Return to Long Ago

A journey to her Scottish hometown makes a writer’s past come alive

| July-August 1997

The omens are equivocal. It is not actually raining, but as I choose my clothes at 7 a.m., Kirsty, still in her nightdress, comes into my room. “Margot,” she says, “why aren’t you married?” Why indeed, I think, skidding wildly down some long, dark alleyway into the past. “I forgot,” I say. “Should I wear my black jeans?” But Kirsty, a diligent questioner, is not so easily put aside. “Why did you forget?” she asks.

I am in Edinburgh, visiting Kirsty and her parents, and today is set aside to go to Glenalmond, the valley where I grew up. As I drive out of the city, I do my best to put aside Kirsty’s questions. Instead I ponder this mysterious business of a journey with its implied beginning and ending. But Glenalmond was not a place I ever journeyed to—it was the place I was, most fully and completely—and if I am to journey there now, I need a place to start. Where should I begin? I round a bend and suddenly the road unwinds before me in total familiarity. I am in Blackhall, an Edinburgh suburb, and the answer is obvious.

Just a few yards from the main road is 4 Craigcrook Place, the home of my redoubtable great aunts. The old heavy door has been replaced, but there is nothing newfangled, like a lock or an intercom, to bar my progress. Inside even the dustbins seem unchanged. The aunts’ flat was the outermost star in my childhood cosmography. We visited them twice a year, an immense journey for which my stepmother packed sandwiches and a thermos of tea. Now I whiz there along modern roads. An hour later I am entering Methven, the drab village where we came to catch the bus, post letters, buy treats. I stop at Lawson’s garage, where my father brought his cars, each more decrepit than the last, all called Henry. The man who sells me gas tells me that Mr. Lawson died shortly before Christmas. I tell him I am going to Glenalmond. “Oh, you’ll notice lots of changes,” he says. “All the big houses.” I imagine the valley filed with skyscrapers: Manhattan in Arcadia.

Opposite the post office I turn off for Glenalmond. The narrow road climbs steadily for four miles, and every bend and hummock is familiar. When I broach the final rise into the valley, my heart is racing, and I pull over. Gradually the tink-tink of the motor fades until I can distinguish the sounds we casually call silence: the wind in the fields, the hum of insects, the bird song. On the far side of the river a long line of hills fills the horizon. Looking from east to west, I see the slate quarries, the circular wood, and the dark, scree-covered slopes of Sma’Glen.

Until the age of eight I lived in Glenalmond, happily ignorant of the rest of the world. My life divides along several fault lines—the death of my mother when I was two and a half, going to an English university, falling in love with a Canadian—but leaving this valley that I knew tree by tree, stone by stone, remains in some ways the most irrevocable of these faults, something done to me for mysterious adult reasons that can never be undone or made whole again.

As I walk up Front Avenue and along the Main Road I notice in the well-kept grounds an unfamiliar presence: a Coke can under a bush, a candy wrapper caught in the grass. When I was growing up there was no litter—what would cause it? We had no soft drinks, sweets were doled out one by one, there were no leaflets, no junk mail. People unwrapped parcels carefully, smoothing out the paper to use again, coiling the string. I tut-tut under my breath.

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