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Scotland Day Four - Grounding

I've had such excitement to get to this day, because this was the first day of the trip where things really started to shift.

Day four was a long day, but oh so good. I woke up and sat in the drafty sunroom of my bed and breakfast, wrapped in a tartan blanket, sipping tea, and reading as I looked out at the overcast Highlands around me. Eventually, it was time for breakfast. The lovely owner of the bed and breakfast opened the big doors into the dining room and smiled at me sitting there. She invited me into the dining room and told me I could bring the blanket if I wanted to - these old houses were quite chilly (and I love that about them).

There were six rooms at the b&b, and I got to meet the other guests throughout the meal.

I had to leave fairly quickly after breakfast, as did a few other guests too. As we packed up our cars, I started to talk with an older woman about the day ahead. She recommended an area for me to visit on my journey on the northern-most edge of the mainland. She was there with her son, and they were heading up north to a beach outside of Wick where she and her husband used to go often. Today, they were going there to spread his ashes. She didn't shy away from me as she told me all of this in her soft, sweet tone. She spoke to me gently and directly, tears in her eyes, unafraid and unashamed. I was grateful for her vulnerability. I gave her arm a squeeze and wished her a safe journey north, and we parted ways.

I hoped to stop in at this place she told me about if I had time. But I had to make it to a ferry by 1:00. I planned to stop at Dunrobin Castle, which I did, quickly walking around the grounds. I got my first glance at the ocean from here.

I then drove on and ended up finding a wall of dense fog. I'm not joking, this was the most insane fog I've ever experienced. I could barely see five feet in front of my car. The fog held for the next two hours' drive. The irony was that this stretch of road would be the only stretch I'd really have to travel twice - I'd be here again in a couple of days. So, funny enough now I'd be seeing this stretch for the first time in a couple of days when I'd drive it again. Needless to say, the fog slowed me down considerably. I didn't have time for any extra stops, I drove straight to the ferry and boarded for Orkney.

I've never been asked what my favorite mode of transportation is, but if you were to ask me, I'd say ferries. Without hesitation.

There is something so stilling about ferries. There is nothing really to do but just ride and take in the sights around you. And even though this was a nice, newer boat, there is something about traveling this way that feels like a link to the past, it feels so right.

I spent the whole ride on the top deck, as I always do. The fog had cleared over the water, so I stood watching the ocean go by, seeing the lighthouses that scattered the shore shrink away. I matched my movements to the sway of the ship, trying to keep moving enough to stay warm. It was cold and misting, incredibly windy, and I loved every second of it.

It is the best way to be brought to Orkney.

As I started to the the main island appear, I felt an immense peace, like I was coming home.

Once I arrived on land, I drove over the Churchill barriers a few times, trying to find a nice strip of beach to finally walk out to the sea. I found a spot and walked along the beach, taking in the gentle ocean here, the block-ships sunk in 1915 jutting out of the water, the WW2 lookout towers across the bay.

As I walked, I found two puffins on the beach. One was dead, and the other, alive, huddled up and protecting the other from the wind. I knew that puffins mated for life. I had somehow intruded upon this moment of mourning.

I gave the puffin space and sat and watched the waves gentling coming in and out. I thought of my friend and her son, likely down on her own beach now, looking out at the same ocean too, mourning her husband.

I knew this would be a trip of many themes. I'd had a hunch that death and life and their synchronicity would be woven into the mix. How could they not be in such an ancient land? How could they not be when we'd just come out of a very dark few years? How could they not be when I'd been grappling with grief and guilt and love and my purpose so much in the last year? Yet I'd also been holding all of that at arm's length. It had been too much to let spill over, too much to grapple with. But with this much solitude, it was inevitable.

I stared over the causeway at the block-ships meant to help save lives, thinking of the tolls that both wars would take on these Islands. Thinking of the prisoners of war who built these causeways. Thinking of the ancient people who called these Islands home.

