Standing on the shoulders of giants

Recently, I decided to take myself off on a journey of self-discovery. To Scotland. Buoyed by the history I re-learned in Outlander[1], I wanted to pay tribute to my ancestors, learn more about where they came from and understand why they chose to leave and start anew in Australia. My travels exceeded my expectations and I felt humbled by my ancestors’ bravery, sense of adventure and willingness to seek a better life.

Some called my travels and time away from my children indulgent. Others thought I was on a quest to find a Jamie[2] equivalent. But mostly my friends and family were supportive. I needed to restore my faith in the general goodness of others and rediscover my purpose. This went well beyond work and home. This was about life. 

The giants

One of the most interesting parts of my research into our genealogy was discovering almost all sides of my family originate from Scotland. Aside from a wee dose of Norwegian, English and Irish blood, we are descended from the Scots.   

According to a genealogist I encountered in Edinburgh, one branch of my family only moved to Scotland 600 years ago, so it is apparently debatable about the Scottish heritage on that side.  I am unsure as to how many more centuries will need to pass before they will be considered Scottish. 😊

I discovered stories of immense courage, about the power of hope and the desire for a better life. I learnt about how many sacrifices were made by so many, that ultimately led to my existence, my current opportunities and those of my children. These giants paved the way for me to have the life that I now enjoy.

My family story is not a unique tale. So many others throughout history have also made sacrifices in the desire to find a better life. Remembering this is important, particularly as we often take our modern-day privileges and opportunities for granted. As celebrated British author Anthony Burgess[3] said,

“it’s always good to remember where you come from and celebrate it. To remember where you come from is part of where you’re going”.

Where are the women?

As I dug deeper into my family history, I found a veritable treasure trove of information on both of my grandfathers and their families. There were plenty of documents, records, photos and newspaper clippings about them. I could easily trace their sides through a variety of means.

My grandmothers and their ancestry proved to be much more challenging. Two things struck me about this. My grandfathers both came from relatively wealthy families, whereas my grandmothers did not. And my grandfathers were (obviously) male. 

Raised on a small island in Scotland, my maternal grandmother, Mary Jane, was virtually impossible to find. Her history and that of her mother Margaret mainly constitutes stories passed down to me – documentation is proving to be far more elusive. And yet, their bravery was immense. As I spent time in my Gran’s beloved Rothesay[4], I marvelled at their decision to travel to Australia. They travelled without a husband and father – my great grandfather did not join them. And yet they prospered and created a life in Australia. Surely this is a story that deserves to be told. Perhaps it was one that they didn’t want to tell? It was a different time and society had different opinions then of strong, independent women. It is different now, right?

As we currently watch decisions about women’s bodies and choices being debated and protested around the globe, I cannot help but wonder how much has changed since Margaret and Mary Jane made that voyage to Australia in 1920. As I reflect on my own career and life, has being outspoken and strong like the Scottish women that I am descended from proven an advantage or disadvantage in a world where mansplaining[5], gender pay gaps and casual misogyny at work still prevail? Perhaps being courageous as a woman today is still not as celebrated as one would hope. 

Re-writing history

On my travels, I picked up many mementos for loved ones and voraciously read books and information about Scotland and its history. I wanted to understand how my ancestors lived and immerse myself into the culture of this ruggedly magnificent country. I talked to locals, learnt about the clans and their traditions and tartans. At the urging of one amused friend, I even sampled haggis.

As I tried to find the women in my own history, I realised it was also simply harder to find women in history.  This is particularly true of those that were not wealthy or noble. Obviously, there are some significant exceptions to the rule, such as Mary Queen of Scots[6]. It was in a small gift shop connected to Mary King’s Close[7] in Edinburgh, that I struck gold. My friend pointed to a book and suggested that this was something that I would love. He was right. 

In “Where are the Women – a Guide to an Imagined Scotland”[8], author Sara Sheridan takes us on a journey through a re-imagined Scotland where the women are commemorated in statues and streets and buildings.  An alternative history where streets, buildings, statues and monuments are dedicated to real women, telling their often-unknown stories. In short, a portrait of Scottish history through a female lens rather than the traditional male lens.

Sara Sheridan articulates a message not just about Scottish history, but about all women and our contribution to society. As Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland (and an incredible leader in my view) neatly articulates about this book,

“women deserve to be celebrated and commemorated”.  

This is true in terms of history, work and life. 

Lessons from the women giants

Reflecting on my travels through Scotland and my family’s own journey, and especially that of the women, I can see lessons for me to always embrace and share.

Continue to have an opinion – and voice it! 

Regardless of the repercussions, being strong, courageous and having an opinion is important. Being fearless about this is critical if we want to make a difference. From my own experience, I can confirm that sometimes there will be repercussions to voicing your opinion. But I am also clear that not using my voice today is disrespectful to my ancestors, their sacrifices and their courage. 

Take risks

Although this can be hard and downright terrifying, taking risks is part of really living. With risk comes reward. If my ancestors on each side had not taken the risks that they did, I would not exist today nor have the opportunities that I have been afforded. 

We are not there yet

There is still much to be done. This applies to equality in all its forms. Although I have great hope that my children’s generation will make further progress than my generation and those before, we all have a responsibility to keep moving toward equality for all. Everyone has a story and that deserves to be told – regardless of your wealth, status or gender.

Learning is good for your soul 

So often we get caught up in vocational learning. Learning in all its forms is so important for personal growth. And when the learning is personal, it seems to have a greater impact. Read, travel, listen and watch!

So, what an enormous privilege it is to have such incredible, interesting and fearless forebears.  My travels to the UK provided me with a much-needed sense of perspective about my past and my future. It is up to us to live a life that our ancestors would be proud of, and to provide our future descendants with even more opportunity and good fortune. To the giants that went before me, I will gratefully strive to do my best.

Ps. The image used is from the opening credits of “Outlander” and is a shot of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands near the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie started the Jacobite Rising[9] of 1745. Image credit: Getty Images

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