When people first hear about my obsession with all things Scottish, especially Scottish folk music, the questions they usually ask are, "Is your ancestry Scottish?" or "Do you have friends/family in Scotland?", and "Do you play an instrument/sing?" My answers are "No" and "No, I'm just a very enthusiastic audience member." Depending on how strangely they look at me, I either move on, or tell them some variation of the following story.
I have a couple in my practice--the wife is Scottish and the husband is English but lived in Scotland for many years. In 2005, I happened to see them a few times in the early spring, and they mentioned that a festival they were involved with, the Houston Highland Games, was coming up in May. I put the date in the back of my mind, but didn't have any firm plans to attend. Then, coincidentally, my father was given tickets to an event put on by St. Thomas Episcopal School, an evening of bagpipes and Highland dancing. He couldn't go, so he gave the tickets to me. I went, and as I was leaving after the show, who did I see but my patient, in a kilt, handing out fliers advertising the Houston Highland Games. It seemed that the universe really wanted me to go to this festival. So, on a Saturday in May, my mother and I went to the festival. I sampled canned haggis (I don't recommend it), watched a demonstration of Scottish Country Dancing (and thought, incorrectly, that I would enjoy it--I wound up taking lessons that fall and did not like it at all), and listened to a few musical groups. It was late May in Houston, so of course it was really hot, and as it happened the stage where many of the performers were playing was the only air-conditioned part of the venue. So, my mom and I figured we'd just stay there for a while. One of the singers was Ed Miller, who is a Scottish folk singer originally from Edinburgh, now living in Austin. He does a funny song called Cholesterol (here's a version, although not Ed's), about the terrible Scottish diet. My patients were in the audience, and requested the song for me (doctor, cholesterol, get it?) After the set, I said hi to Ed, bought his Lowlander CD (which has Cholesterol, as well as another fantastic song, Prince of Darkness, on it), and took a brochure about a Folksong Tour of Scotland that he does every summer. Over the next day or two, I could not stop thinking about the tour. And, despite knowing pretty much nothing about Scotland and even less than that about Scottish folk music, I decided I wanted to go the following summer. After checking with my patients to make sure Ed wasn't an ax murderer (he's not), and emailing Ed himself to ask for references from prior tour participants (he told me later I was the only person, at least up to that point, who had ever asked him for references), I sent in my deposit, and eventually my entire payment, and started looking forward to my vacation, which was to be in June 2006.
And then, in March 2006, my dog was diagnosed with cancer.
I couldn't let myself be excited about the trip anymore, because I didn't know if I was going. I didn't know what was going to happen to Richard (the most wonderful chocolate lab in the world)--whether he would be well enough for me to go on vacation, or whether he would even still be alive in June. I was quite stressed about Richard's illness, obviously, but I was also really stressed about the trip--was I going or was I not going, and when did I have to decide? At some point during this period my sister said something that I thought was quite brilliant. She said that I didn't have to decide not to go; if the day of the trip came and I didn't want to go, then I just wouldn't go. That sounds pretty straightforward but it actually took a huge weight off my shoulders, because suddenly I realized I didn't need to stress over the decision, because there wasn't a decision that needed to be made. So I settled in to the routine of taking my dog to the vet and giving him a regimen of medications, and, since he was actually doing pretty well, I allowed myself to start looking forward to the trip again. I made plans for him to stay with my parents while I was away, and wrote out an extensive schedule of vet appointments and medication times. Then I packed.
And then, two days before I was supposed to leave, my grandmother died.
She was almost 98, so it wasn't terribly unexpected, but it did sort of throw a monkey wrench into things. She lived in Montreal, which was where her funeral was going to be. So I had two problems. First, I really wanted to go on my trip, which meant missing my grandmother's funeral, and I felt guilty about that. Second, if I did go on the trip (or even if I went to the funeral), I'd have to figure out something to do with Richard for a few days, because I had planned for him to stay with my parents and I didn't have a back-up plan for if they weren't available (I couldn't in good conscience board a sick dog, who needed special attention and medication and a weekly trip to the vet, at just a regular kennel.) Anyway, that all got worked out, rather speedily, and on a Saturday morning in June, I jetted off to Glasgow.
The tour was PHENOMENAL. I have never been entirely sure if it was the music or the people or the place, or the combination, but on about the second or third day, I had this very distinct feeling of "this is where I'm meant to be", which was odd, because up to that point it wasn't like I had felt that anything was missing in my life or that I was longing for something. But I knew even then, early in that first trip, that I would go back to Scotland, and that it would be on Ed's tour again--and I have been back, four times, all on the same tour (the itinerary does change somewhat.)
Fast forward several months, and I went to a house concert where Ed was performing, and then a festival where he was performing, and then other festivals. I started out specifically going to see Ed, and just filled in the time when he wasn't performing by going to other acts, but I gradually realized that the other performers were really good too, and soon I started looking forward to seeing other groups almost as much as going to Ed's sets. I also bought a large number of Scottish folk CDs (from time to time I had to force myself to go on a CD-buying hiatus, because it was getting really expensive), and found a Scottish folk music radio show (which gave me a tiny bit of international celebrity!) And, almost eight years after that first fateful trip to the Houston Highland Games (which will be April 27th and 28th this year), here I am, an obsessed but fairly harmless fan of Scotland, Scottish folk music, and recently, by extension, some Irish folk and traditional music as well. I have found my passion.
At the end of Ed's tours, there is always a little talent show, where the tour members can perform a song or a skit or whatever. Each year, I've written a song and performed it. The second time I went on the tour, I wrote and performed the following song, to the tune of The Wild Geese. I think it pretty much says everything I've just said in this blog post, but in fewer words and with a pretty melody.
The first time I went on Ed's tour was mostly on a whim
A highland games, a cool brochure, big check made out to him
And though I have no Scottish blood, I felt like I'd come home
And knew that I'd be back again as soon as I could come
And back home in the Lone Star State conversations seemed to start
With something I did on my trip, or a song I knew by heart
I know I bugged family and friends, but they kindly indulged me
And sometimes even listened when I played them Ed's CDs
And over time I came to know of Scottish fests and games
Bought CDs there and online too, and spent a chunk of change
And any lingering doubts I had about my obsession
Disappeared when I woke at 3 AM to drive to Arlington
So now I've come full circle and I'm back here once again
A different trip in many ways, but some things are the same
The songs and stories from this place will be with me quite a while
For it took three decades, but at last, I am a Scotophile