here.


Scotland tales

As far back as I can remember, when growing up in a small mid-century home on the Southeast side of Cleveland, Ohio, there was this map at the end of our bedroom hallway.

It was actually pretty huge, about 2-1/2 feet wide by 3 feet tall, taking up most of the end of a hall lined with doors leading into the family bedrooms. So I saw it often, every single day of my formative years. I tell you what, without a clue what it was, that image captured my imagination. Does it, or does it not, resemble a witch with her skirts swirling around her?

When I grew older, my father impressed on me that it was there because it held family significance, it being the clan map of Scotland. “We’re Mackintoshes,” he used to say. “Touch not the cat bot a glove.” Apparently, Dad was quoting the motto on the Mackintosh crest, but again, for my young American English brain, life was full of mysteries. (It means, before you pick up a wild or feral cat, be sure to protect yourself with safety gloves.) The war cry of the clan was “Loch Moigh,” referring to their homeland in the Inverness region.

Today, after not a little effort and many hours of travel, I find myself ensconced very nearby Loch Moigh, just north of Loch Ness (Loch means Lake) at Moniack Mhor Writing Centre. While I’m feeling a bit jet-lagged, I’m oh so excited to have returned. As in, returned to Inverness-shire since a short visit here with Dave in 2015, and as in, returned to Inverness-Shire after my ancestors left this homeland for good circa 1803.

On the map, the Mackintosh clan laid claim to the upper shoulders of the witch, just beneath her head. Where all the muscular tension resides, come to think of it. The territory of the former site of the fateful 1746 Battle of Culloden.

I’m close, but I’ve actually missed the mark slightly. Judging by my rough calculation on the map above, Moniack Mhor is located in Fraser clan territory. Oh aye, now I’ve put my foot in it. But from what I understand, by the late 18th century, the clans weren’t warring so much with each other as they were struggling to survive under the “galling yoke” of England.

Or so first person accounts say, of those who emigrated in a last-ditch effort to escape the “galling yoke.” I’m looking forward to finding what I can about the Daniel Mackintoshes (McIntoshes) before they emigrated. They didn’t depart alone. Their exodus included the Roses, the McBains, the MacGillvrays, and others. A whole fistful of disaffected Highland Presbyterian Gaels, right at the scruff of things, it would appear.

So, after five days at this Tutored Fiction Retreat with Paul Murray, Amanda Smyth, and Jane Harris, my aim is to dig deeper and find out more.

Creating a legacy from family documents

Tomorrow evening I’m looking forward to giving a talk at the Harbor History Museum in Gig Harbor on “Creating a Legacy from Family Documents.” It’s a topic near and dear to my heart.

Ever since I wrote a novel based on the true story of my ancestor Michael Harm — the German immigrant blacksmith to Cleveland, Ohio — my appreciation for family history legacies, especially their role in our self-understandings, has taken on new life.

In particular, it’s impressed on me the importance of sharing what we know for subsequent generations.

“You’ve really created a legacy for our kids,” my sister-in-law said to me recently, referring to The Last of the Blacksmiths.

“Well, yes and no.” I saw what Cheri meant, how the retelling of Michael Harm’s life resurrected him in a way, giving his descendants a better understanding of what he’d lived through, as well as insights about how we came to be who we are today. Then again, I have more work ahead. “I had to fictionalize some things in the book to make it a good story,” I told her, “so I still need to tell the true story of his life. I’m working on that right now. Michael Harm’s genealogical narrative.”

That’s still in the works. The nonfiction version, so to speak.

For those of us privileged inherit family documents and oral histories, the task of organizing it all can feel daunting. I recommend taking it in baby steps, little by little; you’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish.

An invaluable resource for me in the baby-step-by-baby-step approach has been my genealogy writing group, a spin off of my local genealogical society. I recommend joining a writing group, or, if your genealogical society doesn’t offer that, consider starting one. (If you want to know the particulars, send me an email and I’ll share how ours works.)

By submitting five pages every two weeks and then gathering for a critique session, I not only get the pages written, I benefit from immediate reader response. I find out what wasn’t clear enough in my description, what I left out, what really resonated, what needs more research. Each of us in my group is approaching family history based on the resources at hand — family photos, childhood memories, recipes, the memories of a parent living in the home, family letters, and so on.

As for me, family letters are my precious inheritance. I’m excited to be publishing them in my new book, How We Survive Here, a family history memoir that contains three dozen rare letters, translated by my German cousin Angela Weber. The book includes the adventures of my quest to trace the people who wrote the letters, researching on both sides of the Atlantic, learning to blacksmith, harvesting grapes in Germany, trying to tackle the German language, and so on. It’s due out from Coffeetown Press in 2018.

Do you suppose my ancestors, the German blacksmiths and wagon-makers, ever envisioned a day when their letters would be published and preserved for posterity? What each of us manages to accomplish, little by little, in sharing our family histories will create a legacy for the future in ways we can’t imagine.

Case in point. The other day, casting about for insights into how my Highlander ancestors lived in the 1700s, I was browsing the history shelves of Powell’s Bookstore and came upon Highland Folk Ways. “This work is a fascinating record, set down before it is too late for the traditions to be remembered,” the book jacket description begins.  The author, Isabel Grant, was in a unique position to create this legacy: “Taught from an early age the stories and traditions of the Highlands, Isabel Grant’s first serious piece of research was for a book based on the farm accounts of her own great-great-grandfather.”

Each of us has wisdom to share, inherited from parents, and grandparents, from family documents and treasures, and from our own experiences. I urge you to begin, and/or to keep going, recording what you know with the materials at hand, to create a valuable legacy for those who follow.

