I had my post on unicorns all written, but that was before I went off to Ayr, Scotland, yesterday to find some trace of my roots. All I had to go on was the memory of my dad’s stories of being sent off to Scotland from South Africa as an eleven-year-old to attend Ayr Academy. This was way back in 1921, which meant he had to go by boat. By himself. That’s all I knew.
I thought about this as my friend Joan and I took the three-hour train journey from Penrith, Cumbria to Ayr. For the millionth time, I wondered where all my parents’ official documents had disappeared to. After my mother’s death (five years after my father’s), everything got lost. It’s a long story. Suffice to say, I’d always wanted to visit Scotland, which my dad said was heartbreakingly beautiful. So when I made plans to visit Joan, I also made an appointment to check the archives in Ayr to see if I could find some mention of my father, or even perhaps the address of the relatives with whom he would’ve stayed while attending school. I also hoped to find mention of my grandfather who, along with my grandmother emigrated to Bloemfontein, South Africa around the turn of the century. All I remember about my grandfather was that he was the town engineer, and possibly the mayor of Bloemfontein. The other thing I remember was there was bad blood between my grandmother and my mother. Other than that, I have no memory of them. They died when I was six.
After arriving in Ayr, we found our way to the archives, a cavernous room up dark wooden stairs bordered by stained class windows. The only mention of my father was in a child-sized book covered in paper with 1921 to 1922 written in quill and ink across the top. John Archibald McCartney, born 25.8.1910, home address, South Africa. That’s it. No details and no local address. I ran my fingers over the entry. My eleven-year-old dad on file at the famous Ayr Academy. It was like reaching into the past, reconnecting with him after all these years. Not as the man who spoiled me, who told me I could always go home, no matter my age: my hero, who took charge of everything. Instead, here was a scared little boy sent to relatives he’d never met, who had to endure brutal rituals inflicted on new boys, loneliness, and freezing winters (after a life spent in tropical Africa). Here was a side of my dad I had never known before. I felt his vulnerability and my heart went out to him through the years.
I scoured school annuals and other documents but there wasn’t any other mention of my dad. However, there was a clue, a remote clue, that his father’s name was James, which is also my dad’s brother’s name. We left the Archives for Ayr Library where another search ensued, this time for a James McCartney, who I knew had two other brothers. Unfortunately I didn’t find anything, but vowed to do more searching online, which would now be available to me after my personal appearance at the library. It was time to leave. We made our way to the train station, me, with a copy of the page listing my father’s entry into Ayr and a lilt in my heart. I’d had a visit with my dear father. There would be more. I vowed to return, but this time to roam the highlands as he had, and maybe I would have a chance encounter with a McCartney from my line of ancestors.After Joan took a photo of me in front of Ayr Academy, we headed for Glasgow to have tea in one of the many Willows Tea Rooms, showcases for the work of one of Scotland’s foremost artists and architects, Rennie McIntosh, who is recognized as the leading figure in Scottish Art Nouveau and Scottish Arts and Craft where I had haggis, a dish my father never recovered from. I however, loved the stuff.
On our way out I saw the Royal coat of arms of the Kingdom of Scotland and the United Kingdom: two unicorns support the Scottish arms; a lion and a unicorn support the UK arms, representing the 1707 Union of England (whose traditional heraldic symbol is the lion) and Scotland. As a result of its heraldic use, two gold coins were issued in Scotland known as the unicorn and half-unicorn, both with a unicorn on the obverse. There! There’s my unicorn in the title of this blog.