reflections on the West Highland Line



I chose to suggest to my mother that we do the West Highland Line as I thought it would be a fun trip away and also my mother is very fond of trains. Our birthdays are both in September but really as a joint celebration due to my mother’s packed schedule and mine, October was the first date we could both make it together.

I owe my mother my love of landscape especially mountains. Growing up in South Africa instead of going to the beach like every other white family we took off to the Drakensburg Mountains where we stayed in basic self catering taking our food into the interior, walking up to ancient caves, marvelling at the most bejewelled insects. My father was a member of the South African Mountain Club when my mother met him at University. We were lucky when we got to Scotland in 1977 my grandmother remembered some connections from Roma University in Botswana who had returned to Scotland. So every summer we travelled to the west coast to spend our holidays on the Isle of Mull. In the unacknowledged but aching pain of exile the landscape soothed me.

I have an enormously complicated and difficult relationship with Scotland, some 15 years ago I spent a year making a documentary exploring some of these issues. It was painful, revelatory and I thought helped close a chapter. I learned to live with Scotland.

Then the referendum happened.

Now it has been made quite clear that I am will never be Scottish enough. And it isn’t just Scottish people who articulate this. So sitting in a train chugging through the Western Highlands a woman from Manchester yes Manchester. insisted that both my mother and I were not Scottish. ‘But yes’ she said ‘where are you really from?’ when I said that there were people with all different accents living in Scotland. ‘No; she insisted ‘Where are you really from’ ‘We’ve lived here for 37 years’ said my mother patiently. To no avail this (Black) woman would not allow us to belong to Scotland.

Oh how can I explain how odd how difficult this all is. My great Aunt Mary whom I’m named after is a founding member of the Scottish National Party which has effectively ensured there will never be a place for me in my adopted home. My mother’s family has an extraordinary long intertwined history with the arts and culture of Scotland though our ex family business, through relatives like this person but to no avail.

Meanwhile my mother reminisces about coming up the West Highland Railway as  a student at Edinburgh College of Art in the 1960’s to do VSO work building a road to some very remote crofts in Glenuig. Where we had some distant relatives who were crofters. Walking 25 minutes along from the station at Lochailort to pick up a boat.

  1. V interesting post. We moved to Cumbria when I was 5 and I only left there to go to university and then permanently after I graduated. My brother still lives there. I was definitely seen as an outsider in the early years, and as a family we actually suffered physical harrassment because my dad dared to stand for the parish council. My brother picked up the accent but I have unintentionally remained ‘posh’ (as I was once described). So I am not a Cumbrian but nor do I belong to Hampshire, where I was born, because we weren’t there for very long, moving to Staffordshire, so I have no memory of Hampshire.

    I am a quarter Welsh. On my dad’s side he doesn’t know who is dad is, so we don’t know where that quarter of me comes from. There is rumour of Irish blood on his mum’s side. My mum grew up in Birmingham but dad moved around the country a lot as a child.

    I have long felt I have no roots and in recent years have realised I need to create my own sense of belonging. Belonging and ‘where are you from’ is a complex thing. It is not only different skin colour that attracts racism.

  2. I’ve been here since 1990. I’ve never felt Scottish, but always like I belonged. The referendum was the first time I felt uncomfortable, awkward about my identity. It’s difficult.

    Then again – the west highlands is the only place I ever truly feel at home.

    I hope things settle. Thanks for the rainy reflections.

  3. Don’t let some daft lady from Manchester say who you are. You are what you want to be and Scotland is very lucky to have you x

  4. Katy said:

    Someone will always be ‘more x’ than you, the challenge is deciding whether or not you want it to bother you and how it changes how you live.

    You can define your nationality by birth, habitation, activism, culture and thousands of other things. How do you want to define it?

  5. mango lassie said:

    Thanks for writing this post, about such a very interesting topic. This post has struck a chord with me, but for different reasons. I was born and raised in Scotland, but now that I live abroad and my accent goes in and out (I don’t have a very broad accent) people often disregard and/or deny my Scottish identity. Depending on how and when and from who, this can really irk or hurt me. But most of the time – and as Charlotte rightly advised – I don’t let daft people like that woman from Manchester question or deny who I am. Scotland welcomes and indeed needs more creative, progressive people like you 🙂

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