A Blithe Scottish Yule
I’ve heard some sighs about the pandemic keeping families apart this Christmas. I suppose that separation is a hardship, but for me - an ailing, high-risk elder - the greater hardship would be to die of COVID-19, so I have no problem staying at home. And perhaps 50 years of world travel have numbed me to “hardships” like the holidays I’ve spent abroad. Easter in Indonesia, Memorial Day in Spain, Independence Day in Brasil, my birthday in Taiwan, and Christmas in Scotland. Heck. My husband and I have lived in Tennessee for two decades and this will be our 21st Christmas spent alone (albeit with plenty of pets).
My first Christmas away from home was far from the difficult and suffering places I’ve seen in this world, spent in Scotland at the splendid 18th-century country mansion of Finlaystone Estate with the highly civilized MacMillan family (who are my clan mates but not direct kin). Finlaystone is the site of a 14th-century castle. John Knox performed the first Protestant Reformed communion service there in 1556, and legendary Scots poet Robert Burns dined there often in the late 18th century. It was rebuilt as a Georgian mansion in 1764 and has been carefully maintained and upgraded (including electricity and modern plumbing but no central heating) by the Kidston and MacMillan families since 1872.
Surrounded by 500 acres of woodland, farmland, and formal gardens, it’s now an officially listed UK historic home with grounds and part of the house open to the public. To the best of my recollection, the mansion house has 33 rooms. There are more on the top floor of the house (the former butler’s quarters and nursery) which when I lived there was rented by an older couple and their wee dachshund who kindly allowed us slaves to watch Upstairs Downstairs on the colour television in their sitting room once a week but did not give us a tour of their flat (apartment).
The rooms I do recall are as follows. Ground floor: entry hall, cloak room, gun room, WC (“waste closet” or toilet), billiard room, dining room, butler’s pantry, office, flower room, kitchen (and food pantry), scullery, cold room, and servants’ sitting room. Upper floors: ante room (waiting room), drawing room, library, laird’s bedroom (the laird is the lord of the castle), laird’s dressing room, Victorian bathroom, four more bedrooms, two bathrooms, and two dressing rooms (my bedroom was actually the dressing room for a nearby bedroom that was used as a guest room), plus in the servants’ quarters were three bedrooms, a bathroom, and the laundry drying room (above the Esse coal stove). I think it’s safe to assume that the top floor tenants had a sitting room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom. There was even an old lift (elevator) to transport them from the ground to the top floor.
It was my first Christmas away from home. But Christmas was no big deal, right? At 17 years old, I had outgrown Santa Claus, Christmas stockings, and twinkling lights. My parents were headed for divorce and had stopped giving Christmas gifts and providing frivolous things like shoes, winter coats, and boots (which I therefore had to borrow from Finlaystone’s voluminous cloak and gun room). I was actually relieved to have escaped my troubled family of origin, and the holiday season there kept me busy. We provided floral arrangements and decorated Christmas trees for local businesses and social events; made and sold orange marmalade and brandy-soaked holiday fruitcake; entertained MacMillan friends and family; and prepared gift boxes for Boxing Day (December 26th, when we hosted a meal for servants and tenants and gave them food gifts as part of the centuries-old tradition of gifting those in service and those in need).
I watched in awe as Lady M decorated the 12-foot Christmas tree near the pink marble pillars of the grand staircase in the 2-storey front reception hall (an even grander one graced the library, awaiting decoration for Boxing Day on December 26th).
I helped Mummy H prepare a glorious rib roast (from estate-raised beef), mashed “tatties and neeps” (potatoes and turnips); a vat of gravy; a variety of vegetable sides; delectable Yorkshire pudding (a savory side dish sort of like a popover; see photo below) and of course the legendary, suet-laden “figgy” (dried fruit) Christmas pudding.
So I didn’t expect to miss home and family, but on Christmas Eve I foolishly declined the MacMillans’ invitation to the Langbank Church of Scotland worship service and the Hepworths’ invitation to a service at St. Andrews Roman Catholic Church in Port Greenock, and found myself alone in the huge house. I doubted that my own family was at worship or any other sort of Christmas celebration, and suddenly I felt completely on my own, and in a sense homeless, in the entire world. It was a very strange sensation. I climbed into my narrow bed, beneath a heavy weight of blankets, to read the Agatha Christie mystery novel that one of the MacMillan sons had given me for Christmas and escaped (a lifelong habit) into the world of fiction.
I spent the following Christmas at home with my mother in New York, having been rejected by the University of Edinburgh and accepted to college in Connecticut. My father and brother had moved to Oklahoma by then, leaving Mom and me to eat popcorn for dinner and burn old kitchen chairs in the fireplace to stay warm.
Now, almost 50 years later, I’m looking forward to another quiet Christmas with my husband, complete with roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, and a hungry herd of begging pets. And I’ll spend some time retrieving my memories of my first (and last) Scottish “Hogmanay” New Year’s Eve celebration so that I can share them with you later on. Meanwhile, I wish you a very “blithe Yule”.