When I first traveled to Scotland, I was not searching for a particularly meaningful or authentic trip. I wanted to sight-see, visit tourist traps, and bring back souvenirs. I was excited to travel outside of the United States for the first time, and I was even more excited to be able to drink at a pub at the age of 19. I understood that learning about and experiencing history went hand-in-hand with visiting Scotland. After all, how many U.S. Cities harbor roughly thousand-year-old castles? But I was not prepared to learn about my personal connection and historical ties to this country and its people.
My last name is Gordon, and until traveling to Scotland, I had never thought too much about the name or its origins. I just knew that it was simple to spell, easy to say, and that when lining up in alphabetical order in school, I was closer to the front. I knew that my family was Scots-Irish as are many people who live in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains. But after traveling to the land of lochs, I learned just how close my connection was.
I first decided to visit Scotland because Laura, a Scottish friend I made while she was studying abroad in North Carolina, offered to let me stay with her. Laura lives and works in Edinburgh, a gorgeous city where the modern section is separated from the historical section by a castle. While Laura worked during the day, I toured the Edinburgh Castle, hiked the Royal Mile, and photographed the U.N. Building. I also went to Scottish shops, heard Celtic music, and bought Gaelic things. But while in one shop, something caught my eye and made me stop. It was a pewter shield that read “Gordon.” I felt a jolt of happiness at seeing my surname so far from home and in such a regal manner, so I began to search the city for more traces of my family name.
Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is a gray, stone street that is roughly one “Scots mile” or about 2,000 yards long. Connecting the Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Abbey, two of the city’s popular tourists destinations, the street houses many tourist shops that sell clan kilts, tartans, crests, and books. I knew that if I wanted to find about more about the Gordon Clan, this was where I needed to be. The first thing I found was the Gordon tartan, a scarf woven with hunter green, navy blue, and golden yellow wool. Tartans have been worn by Scottish clans for hundreds of years to represent the clan’s name and area of origin. I learned from my family tartan that the Gordon Clan originated from the northeast region near Aberdeen. The next item of the Gordon Clan I found in Edinburgh was the Gordon crest. On each crest is the motto, “Bydand,” which is derived from a Scottish phrase that means to stand and fight. I learned that the Gordon Clan was a strong supporter of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in the Wars of Scottish Independence. The last and arguably most valuable piece of Clan Gordon was a book I still have to this day. The book is a collection of the clan’s history, its noteworthy members, and its trademark symbols, all which have been the same for hundreds of years.
Though the Gordon Clan has had many positive historical contributions and respectable characteristics such as strength and loyalty, it has its faults as well. The Scottish are rather infamous for fighting. If they have a common enemy, this habit tends to work in their favor, but if Scots do not have a common foe to fight, they have been known to just fight each other. Clans warred against one another over land, livestock, and pride, and the Gordon Clan is no exception. The Gordons most frequently feuded with Clan Murray and Clan Mackintosh. One of Scotland’s most famous ‘blood feuds’ was between the Gordon Clan and the Murray Clan and lasted over three generations. This stubborn feuding still exists in my family today as half of them refuse to speak to one another because of disputes over land or some other medieval issue. Seems that old habits are hard to break for this clan. I am just glad that our conflicts resort to a strict “no speaking” policy instead of the bloodier “Hatfield-McCoy” approach.
For the Gordons who are still on good terms, there is a “Gordon Reunion” held each December in Chestnut Grove, North Carolina. It is not as much a historical event as a social one, and one that I have been enthusiastically attending since I was a child. Though I do have relatives who are around my age, they rarely come, and the reunion grows smaller each year. Inspired by my travels to our clan’s homeland, I volunteered to organize this year’s reunion, and I plan on including pieces of Gordon history and heritage that I learned in Scotland to hopefully spark the curiosity of family members and strengthen their interest in the Gordon Clan.
After traveling to Scotland, I understand why many Scots settled in the mountains of North Carolina. With rolling hills, thick forests, and winding rivers, the Appalachian Mountains are reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, and it is fabled that when the first Scotch-Irish settlers arrived, they looked over the land and said, “This is home.” I have done a bit of traveling and more than once felt the sting of homesickness, but never once was I homesick in Scotland. I traveled to Scotland to explore, discover, and learn about the country, but I serendipitously got to explore, discover, and learn about my heritage.