One happy camper

Browsing the vendor offerings at the International Germanic Genealogy Partners Conference, I wondered what I could possibly find that I’d be willing to carry home in my luggage. And then, there it was, a book I’d been trying to track down for eight years. In the introduction to the English edition, the translator Steven Rowan notes:

The Swan Song of the Cleveland Germans? The second edition of “Cleveland and Its Germans [1907]” can be scanned for symptoms of the ongoing process of assimilation which would receive a sudden shock of acceleration within a decade with the entry of the United States into World War I.

This statement is painfully true, especially given how strident the anti-German hysteria became in Ohio cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati. As a consequence, German families changed their surnames to sound less German, German books were removed from libraries, the German language was no longer taught in schools. But even without the onset of WWI, the assimilation process was bound to continue. In that light, Rowan’s conclusion also resonated:

At this distance the death of German Cleveland has an inevitable and elegaic quality, but it also warns us of the costs of compulsory conformity in a mass society.

Hmm, food for thought. Anyhow, I’m happy to have the book for its biographies and write-ups, and it completes my collection.

What with the discovery of that book today, and the many great people I met and stories I heard, I’m one happy camper. After many hours inside, though, I felt a bit desperate for some greenery, so headed over for a walk on the grounds of the Marjorie McNeely Conservatory at Como Park. The greenery and serenity and silence were golden.

Maybe I saw them, maybe I didn’t

A visit to Minnesota German country is a visit to New Ulm, a lively festival town about an hour and 45 minutes southwest of Minneapolis. That’s what they tell me, anyhow — a surprising number of people, in fact, beginning first thing this morning during a chance encounter with a fellow customer at Panera, who recommended I visit New Ulm due to its unusually strong and entertaining German character. Then, all day while sitting at my vendor table at the International Germanic Genealogy Conference, quite a few roving genealogists extolled the virtues of New Ulm. One gentleman in particular went on for quite a while, about how New Ulm is known as the “Polka Capital of the Nation” and features the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. How the town erected a 102-foot tall statue in honor of the German victory over the Romans in … wait for it … 9 C.E. That’s right, folks, that long ago, 9 years after the death of Christ. Oh, and New Ulm has a Glockenspiel, and the August Schell Brewing Company.

Given all that salient detail, not one New Ulm enthusiast bothered to warn me about the four masked characters who came dancing through the vendor area late in the afternoon. I felt both attraction and revulsion at the sight of them (masks have always freaked me out). The two little girls who joined in the fun earned a gold star for bravery, in my opinion. It wasn’t until the dance was over and one of the masked figures handed me a button that I learned these were the Narren of New Ulm, “the relatives everyone has, but nobody wants to own.” Needless to say, I’m leaving the light on when I go to bed tonight.

First, why Minnesota?

First question, why is the International Germanic Genealogy Partners Conference (IGGP) being held in Minnesota? Sure, the state is centrally located and all, but somehow, I pictured a higher percentage of Germanic Americans in Wisconsin, say, or Iowa. Apparently, Minnesota is way up there, too. A May 2017 article at Midwest Weekend reports that Minnesota has around 38 percent, just under the 44 percent and 40 percent of Wisconsin and Iowa, respectively.

On the first full day of my visit here, I prowled around looking for German genealogy resources. Mostly, they turned out to be in Saint Paul, the sister of the Twin Cities and capital of Minnesota. First stop, the Germanic-American Institute (GAI). Located in the historic Summit Avenue neighborhood, the restored mansion (nine fireplaces!) is a terrific venue for programs such as a German language immersion school for kids, adult education programs and language clubs, and a German book library.

“What else is worth seeing in the area?” I asked when I stopped in the office, adding that I was hot on the trail of German American heritage sites in particular.

The office assistant looked at me quizzically, with a light furrow in her brow. “For the most part, they’re not singled out. I mean, the German American culture is pretty intertwined with the whole history of the town. But there is that restoration of murals in the Capitol Building. They were in the basement, it used to be a Rathskeller. You know about that?”

No I did not. A Rathskeller is a German term for a basement beer hall or restaurant. A beer hall at the State Capitol of Minnesota?  Enticing indeed. I resolved to make the Minnesota State Capitol Building my next stop, a drop dead gorgeous sandstone and marble structure. The building was so huge, and my mission so singular that upon entering, I went directly to the Information desk.

“I hear you’ve just opened a Rathskeller with murals in this building?” I said.

The info desk guy hesitated. “Well now, the Rathskeller’s always been there,” he said. “We’ve only recently restored it.” After pointing me in the right direction, he handed me a sheet with all the German mottoes now restored on the walls of the Rathskeller, just the way God, and the good German immigrants of Minnesota, intended. Mottoes like: “First do your duty, then drink and laugh.” And, “First test, then praise.” And, “As time flies we are nearing eternity.”

Sadly, the Rathskeller was empty of food and drink and hence, people; I dearly hope a convivial spirit will inspire Minnesota legislators in the future to talk through difficulties over a pint in that pleasant, tiled, daylit room from time to time. Meanwhile, I understand there is a restoration project going on for the oldest surviving lagerbier saloon in the Twin Cities, the Waldmann Brewery & Wurstery, for which there is a Kickstarter campaign here.

I also made it to the Minnesota History Center Library, also in St. Paul, taking a brief hour to browse the wealth of genealogy and history resources in their holdings. However, I did not have a chance to get to the main event in town, for German genealogists, that is: the Germanic Genealogy Society’s library at Concordia University, which houses 2200 books and periodicals relating to German genealogy.

At the end of the day I was sharing with friends Katie and Sam about how beautiful Saint Paul, and its namesake church, both are. “Yeah, well, they used to call it something different–Pig’s Eye Landing,” Katie told me. “After a guy who had a tavern down on the river.” Surprisingly, that former name is not on the Germans. The name came from the French Canadian tavern owner, Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant. Who knew?