Patricia's Roots

       So, my father was born in London, and it seems his mother was, too. I'm not sure about his father's birthplace. But what is certain, is that my grandfather did settle in Scotland. First, in Glasgow, where he managed the Empire Theatre for many years, and became quite good friends with many well-known Scottish performers such as Harry Lauder. The Empire, I understand, was torn down decades ago. My Aunt Ann was born in Glasgow. Later in life, my grandfather retired to St. Andrews, where he bought a hotel/pub, The Links. I visited the place, very briefly, in 1975. It was still there, then.

        My family name, Leslie, is definitely one of my family names, but not, actually, the surname of either my father or grandfather. What happened, was that shortly after my father was born, World War I started (for England, that was 1914). That made everything German very unpopular. But the UK has something called "deed-poll", a way to legally change your family name (and apparently, that of your children automatically as well). Bernard Alexander Rohmann was thenceforth Bernard Alexander Leslie. Which I'm sure was helpful, while he fought WWI in the British Cavalry. And came home alive.

      By my father's and aunt's accounts, the name Leslie was the maiden name of either Bernard's mother, or grandmother. I do also know that somewhere a generation or so before Bernard, that side included a Macbeth, who was a piper to Queen Victoria. So those two surnames do seem to make me somewhat Scottish, as well as part German. (Meanwhile, my father's mother's maiden name was Walter, which is apparently a German name, near as I've been able to determine; but I know absolutely nothing about anyone else on her side.)

       Okay, now we come to my mother's side. Her maiden name was Burns, which sure sounds Scottish, since it's also the surname of Scotland's most enduringly famous poet, and glorifier of all things Scottish. However, her father, Edward Robert Burns, always said that his family came over from Ireland. He was one of seven children, and, nominally, Catholic. Catholic enough, that when he married my Presbyterian grandmother, they made a "deal" that the first child would be baptised Catholic, the second Presbyterian, and so on. They only had two, so my aunt got to be Catholic, and ten years later, my mother was born as a Presbyterian. Neither Mom nor Aunt Dot ever seemed to have any strong commitment to religion of any sort. So, I very fortunately avoided any kind of dogmatic indoctrination, and was able to construct my own personal spirituality, and thealogy, from insights, observations, and critical thinking skills. 

       Of course, I know now that over the centuries, quite a few Scots did relocate to Ireland for various reasons, at various times. (In fact, there are Irish Leslies, too.) So my theory (which I don't really have much interest in trying to prove) is that these Burnses were originally Scottish emigrants to Ireland. Possibly, being Catholic, they were even among those who managed to escape to Ireland with their lives, after the Bonnie Prince Charlie mess at Culloden. That, of course, would cancel out any possibility that my grandfather could be a stray descendant of Robbie Burns himself. However, I have a photo of my grandfather as a young married man, and he resembles the poet, to a remarkable degree.

       The Presbyterianism seems to fit well with my grandmother's maiden name, which was the very solidly Scottish Morey. The other family names that I heard from my mother (in no particular family-tree order) are: Johnson; Totten; Fleming; Butler (Americanised from LeBoutellier). Fleming seems to be generally Scottish (but means, I believe, "a native of Flanders"). LeBoutellier is probably French, but could be Belgian. Johnson could be from almost anywhere in Great Britain or Scandinavia (spellings having been so optional throughout much of the Europe-to-America migration). Totten could be English (perhaps the whimsical self-reinvention a poor emigrant, or a transportee, using part of a place-name he knew in London). The name Tott can also be German (means a very small person, or fairytale-type dwarf, as I recall); and if German, Totten would be the plural. Tottenville, New Jersey, is named for that branch of the family (and I have in my possession, a badge from the Tottenville Fire Department, with an image of a horse-drawn fire engine - so we must have a connection there). I THINK I've recently seen something that gave me the idea that Totten is also a name in Scotland. But that's pretty vague - not sure where I saw it, now.

       On the whole, by simple, one-generation genealogy, it seems that my  mother was most directly half Irish, half Scottish, and my father, perhaps one quarter Scottish, three quarters German. But there's a lot of branches missing off this tree. So, to keep it simple, I can probably lay decent claim to being 1/4 Irish, 3/8 Scot, and 3/8 German. Even with some immediate ancestors coming straight from the UK, seems I'm a similar "mongrel" mix to a large contingent of Americans. Haha. This should be a cautionary tale to all these Americans who are obsessed with "racial purity" and being among the "original settlers" of this presently-benighted nation. Everybody is extensively mixed.

