She wandered far away, did not return for many a day, then came home to a Scotland bristling with a vibrancy surpassing her fondest memories of the enchanted land of her birth.
Her former countrymen and women more excited about their future than we’d ever witnessed during visits over the past four decades, even though their latest bid for independence from England was defeated in a historic Sept. 18 vote that attracted an astounding nationwide turnout of nearly 85 percent, including 16- and 17-year-olds.
My wife, the former Sandra Dunsmuir, a coal miner’s daughter from Lugar, Cumnock, Scotland, died at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on June 25, nearly 50 years after she left home to see the world. She never got any further than the United States, her first stop, mostly because of me. We met in New York in 1966 and married six months later. We moved to Michigan, back to New York, the Virginia suburbs of Washington and finally to the Atlanta area. Our life was an adventure and we raised a family that made us proud — two sons and two daughters, now grown, our daughters raising families of their own.
Sandra’s death wish, discussed at length with our first-born, Bill, was to have her ashes scattered at the “The Black Rocks” — a scenic swimming hole that had been a popular family picnic destination for generations. And we were able to comply. It’s a hearty walk from her old home. We trudged alongside a winding, churning stream that led to a clump of marshy grass facing a jagged wall of black rock jutting skyward toward a closed-down railway viaduct. It hasn’t changed much in all these years, and we were lucky to be gathering under mostly sunny skies that kept temperatures mild for September in Scotland.
Son Bill presided, thanking members of Sandra’s family — a brother in-law, nephew, four nieces, their spouses and children — for “welcoming my mother back to Scotland,” a place she considered sacred, “a part of her soul.”
“She always told us, as kids, ‘Remember where you came from.’ And I’m here to tell you, she remembered where she came from.”
He told of her accomplishments in America, a legacy of generosity and honesty in her personal relationships and in her eight-year tenure as a city commissioner in Avondale Estates, the small town outside Atlanta where we settled in 1985. And he described their poignant bonding on a trip home more than 15 years ago when his mother took him on “The Walk” from the Black Rocks to her other favorite childhood haunts and told him the story of her early life in conversations he tape-recorded.
Our daugher Rachel and her husband Brad also were on hand, as was Bill’s longtime partner Charlene. Sandra’s sister Jean, the only surviving sibling, joined us later.
After his remarks, Bill emptied his mother’s urn into the dark, gurgling waters and the rest of us each tossed in a rose. Her ashes, white and plentiful, lingered, clinging to stones just below the surface as minnows scurried by.
“Fifty years ago, she was in here swimming and now she’s back here swimming for one last time,” said her niece Catherine, who had remembered Sandra in a condolence note as “the red-headed fun auntie … a fierce and firey, passionate, singing, laughing Scottish lassie.”
Catherine, married with a grown daughter of her own, was a wee lassie when Sandra and I first visited Scotland together in 1970. To me, it was an utterly charming country steeped in its rich and colorful history.
That’s still the case, but the election held just days after we scattered Sandra’s ashes showed just how much the country is laser focused on its future. The ballot made it simple, asking: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” You could answer yes or no.
The banners we saw plastered just about everywhere — from fences and roadsides to rooftops and mountainsides — were just as simple: “Yes” (not Vote Yes, just Yes) and “No Thanks.” The “Yes” banners were much more prominent, so it was a bit shocking that the “No Thanks” folks won by 10 percentage points — a victory margin more than twice as large as the pre-voting polls predicted.
But observers such as acclaimed Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh felt that the independence cause emerged from the election stronger than ever — into “a righteous, vibrant, big-tent pro-democracy movement,” as he wrote in The Guardian newspaper based in London.
“The referendum galvanized and excited Scots in a way no U.K.-wide election has done,” he said, calling it “their finest hour.”
Families were split, but mostly in amiable fashion. Those opposing independence kept mostly quiet, or just kept you guessing. We stayed with my niece Caren and her husband Ian for most of our visit and they made no secret of their pro-independence sentiments. I asked Caren’s father, retired coal miner and lorry driver Willie Black, how he planned to vote. “I’m undecided,” he said just a couple of days before the election, his eyes all a-twinkle. “But I can tell you one thing — I’m not voting yes.”
Caren’s politics hadn’t changed much since the first time we met when she too was still a wee lass. On a drive in her father’s caravan one day, she told me we were on the road to England. I asked her, “What’s England.?” Her response: “Oh, that’s a part of Scotland.”
The Scottish spirit is everywhere apparent. Places with names like “Wallacetown,” in honor of the legendary Scottish independence fighter William Wallace. And castles, such as one whose ruins I visited in the breathtaking Scottish Highlands built by order of Robert The Bruce, who became King of the Scots a year after Wallace’s execution by the English, as a fortress against invasion by sea.
Caren and Ian live in a riverside flat converted from an 18th Century mill in the southern coastal city of Alloway, birthplace of iconic poet Robert Burns, the revered “Bard of Scotland,” a rabble-rouser in his own right. They are just a short walk away from the centuries-old arched Brig O’ Doon, a popular tourist attraction, and a hotel where bagpipers perform at weekend weddings.
We drove by one day as they were playing “A Scottish Soldier,” a rousing folk song Sandra enjoyed singing during the early days of our courtship about a Scottish soldier who had “wandered far away and soldiered far away” and “seen the glory” but whose “heart was crying” as he was dying and yearning to return to the hills of his homeland.
Sandra often sang Scottish songs at social events. Her favorite was a beautiful, early 1900s ballad she never tired of — “The Road to Dundee,” referencing the city with the highest percentage “Yes” vote majority in the recent election. Though she died an American citizen, I’ve no doubt where Sandra’s heart would have been on that question.
She remembered where she came from. And, like the Scottish soldier, she returned.
The writer retired from CNN last fall after 30 years as an editor, writer and senior executive producer.