I wondered again when I should leave this spot. How could I ever feel ready to move on. I wrote that day sitting there:

"How do I leave this place? The answer is so simple if I just let the question sit there. When I find synchronicity. When I feel that I am in sync with the rhythms of life and of the earth beneath and around me. Such a simple answer, yet so hard to actually grasp. I look at those waves and I think of how it should be simple, to be in step with the earth, with the waves, with the moon, the sun. Other creatures know how to do it. I know the people who walked these Islands hundreds of years ago knew how to too. They had to find that synchronicity, for survival. Our bodies still know how to find it, and I think they seek it, they want it too. If it is all a rhythm, can I just let go and be in rhythm, flow naturally? I sit here searching for some feeling of groundedness. When I first stepped foot on this island, I immediately felt the slowness of time starting to settle in. I felt that sense of homecoming as this place immediately embraced me. I'm meant to be here, this is where I can find that rhythm. It feels like the edge of the earth here. After traveling plane, train, car, and ferry to be here, what is here for me to find?"

Once I felt ready to leave, once I started to let that slower pace take hold, I made my way to the town of Kirkwall.

I didn't have a plan here. I just made my way for the center, looking for the oldest buildings there, which I definitely found. I wandered through the Earl's Palace first, a ruin of a palace built in the 1500s. I wandered the corridors, the kitchens, the banquette halls, the bedchambers, imagining what life was like in these stone walls.

I then wandered over to the Bishop's palace next door, this one in much more ruin, dating back to the 12th century. I climbed the tallest tower, really the only structure left to the place, and looked out over Kirkwall. I could see from there down into the church yard of St. Magnus Cathedral that I had driven by, also built in the 12th century. I climbed down and made my way over to it, enjoying the slowness and just wandering from place to place as things caught my interest. Time did seem to slow down here. I was amazed by the age of the headstones in the kirkyard, and even more amazed as I started to see names I recognized.

I came to Orkney for two reasons (reason two we'll get into tomorrow). I started diving into my ancestry a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, most of my ancestors were British, Irish, and Scottish. As I followed my family trees further and further back, I'd eventually get to a point where the line would start to peter out and I couldn't find any more information. Typically at these dead ends, it would be after confirming maybe a 5th great-grandfather, and his father, and his father and so on. The women were forgotten to history.

The exception to this is my 7th great grandmother - Elizabeth Heddle. Her granddaughter Margret would marry Thomas Milligan and they would make the journey across the ocean to Pennsylvania. Their 2nd great-granddaughter, Anne, would marry Francis Sheppard. Anne and Francis created a wonderful family that I am lucky enough to be a part of, as they were my great-grandparents. I was born Samantha Anne Sheppard, 255 years after Elizabeth Heddle.

Now, Elizabeth fascinates me because this line abruptly ends with her. I cannot find her parents, nor the definitive father of her son, James Irvine. After James's birth, she married John Irvine, where James got his last name.

I've taken to her for some reason because she is the enigma in my lineage. A woman who marks the end of what I can find of that ancestral line. I've found myself wondering about her so often, about what her story was, what her life was like.

Elizabeth spent her whole life on the tiny island of Shapinsay in the archipelago of Orkney.

That tiny island of Shapinsay sits 5 miles north of the St Magnus Kirkyard where I stood last year staring at a row of headstones bearing the names Heddle and Irvine.

I have loved digging through my ancestry. I love learning what stories of my ancestors that I can, and I like to fabricate stories for those I can't find enough about. I came to Orkney to see the place Elizabeth, and my ancestors, had called home.

I've never paid all that much attention to the headstones of my ancestors, I'd use them to confirm births and deaths online, but I've never sought them out. I didn't really think about the possibility of headstones being around from the late 1700s either. And I hadn't even known this church and graveyard existed until I drove into town.

I did not find my direct ancestors in that kirkyard. But I did find so many Irvines and Heddles, likely cousins and nieces and nephews to my 7th great-grandmother. That sense of homecoming felt stronger still.

This sense of homecoming... I'm familiar with it, but its not usually in a place, but with certain people. That feeling when I hug my grandmothers, when we crack jokes at family thanksgiving, memories of new years eves spent staying up till 11 to watch the ball drop, my brother's sly smile as he's about to get up to something, every phone call with my parents even when we're hundreds of miles apart. I feel it with my partner, and I feel it too now with my in-laws, that feeling of being welcomed and loved and wanted. It is that sense of love and peace and grounding with your people.

It was that sense of grounding that I was finding here. Coming home this time just to myself, to my truest roots, and in some ways to the roots of humankind itself.

But more on that tomorrow.


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