       This is probably a good time to mention that a few years ago, I did one of those affordable "mail in your DNA" tests. It came back that the population to which I am most genetically similar, is Belgians. Go figure.

       Of course, there is yet another way of looking at "what I am" - through the long telescope of millennia. In the first place, Scotland itself was settled by people who sailed - or floated - over from Ireland. By that measure, Scottish and Irish Celts are actually the same people, and for some time, spoke essentially the same Gaelic. So that makes all Scots, actually Irish. Of course, both populations did a lot of cross-breeding with Vikings. So there may not be any "pure" Celts at all, in either nation.

       And if you take the archaeo-historians' views of ancient migrations as accurate, all Celts can be traced back, as far as anyone can be sure, to a proto-Celtic tribe who migrated out of the Harz Mountains in ... Germany! So. One could make the case that at the real, rootsy level of origins, all my DNA might just meander back to Germany, and in truth, I'm largely just descended from ancient Germanic Celts.

       But there is an entirely other measure of "ethnicity", which has nothing at all to do with genetics. It's Culture, and how one is Enculturated. For me, that has always been the real, relevant yardstick, for knowing who and what I am. I know that I picked up a lot of words and expressions from my father, who lost his accent fast, but never lost his British vocabulary. I picked up other phrases, and an assortment of superstitions and old wives' tales, from my mother ... as my cultural awareness has broadened, I've come to notice that all Mom's cultural stuff seems to come from Celtic Britain.

       There was never any direct personal contact with my father's parents (they both lived out their lives in the old country), so they don't figure into my development. But my father's sister, her husband and daughter, came to America from Scotland when I was about nine, and we were neighbours for almost four years. So, from them, I absorbed a lot of feeling for Scottish family life, without even noticing.

       During my adolescence, for some odd reason my English grandmother sent me some Scottish dance music on 45's (yeah, I'm that old!). Maybe that was because her second husband was even more Scottish than the first one. I had no context for knowing about "country dance", but I was instantly drawn to the tempos, the melodies, and the instruments themselves, and practically wore those records out. A bit later in my teens, I acquired some folk music LPs (all old songs of the British Isles), and pretty much wore those out too, drawn deeply into the stories told by the songs.

       When I was twenty, a friend (of Swedish ancestry!) somehow found out about a Scottish Country Dance group in a nearby town, and asked me to go with her. The very first night that I found myself dancing those dances to that music, changed my life for the next five years. (And in some corollary ways, forever.) I had never felt so much at home, as I did in that setting. I soon immersed myself in every aspect of Scottish culture I could find. Of course I practised the dance steps fervently (even whenever I was alone in an elevator at one of my office jobs). But there were so many other cultural elements: buying all the records I could find, both instrumental and traditional songs ... collections of lyrics, too ; listening to the tunes and reading the words until I'd learnt every word (poetry by Burns and novels by Scott and books of collected folk tales, and a couple of Scottish cookbooks ... would even sit and read and study the glossary of Scots dialect words in the back of the Burns book).

       Yes, immersion in the culture was thorough - as thorough as someone could possibly manage, while  actually living on a different continent. Of course, I was hardly inclined to deny the genetic connexions that my surname hinted (or seemed to). It was a short-cut to being more quickly accepted within the Scottish dance subculture. But ultimately, thinking I knew where my DNA had actually resided for the last few generations, had almost nothing to do with how I came to self-identify as ethnically and culturally Scottish. It really has been all about nurture, rather than nature.

       And so that's how I came to start writing books set in Scotland, that fuse elements of actual history and culture, with strong elements of traditional folklore. In my mind, there was already a fictional but vividly detailed landscape, ready to be populated with archetypal characters I already felt I knew. It does often seem that, although my body did not reside there, my soul always had, in one way or another.

       Not to undervalue Ireland's music and song, and not to undervalue my probable Irish ancestry through my mother's father.  They run a close second, to be sure. But at the end of the day, whenever someone asks "what I am", my first instinct is always to say, Scottish.

       Although people do more often ask "where are you from", and to that, I always answer "Neptune". After enjoying the weird look the other person always gives me - a little sort of half-smile, like "huh, and she seemed so sane up till now" - I add "It's a town on the Atlantic Seaboard in New Jersey" ... I was born there in Fitkin Hospital (which, as far as I know, is still there).