Commentary

Searching for meaning in Scotland

Trip turns into a quest to find a forgotten piece of family history

Updated: July 18, 2013, 9:10 AM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

INVERNESS, Scotland -- My mother's maiden name is McKenzie. The summer after she graduated from college, in 1969, her parents took her to Scotland to see what the family had left behind before starting its journey toward the fertile Mississippi Delta farmland. Her father, William Wallace McKenzie, had never been before either. In a generation, his family had dropped the 'a' from its name and picked up a drawl, but he'd never lost his fascination with Scotland. For decades, he had exchanged letters with his cousin, May Rose MacKenzie. Now they would finally meet. She was pushing 90, and he had been diagnosed with cancer.

The taxi turned onto a quiet, nice street in Inverness, stopping at a two-story house made of stone. May Rose served salmon and asparagus, then they piled into the family's old car and followed the narrow streets to the outskirts of town. They parked in a cemetery, spread out on a wide hill, full of trees and cold stone markers. May Rose led my mom and her parents up and around, taking them to the family plot.

Everyone returned to the house. May Rose disappeared and returned clutching a small package, wrapped neatly in plain brown paper and tied up carefully with string. Tears formed in her eyes when she handed it over, telling my grandfather that these were her family photographs. Everyone but her had died, buried in the cemetery they just left. She was the last member of the immediate family in Scotland, and she could not bear the thought of her pictures sold at an estate sale, becoming faces without names, their stories forgotten. There was a man in uniform, the smiles of her mother's wedding day and a beautiful portrait of May Rose as a little girl. My mother and her family accepted the gift, understanding what it meant, and vowed to never let those people fade away. The photographs hung in the house throughout my childhood.

In spring, with a trip to Scotland approaching, I asked my mom about that cemetery she visited long ago. Too many years had passed. She couldn't remember where May Rose had taken them. She didn't know the name, the location or even when May Rose had died. She was a young woman then and didn't ask enough questions or take good notes, and now she kicked herself, as if some piece of our family had been lost to time. I started digging around.

I wanted to find May Rose MacKenzie's grave.


We left the Muirfield clubhouse and headed toward the Scottish Highlands, me, a director named Tim Horgan and an artistic-minded photographer named Kaline Schounce. We had been sent to film and write about Scotland itself, to bring the country and its people alive for the Open Championship viewers, many of whom would never set foot there themselves. Sense-of-place essays, that's what they're called, and they're supposed to make the event feel rooted in its home, which is why sports matter so much to many people. Following a team, or ritually watching a tournament, is about identity, about remembering the people who introduced you to the game, about finding something of yourself reflected on the field of play.

For the past decade, I've yet to miss a Masters, and to be honest, I work hard to find reasons to go, coming up with stories or blog posts or television pieces that air during our broadcast. The tournament reminds me of my late father. I've written about this, on various platforms, since before my dad died, because the week of the Masters was a bonding experience, tying us together even as I grew further and further away from home. This year, leaving Augusta, I realized that the things I wanted to find every spring in Georgia weren't there. I'm not sure if I'll go again, because the feeling I seek at Augusta National doesn't exist among the manicured green fairways and in the long stands of pines. Going to a golf tournament doesn't make my father any less dead. Yet I still end up there searching, year after year. Maybe I'll find my way back in the spring, and even if I watch it on television, I'll be thinking about him. That's what I treasure about sports.

The other side of my family is proudly Scottish. My brother is named after my grandfather: William McKenzie Thompson. When I was in high school and my grandmother noticed the first signs of Alzheimer's, she took the family on a trip much like the one my mom took after she graduated from college. I love watching the Open Championship when it's held in Scotland, because it evokes that vacation, my grandmother and the memory of all of us together. It gives me a window into my family's past.

I grew up looking at the strange faces in May Rose's photographs, trying to imagine the lives of the people in them. The story of that family trip to visit the graves was repeated again and again. I can tell it from memory: Cancer ate away at my grandfather in Scotland, but he willed himself to stay alive and finally see his roots. Tumors broke his leg on the plane ride home, and in Memphis, Tenn., an ambulance took him straight to the hospital. He died three months later.

Soon after, my mother met my father, and not much after that, they sent out wedding invitations. Almost as a courtesy, they mailed one to that two-story stone house in Inverness. To everyone's surprise, May Rose replied yes. She was in her 80s and had never been to the United States. She brought gifts for everyone. To my mother, she presented a necklace and a bracelet made of Scottish stones. She smuggled heather into the country, so a piece of Scotland would be at the ceremony. That meant the world to my mom.

We're proud of being Scottish. We keep our family tartan. Bagpipes played as my wife and I left the church on our wedding day. When I look at the things that make the south so special, many of them arrived encoded in the DNA of Scottish, and Scots-Irish, immigrants, including hunting birds, making whiskey and golf.

The Open Championship has a similar hold on both the golfers who travel to play it and the people who get up early to watch it. It goes deeper than just being drawn to the history of golf, I think. Almost all Americans are from somewhere else, whether they themselves immigrated or whether someone six generations ago did. In a world where nothing stays the same, the Open exists as a rebuke to that, held year after year on the same courses, in towns that look the same as they did when our ancestors got into boats and set sail. A hundred years ago, everything about my family was Scottish, and now all that's left are some blankets, a last name that is disappearing and, every few years, four days in the summer when Scotland is beamed directly into my house.


