In February of this year my father-in-law died. He was unique – a hard worker from a working-class family, he bucked expectations and made it into grammar school. He was an avid reader and poetry lover, not to mention a real romantic. He also became a savvy businessman, an innovator and inventor who made a successful career in the nascent electronics industry at the beginning of the 1970s and subsequently lived all over the world. By the end of his life he had lived more years away from Scotland than in it. But he never lost his love of the country or the area where he was born. He once told me, when I dared to say that my favourite part of Scotland was the Highlands, “Well you’ve clearly never seen the Solway Firth.”
(A view from Rockcliffe over the Solway Firth, with typical Scottish summer weather).
In death as in life, my father-in-law continues to travel. His ashes were brought back from Hong Kong, where he had lived for at least the past 35 years, to the US. Cultural differences meant that his Cantonese wife did not want to keep the ashes. They were couriered to San Francisco until his sons could decide how or where to best memorialize him. For a man who lived in the US, Bermuda, Scotland, England and traveled to many other destinations, it wasn’t going to be easy.
With an impending trip to Scotland, I decided that we should take some of the ashes with us and scatter them near his birthplace. Airlines have strict policies around the transportation of cremains, and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to adhere to any of them in the short period of time before we flew. Policies include having the ashes in an approved container, being able to show the appropriate paperwork and placing the ashes in your carry-on luggage. As I didn’t have all of the paperwork (somehow the death certificate had not accompanied the ashes on their travels) I decided to try and circumvent the restrictions as respectfully as I could. I ended up on my knees in the garage, transferring spoonfuls of ashes from the travel container into a ziplock bag. I placed the ziplock bag in a screw-top plastic tub and put it in my hold luggage.
My luggage, my family and the container flew across the US and spent several nights in upstate New York before catching a separate flight to Scotland. Neither the US carrier nor the budget European airline that took us from NY to Scotland were any the wiser that I had flouted their rules.
Several sleeps and one long car drive later and we were standing on the shores of the Solway Firth conducting an impromptu ceremony to scatter a share of my father-in-law’s ashes in the land of his forefathers.
This area of Scotland was meaningful to his family for many reasons. Not only was it where he was born, but most of his family lived no more than a hundred miles from Castle Douglas, where he grew up. So far I have traced as far back as maternal 5th great-grandparents to this area. His love of Robert Burns’ poetry was likely fanned by its proximity to two Burns residences – the Burns house in Dumfries and Ellisland Farm . Connections to Burns oozed from every possible corner. The country house hotel we were staying at, an elegant house built in 1752, had featured Robert Burns as a guest of the original owner. (Suffice to say that Burns may not have been invited back after writing a somewhat insulting poem about the owner’s wife). The location that we had eventually chosen to scatter the ashes proved serendipitous too. Picking a spot to scatter ashes is not easy when there have been no advance instructions given by the deceased. We had aborted the event at a previous site the day before due to disgusting weather – heavy rain and wind that would most likely have thrown cremains back at us as soon as we relinquished our grasp on them. The village of Rockcliffe had been recommended to us as a more sheltered, rocky bay right on the Solway Firth. As I had looked at the map I had seen place names that meant something to me, the chief researcher of family history. Colvend, Barcloy Mill – I had to go back to the Stevenson family tree to confirm what I thought – that Rockcliffe beach was a stone’s throw from some of the places where one of the family lines had lived.
His maternal grandmother, Mary Jane McKay, was born at Colvend in 1887, as were many of her siblings before and after. The graveyard near Colvend had a headstone (below) with several family names on it, including his great-great grandfather John McKay, who died nearby in 1902.
It’s likely that my father-in-law would have had a lot to say about the notion of scattering ashes, the choice of location and what was the best thing to do. But the fact is that he chose not to leave any directions for his death, and so those closest to him had to find a way to do something meaningful. My husband wanted one of us to recite a Burn’s poem but we couldn’t settle on one. Eventually we went for “My love is like a red, red, rose”, which I sang, competing with the blustery wind as the ashes were sprinkled into the clear water. A simple love song for the big man with the big heart.
Oh my love is like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June
Oh my love is like a melody
That’s sweetly played in tune
As fair art thou, my bonnie lad,
So deep in love am I,
And I will love thee still my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.