Photo: Martina Cross
To subdue us Sinclairs, the Campbells dropped a cask of whisky in the creek,” says my second cousin. “The Sinclairs fished it out, and the party began.
My family tree is not lush and bountiful like those of my Italian friends. Instead, its branches have been savagely pruned, sometimes entire limbs sheared off by the Darwinian forces at play in Scotland’s far north. Whisky production and fishing used to be the main forms of livelihood here; those who didn’t succumb to the sea were liable to drink themselves into oblivion. In this desolate part of the world, Julie and I begin our journey.
We reach Castletown in the county of Caithness with two gaily painted rowboats strapped to the roof of our rental van. A village of about 3,000, Castletown is surrounded by rocky moor, a few stunted trees and pastureland. Swollen steel-grey waves collapse onto the jagged shore next to the village, and a wind whips through the streets, lifting dust and rattling windows.
We check into the town’s only hotel, a Victorian stone building. “Sinclair?” the proprietor says, noting my middle name in my passport. “I have a good friend, Peter Sinclair, in Keiss.” Of course, that’s how it is in these tightly knit communities. Sinclair is my grandmother’s maiden name, and Peter Sinclair is my second cousin.
Even though my mother and father were born in Edinburgh and Glasgow, respectively, their roots lie here. My paternal grandfather, descended from a line of shipbuilders and fishermen, lived in Castletown, while my maternal grandfather comes from Wick, a coastal village 20 kilometres away. Between these two communities, in the tiny oceanside hamlet of Keiss, reside the last of my known relatives in this region. And this evening, my mother’s cousin, Helen, her son, Peter, and his wife and children make the trip from Keiss to meet Julie and me in the cozy hotel pub.
Helen is kindly and rotund, while Peter, in his mid-40s, has the robust build that comes from years of lobster fishing in open boats. Over drams of whisky, the stories begin to flow.
Photo: Julie Angus
“You’ve probably noticed there’s a disproportionate number of Sinclairs in the ground to the ones alive today,” Peter says, gesturing north toward the cemetery. “Aye, there were many scrapping clans around here, and we didn’t always fare so well in battle. The last clan war involving our family took place over 100 years ago with the Campbells.” The waiter pauses tableside, eager to hear the rest of the story.
“They had a cunning plan to subdue us Sinclairs. A cask of whisky was dropped in the burn [creek] above our village. Of course, the Sinclairs fished it out, thinking it was a gift from the gods. The party began, the whisky was drunk and, well, that’s when the Campbells arrived. Only those already felled by the drink were spared. Saved by the whisky!” Peter laughs and raises his glass. Only a Scotsman could draw this moral from a story where heavy drinking leads to the decimation of a family.
Our stay in Caithness ends too quickly. We tow our boats behind our bikes to the Caledonian Canal near Inverness and begin rowing. As we struggle through Scottish gales, Germany and Syria seem impossibly distant, and I can’t help but marvel at the intricate paths that led to our serendipitous meeting in Vancouver. From Scotland’s west coast, we travel along lochs, rivers, coastlines and country roads to Dover. We row across the English Channel and continue on through France.
Photo: Colin Angus
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Colin say, “It’s because I’m Scottish.” He credits his Highland heritage for everything from his partiality to cold nights in a tent to his knack for fixing things I would have long forsaken. After rowing through driving rain on Loch Ness and sleeping on barren moorland abandoned by just about all except for sheep farmers and midges, I can understand why.
I don’t know if trundling through Bavarian forests or sampling bratwurst will give me a better undersanding of my maternal roots, but I’m willing to try.
As for me, I’m less thoroughbred and more, well, mutt. Half German, half Syrian, completely Canadian, I’m far less adept at assigning culpability for my character quirks to my ancestry. But as we row into Germany on the Rhine, I’m determined to change all that. I don’t know if trundling through Bavarian forests or sampling bratwurst in medieval fortified towns will give me a better understanding of my maternal roots, but I’m more than willing to try.
The Rhine rages with the power you would expect of Germany’s most cherished river. Eddies and whirlpools churn near the shore, and rolling stones crackle on the riverbed underneath. With such a current, it doesn’t take long to row Tantalum and Niobium, named after twin elements on the periodic table, downstream toward my mother’s hometown.
Meppen is an hour’s drive from the North Sea. A smallish town, it’s absent from most tourist itineraries – unless you have a passion for 1950s brick houses or pristine rhododendron gardens. We’re greeted at my Uncle Herbert’s place, the tidy two-storey home where I spent childhood summers, with rounds of hugs and kisses. My mother, visiting from Canada, ushers us into the dining room. It doesn’t matter that we’ve just eaten or that Colin’s shirt still bears evidence of the accident he had with his cheese and tomato sandwich. Only when our plates are piled high with smoked Baltic halibut and potato salad do they relax and begin to unravel the story of my family.
“I was born in East Prussia,” says my mom, referring to what is now Poland, “and so was Herbert and your Oma and Opa.” Uncle Herbert is eager to change the topic. “That was long ago,” he says. But my mother continues. “We tried to leave, but the Russians caught us. It wasn’t until the Second World War ended that we escaped to Germany.”
Their childhood was shaped by surviving hardships; my family lost everything in the conflict, and my mother was orphaned. Stories of tribulations echo here just as they did around the dinner table with Colin’s family, and I’m struck by the parallels in lives so far apart. These disparate worlds share a common thread, and I wonder if this contributes to our own compatibility.
We bid goodbye and return to the boats. As always, Colin marvels at my ability to perfectly organize our mounds of gear and food into two tiny rowboats. I smile with the realization; it’s because I’m German.
When we finally arrive at my father’s hometown of Aleppo, Syria, by way of the Danube and the Black Sea, the ancient metropolis bustles with life. Baklava bakeries and kebab stands crowd narrow cobbled streets, and the muezzin’s melodic call to prayer fills the air. My uncles, aunts and cousins lavish traditional Arab hospitality on us, and we’re swept up in grand feasts of stuffed eggplants, rolled grapevines, tamarind lamb and other impossibly delicious dishes. The distance that separated us evaporates. I reconnect with my past, and Colin is welcomed into the family.
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