There's a spot on the northern coast that I'll never be able to find again. Tim, Kaline and I saw it in the distance, parking on the side of a narrow county road, shaded by a canopy of trees. The path up the hill was steep, through the woods, and then the land opened up. A 1,000-year-old crumbling castle crowned a hill overlooking the beach and the dark waters of the North Sea. The crew set up the cameras, working on cool time lapses of the red walls and the shell of an inner keep. I stretched out on the green hill and let the sun warm my face. Dogs played in the water below, running through the sand. In the middle distance, hidden by scrub, was an old World War II bunker, eight-sided with gun ports in every direction, designed to stop a German invasion. A castle and a bunker, both abandoned, both built out of the same material for the same purpose, a thousand years apart.

A family laughed, and the wind carried their voices up to my patch of grass. With time to waste, I pulled out my notebook and tried to work out exactly what I expected to find at May Rose's grave. Nothing is missing from my life. I love my job and my wife and my family, the aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides. But still, I find myself longing to hold on to heirlooms and stories about my father and to nurture and grow my family's connection to Scotland. It doesn't make much sense, logically, but the desire remains real. Before he died, my dad became obsessed with completing a family genealogy. I never understood why he spent so much time doing that. I still don't, but I find myself with the same urges, wanting to make sure nothing about our past is forgotten. Maybe it's the sense of mortality that every person wakes up one day and feels, and maybe it's a karmic down payment, a prayer that some future generation will do the same for me.

I didn't want to leave that grassy bed. The wind blew at a higher pitch than the crash of the breakers, and in a man's yard, a St. Andrews Cross stood out straight in the rising gale. Birds lived in the thistle of an old castle that once was new, and I pulled myself up from the ground and headed back to the shaded road below.


Tim rented a haunted castle in the moors outside Inverness, the town where my family once lived. He refused to sleep in the room where the Highland warriors supposedly come to torment anyone who disturbs his slumber. We sent Kaline there instead. I took the room closest to the big drawing room with the crackling fireplace, giving myself the shortest post-single malt stumble. The castle rose stark in the empty land on the edge of the Moray Firth, cold and alone, except for the ghosts of the soldiers killed and tortured during one of Scotland's many wars. The written history of Castle Stuart said locals believe "there is no peace in that house."

I'm not sure whether I believe in ghosts.

I do think that there is a shadow world all around us, but I'm not sure whether it's real or whether it is created by our memories. The main reason to believe in ghosts is to believe we will see again the people, and things, that have been taken from us. I want to feel at home on the moors, which are dark and full of strange noises. Sitting before the stone hearth, watching the flames, I don't know why that is, but I think the same construct that governs ghosts applies. I want to believe there is something in me that belongs in Scotland, just like people at séances need to believe a wife or a husband or a son is just on the other side of a vision.

Earlier today, driving north through the Highlands, we stopped at the Oban distillery to film what can only be described as scotch porn.

While we shot, I met a guy named Teddy MacLean who worked there. He's been at Oban for 24 years. His father, also named Teddy, worked there for 38 years and stayed on to teach his son the tricks of the copper pots. After a year working together, Teddy Senior retired -- forced into retirement at age 65. He sat at home, miserable, and got the distillery to hire him back part-time as a janitor, sweeping the floors of the old stone building.

Not long ago, Teddy was looking at a 28-year-old bottle of Oban, and it hit him: He had nothing to do with that bottle, but his father did. He thinks about his dad all the time, the way all sons do, but the only place he's ever felt his dad's presence is in the main distilling room. One night, alone, he heard strange groans coming from the two big copper pots. Something sounded broken. Then he heard a voice, his father's, explaining what was wrong with the still. When the voice went silent, Teddy cried out, "Wait, Dad!" and started walking toward the voice. He never felt afraid. Quickly, and with confidence, he went right to the place his father had told him to go, finding the problem and fixing it. He knows the story is foolish, yet he believes it, and there's no real way to know if his father actually haunts the Oban distillery or if Teddy just misses him so much that he longs to be haunted.

In many ways, the two are the same thing.


[+] EnlargeThompson cemetery
Wright ThompsonThe MacKenzie marker, including May Rose.

The next morning, we parked the van in an Inverness cemetery. The local records department took the information I collected from my mom and, after searching, told me that May Rose MacKenzie had died three years after my parents' wedding, buried in the same plot where she had taken my mom that afternoon.

The air blew cold, the wind cutting through my jacket. Fellow mourners held tight to their hats. A woman on the phone had given me directions to May Rose, in a section of the cemetery no longer used. She sounded apologetic when she said I should be careful, because the groundskeepers don't pay much attention any longer to the old, forgotten back acres of graves. Side-stepping down a steep hill, I searched the faded stones for a familiar name. Row after row, methodical, knowing it had to be there somewhere. A Celtic Cross, more elaborate than the other graves, caught my attention, and I worked my way down.

Then I saw it.

May Rose MacKenzie, who died in March 1973, was buried next to her parents and brothers. Moss and peat grew on the lower ridge of her headstone, and the ground beneath the stone was eroded. Nobody had visited in years. Sadness swelled within me. I called my mother and read her the names, all of which have found their way to our family in America: Duncan, William, Donald. One of them had been a doctor. The cross that brought me down the hill, for reasons I still don't understand, belonged to my grandfather's great-uncle.

My eyes welled up, and the guys on the crew sensed my emotions, leaving me alone to say goodbye. I thought about what people seek and what they leave behind. Whatever feelings I imagined would be conjured by closing the circle on May Rose gave way to an overwhelming sense of emptiness. Standing in this cemetery didn't make me feel connected in the way I hoped, just as visiting a golf course in Georgia cannot bring my father back to life. My search would continue, looking for pieces of a family and of myself. I knew I'd still tune in to a golf tournament early on a July morning, settling into a couch across the ocean, wanting something that lives just outside my grasp.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

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