Yes, it’s been a long hiatus from journaling, and I’ve left many promises from previous posts unfulfilled. I have at least one excuse: we are very busy preparing our study abroad trip to Scotland – Again! Just as I intend to keep our promise to bring students to Scotland, I intend to keep the promises made in this journal: to search for the tentacles of my family’s global migration, to find living relatives and, from them, to go back and find out what I can talk about Peter Cromar and his origins – perhaps as a refugee from the Glencoe massacre – all of this being a part that speaks to the whole of the Scottish diaspora. My dream of understanding the family puzzle and fitting it into the greatest tapestry in history has often felt as elusive as our dream of taking students to Scotland in times of Covid.
The first three times (thrice!) we tried against all odds to make the promise of study abroad work, we were thwarted by the seemingly endless waves of the pandemic, teasing us with possible breakthroughs only to culminate with ever greater swells high. This experience echoes the embarrassing first shots I made at genealogy – a promising clue leading to a dead end that would be opened up by a teasing lead that would then be swallowed up by a black hole of myth or a dead end of data.
Yet I persisted in both efforts, and my two promises will merge into one next November. This time it’s for real.
Our last trip to Scotland with a group of students was in the Before Times. It was 2018, Donald Trump was our negligent mob leader of a president, and it wasn’t just a bit awkward to be an American overseas – although to be fair, we were in the UK, a democracy struggling with its own demons. Although I don’t remember it exactly as the “good old days”, we never thought about masks, let alone a second, and a future where plan ahead could be a real thing was not a laughable prospect. We had a lot of fun working with colleagues from University of Dundee and University of Abertayand left with the hope of a future collaboration.
So when Mary Modeen, Dean of Internationalization at the University of Dundee Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (my, what a title!), approached me in early 2019 with the aim of creating a formal partnership between our institutions, I knew we were up to something special. For our students, it could be a way to become global citizens and open professional opportunities, to dream big dreams and act on them. For me, it could be all of that, and something more personal – a way to connect more deeply with the small, rambling country I most identify with, even as Ancestry continues to adjust my Scottish DNA percentages from bottom up like a demented DNA stock market on a wild double helix roller coaster ride.
The idea that Mary and I concocted was a regular cycle of institutional interactions: alternating years visiting each other’s countries, interacting at conferences, organizing exhibitions, creating publications and developing an exchange program 1 to 1 for students to have a semester of experiences abroad. We would begin this cycle in 2020 with a visit to Scotland. I teamed up with Stephen Cohen, a brilliant professor of English at my university, to create an interdisciplinary collaboration between artists and writers that could generate multimedia stories that we could start in the UK. human being party, a national celebration of the humanities for which Dundee is a major hub. These were all college-level experiences that we were developing for undergraduates, and very exciting things indeed.
A fall 2020 launch was pushed back to spring 2021, which was delayed to fall 2021, which was delayed until we could cycle to now. Without these delays, we might be drying the ink on a memorandum of understanding that would cement a formal partnership. But here we are. I think I may still have enough lead to complete this project and look forward to several future visits in even years over the next decade until I am confident to pass the baton of a well-established program.
For now, the focus is not on this overview. We are rather bogged down in the details of the planning. Let’s take an example: I just fought (and won!) a battle with the travel agent to prevent our flight to Scotland from leaving JFK, presumably the worst airport in the world. We reverted, at no additional cost, to our original plan of flying from Newark, an airport which is not much betterbut at least one we won’t have to fight Manhattan rush hour traffic by private coach to arrive on time. What were these agents think? Putting out fires like this has become a list of details apparently endless like the line of mourners meandering through London in the hope of catching a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth’s coffin ahead of tomorrow’s funeral.
Still: it will all be worth it! A slideshow I have prepared for our students as a visual itinerary will give you a taste of our exciting journey:
Sharp-eyed readers of past publications will note that Tomnaverie Stone Circle and the Kirkton of Aboyne will grace the Aberdeenshire leg of our journey. We haven’t ventured further north than Stonehaven to visit Dunnottar so far, and you may remember my story of how a random Scotsman convinced me to check out Tomnaverie, the very discussion that eventually led to my family history study, as I discovered the ties my family had to this place. When I visit these places frequented by my great-grandfather Théodore in his youth, I will be the age he was when he died (and he died too young). There’s a certain poetic symmetry to that that I guess I can thank Covid for.
In fact, my birthday will be just 3 days before our stopover in Aberdeenshire. On my birthday, November 17, I will be lucky enough to attend a welcome dinner and ceilidh (KAY-lee) organized for our group by the University – another coincidence! The following night, a Friday which is free time, I plan to meet my distant cousin Louise Rankin and her family. Her husband Paul works for the publisher DC Thomson in Dundee, which has a relationship with the university, and we toyed with the idea of a human interest story that might involve coverage of our study abroad program. It’s a tangled web in a small world, isn’t it?
When we travel north to Aberdeenshire, we will do so with the help of another Scottish online acquaintance of mine, Veronica Ross, the chair of the Cromar History Group. She or one of her associates can meet us at Tomnaverie, and it will be great to have a local voice who really knows the site. She also got help from Kathy Ader, who helps us find parking near the Kirkton of Aboyne. I owe all those people mentioned above an email to start solidifying those plans!
As we get closer to our journey, I will divert this journal from its original mission so that I can record events as they happen. Journaling a trip like this is something I’ve never done and I’m really looking forward to it. Posts will be much shorter than my typical 2000-word rants, and photos will abound if time and circumstances permit. More soon!