Some way past Ellon, following the now muddy path which the Formartine and Buchan Way had become after a night and a day of successive bands of thunder storms, I asked her:
“So, this walk of ours, from Aberdeen to Mill of Aden, if it’s something of a pilgrimage as you suggest, then why are we doing it? What’s its purpose?”
We left the hotel near Aberdeen train station – on foot and in high spirits – two days before. The morning was glorious, the seagulls calling out above us in a bright blue sky as we made our way north through the granite-clad streets to Old Aberdeen, to St. Machars Cathedral where, to our surprise and delight, we found relatives, or at least surname-sharing Adans buried against the southern wall, just below the stain-glass window of the maidens Faith, Hope and Charity. Just the day before we had raised a glass in the Market Arms in Hadden Street, an Ichabod of a pub if ever there was one, to my forefather Charles who lived in the street in 1853. He married Jane, at house number 33, in November of that year. So yes, we knew there was Adan family history in Aberdeen; but these members we did not know.
We got carried away, lost track of time in St Machars, and when we emerged again the rain had started. No worries; we had seen the weather report earlier that morning and knew it would not rain heavily or long. We pressed on along the Great Northern Road toward the trailhead at Dyce rail station where our walk would officially begin, chuckling at the “No Golf Practice” sign planted on the wee bit of grass outside a council estate, and snapping a photo of the now pointless “EU Remain!” posters hanging in the windows. Yes, we’re definitely in Scotland.
The rain never did leave us completely and so, tired and soaked, and staring down an ever more dark and ominous sky as we passed along the hillside above the little village of Newmachar in the late afternoon, we relented and sought cover. The woman in the coffee shop at the activity centre helped us contact the local inn which, thankfully, had a room.
Next morning all the world was bright again. And I was sore. My right ankle and left hip complained mightily about the extended walk of the day before, and continued to complain as we passed through Udny and onward to Ellon. After a mere 8 miles I could go no farther. We hobbled into Ellon, found our way to an inn and checked in early. It was a fine summer day, the nicest we’ve had all year, so after a shower, a rest and two ibuprofen, we enjoyed a wander around town, sans rucksack, the discomfort of the morning melting away with the help of an iron brew flavoured ice cream cone.
The storms returned that night, or rather early the next day. Renata loves lightening and thunder and so, after catching the forecast on the evening news, I left the curtains open in the window of our room so she could enjoy the spectacle when it arrived. Of such is love made after 33 years.
I awoke to a scene to which Cecil B. DeMille could only faintly aspire. Heavy clouds of no earthly colour were laced with terrifying stabs of lightning; ear-numbing cracks of thunder heralded the arrival of torrential rain. Renata was already sat straight up in bed, smiling from ear to ear. I tucked my head under the duvet and eventually went back to sleep.
At breakfast – the full Scottish but we’ll pass on the black pudding, thank you – we faced a decision: hang out in Ellon for a day, reading and getting antsy, or carry on and brave the storms. I know my wife and I already knew what we would decide.
So there we were, north of Ellon, variously walking at a fierce pace or huddled under an overpass, or a tree, or the little tarp I had thought to bring along at the last minute, rain dripping down our legs and into our shoes, reading our Ordinance Survey for omens or signs of good fortune and talking about pilgrimage and our loved ones in heaven smiling down on us through the rain.
“We’re doing this to honour our ancestors,” she said without pause.
We ended the day, wet and weary, as guests at the first-rate B&B in Old Deer, just a mile short of the end of our pilgrimage. We completed the journey this morning, calling in at the Mill of Aden, a still functioning woollen mill on the banks of the River Ugie.
In Old Deer, Mintlaw, and the surrounding villages people whose name I bear and whose genes I carry lived in centuries past. Monks writing in the margins of the Book of Deer, a document of the 900’s, mention gifts to their abbey (“to Christ and to Drostan”) by Comgell, toisech of Clan Canan, of land as far as the Great Rock field nearest to Daldin or Old Aden.
Old Deer, New Deer, Book of Deer, the forested hills nearby – never farmed and inhabited by plenty of deer – all seem to point to the obvious. But before New Deer was founded Old Deer was merely Deer. And nothing is as it seems.
St Columba came here in 580, bringing his nephew Drostan, to found an abbey among the heathen Picts. It is not unlikely that the abbey was located at the centre of what is now Old Deer, not 50 metres from our B&B. Two churches stand there now, either side of the road. When the mission was sufficiently established Columba departed, leaving Drostan in charge. In later centuries Cistercian monks rebuilt the abbey a mile farther west.
Drostan cried when his uncle left him behind. Or rather he shed tears, “de’ara” in the tongue of the monks. Drostan’s tears gave their name to the abbey, then to the village of Deir, becoming Deer, now Old Deer.
This morning as we walked the final metres to the Mill of Aden Renata quoted a John Denver song to me: “coming home to a place he’s never been before…”. Aside from the manager and a young helper, Sam, the mill seemed to be run by a wide assortment of Eastern Europeans. How right, I thought. My ancestors too were labourers, crofters and quarry workers, pushed to the margins by economic powers beyond their control – pushed onward by a desire for a better life, to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and then Chicago.
The thread of my family history is, it seems, knotted with tearful goodbyes. From one generation to the next we rarely settle. Amsterdam, Manaus, Chicago, Chicago again, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Lonmay, New Deer…these are the birthplaces of my children’s lineage going backward.
We share the inheritance of Drostan: the quiet beauty of the lands of Aden, and tears of sorrow, the sadness of farewell.