It is different this time. Most notably there are new chairs in the sitting room of the cottage and there is wireless internet. The kitchen has a new cooker. The exchange rate is not as good as it was last year, and the temperature is lower. The sea is the same. Green in the sunlight, smoke blue in cloudshade. Gulls still use the wind to hover in place over the rocks that break the tide. The North Sea glitters with whitecaps. Kelp and shellfish darken the shore and pools of tidal life drown and surface twice daily with the ocean’s wet breathing.
Last time I was here, almost a year ago to the day, I was actively searching for Alexander Elrick in annals, microfiche films and the graveyards that surround this small sea/farm village. Alexander was the twin of James, who was the first of the Elricks to make the TransAtlantic crossing to Canada. After several years working in Buffalo and Toronto as a roof slater and tinsmith, James acquired the south half lot 5, concession 5 in Flos County, near Barrie, Ontario. His brothers George and William followed shortly after, as did James Sr. and the boys’ mother, Ellen. Alexander stayed behind in Rathven with his wife Ann, and worked out his days as a blacksmith, shoeing horses and building wheels for carts and wagons. He never followed his family, never left home. As I scanned the parish records and graveyard registries with the whirring company of the Buckie Library’s microfiche reader, what I was really looking for was an answer to the two-fold why? directed first at James and the rest of the family: why leave your home, your culture, your context – everything; and the secondary question to Alexander: why stay? There are enormous gaps between the records that branch from “The Elrick Family Tree,” gaps that can only be filled with imaginative inference through an understanding of the culture of the past. Did they farm in the hills or fish on the shore? Did they own their land or were they tenant farmers? What were the incentives of emigration? Bit by bit, I was able to collect enough local knowledge to put together a possible answer to those questions.
The first, why leave?, is perhaps the easier question to answer. Opportunity shines brightly when you are poor, as the Elricks of Rathven likely were. Many of the farms were owned by Lairds, and the hope of advancement was slim to none on the rocky, windswept soil of the Moray Coast. In 1888, £4 paid your passage from Glasgow to Halifax (if you wanted to go to Australia, passage was free). The promise of free land and the buzz of possibility that characterized the colonial period made the decision, for many Scots, a relatively easy one. Why the hell not? might have even be a better question at that point.
My question for Alexander was a much more personal one, and as such, it’s a matter of whimsy to find an answer. I like to think that he stayed because he was in love with Ann Shivlan and content in his blacksmith’s apron. Perhaps he was eager to carve an identity for himself apart from his ambitious twin brother, James, whose leaving was perhaps a break in the clouds. Maybe he was simply content with life as it stood and loved Scotland too much to leave it. When I did find him on the last day of my stay, it was a relief to sink onto the uneven soil in the cool shade of the simple, granite stone that marks his family’s bones, to rest on the one square metre of this country that I could rightly call home, and let these questions and their possible answers flutter through my mind.
This time, I am here with a different task: to dwell, to perceive, to record the specificity of this place and find the interstices where a heritage of sound, sight and texture may be mined from the locale. I have come to understand that home need not be inherited, it may be founded. That rights are inconsequential without direct experience. That home is a bodily apprehended concept. Last year, this place was mine only so far as I could trace my lineage. I only belonged on the soil between fresh air and the bones of Alexander; everywhere else was accessible to me only through the toy lens of the tourist experience. This time, I enter a place of past perceptions where I have a store of local knowledge and experience with the land and the people. The glitz of foreignness has worn off and left the place simply as it is, a small fisher/farmer village on the edge of the island, lodged between the dim past and the glittering North Sea. An end of the road for most, but a beginning of the road for me.