The Color of Blood

North Berwick, Scotland – September 2016

How high the walls of this castle are. How red the stone. Red: the color of the family that once dwelled within. The color of blood. My blood, diluted over the centuries by that of other tribes. Descendants dispersed in the winds of time. It’s just a name now: Douglas. A family ripped apart by rivalry. They became Red Douglases and Black Douglases. I have visited that other castle, in the Borders region. I wasn’t aware of the rift, then. Or to which line I belonged. It all comes down to color. Swarthy or ginger. Dark or light. Any heritage I claimed at Threave is erased and replaced by this intimidating structure. Tantallon.

The House that William Built, an information board proclaims. My mother and I exchange a look and snicker. William is the name of one of my brothers. She takes a photo, so she can show him when she returns home. Scotland is her “bucket list” place, she says. She has always wanted to visit the country that gave her children their name. Despite the hardship she personally suffered because of this same name. She wanders off with my stepfather, exploring rooms and staircases and passages. I pause to gaze at Bass Rock. Tiny white specks blanket the massive boulder. Gannets. Every few seconds, a group takes flight. They rise in one surge, soar for a few seconds, and then come to rest again.

Someone recently asked me which places I’d most like to return to. I realized that I’d never really thought about this. There are so many new places to see. Scotland, I replied. I’d love to go back to Scotland. There is something comforting about this wild, bleak land. I’m delighted to be here again.

Every Christmas, we got together with my father’s family. We were the only ones who didn’t live in Bay City, so it was often the only time of the year when we saw them. We’d walk into one of the uncle’s homes. Most of the others would already be there. A silence fell. Upper lips curled. Eyes narrowed. Looks were exchanged. Backs were turned. They’d warm up, eventually. A grudging cordiality. I was always relieved when it was time to go home.

My parents divorced. I didn’t see the Douglases for years. When my father died, we became reacquainted, but the underlying contempt from some of them had only deepened. They didn’t like us because we were snobs, some of the friendlier ones informed us. My mother was from rich Midland and not blue-collar Bay City. She will always be the witch who divorced my father. Those few who honestly liked us died young, like my father. There was squabbling over pennies after my grandmother died. Greed and betrayal runs deep in the veins. My siblings and I realized the futility of this allegiance. We drew up the drawbridge and closed the gate, insulating ourselves from the petty intrigue.

How quickly the clouds gather here. I pull my hood tight around my head. We linger at opposite ends of the barbican. In the grim light, the redness of the walls fades to rust. The color of old wounds. My mother and stepfather stare out over the deep blue water and embrace.

40 thoughts on “The Color of Blood

  1. Tell-tale pics of a journey that alternates between a sumptuous travelogue and a ballet of both abiding and fragile relationships in hues of bright red and rusty brown symbolically depicted in a landscape receding into the fading light. I felt as if I was looking into one of those old and lovable family photographs.

    • Some say we must hang on to family no matter what, but I don’t agree. Our precious energy could be so much more useful when directed at those who appreciate it.

      Bass Rock is a fascinating place. I can’t imagine the smell, though. 🀒All those gannets. I believe the lighthouse is unmanned these days.

  2. I’m glad you returned to Scotland accompanied by your Mom. You succinctly tell the tale of your family’s rivalry. The Bay City clan seem obsessed with their identity. My family scattered from their roots, as did my in-laws. Somehow, we all get along.

    • I used to think that family is the most important thing, but now that I’ve been far away for so long and have witnessed my own immediate family growing distant, I’ve had to let go. I have good memories of long ago to keep me company.

  3. Excellent writing!! How satisfying to run into well constructed complex multi layered narratives! Thank you for the woven fabric of the blood ancestry of centuries past intertwined with a flash forward to current Scotland family. It is interesting that a “coming home” can take any shape…. including a broody recalcitrant Scottish extended family.\

    No doubt, you will win over the less welcoming part of the clan, but of course that will take several years and several more visits. Would love to see a lot more photography of the place to add to your wonderful narrative.


    • Thank you, Ben. Honestly, I don’t care if I win them over or not. It’s been so many years. I harbor no ill will towards them. I just prefer to focus my energy in more fruitful ways. They actually live in Michigan, not Scotland.

      Unfortunately, my Scotland photos didn’t turn out very well, so these are the only ones worthy of the blog.

  4. Great piece! There’s a wonderful beach just below Tantallon with a hidden harbour, big enough for two small boats carved in to the cliffs at one end. The whole area, like much of Scotland, is very atmospheric though not too many visitors make the trip from Edinburgh.

    • Tantallon is such an imposing place. Probably one of the most dramatic castles I’ve ever seen. And yet it was very quiet when we visited. It does take some effort to get out there, but it’s worth it.

  5. So that’s what the D. stands for? Douglas.
    Then if you are a Scot, we may be distant cousins. Though as Bretons, we are split between blonde (father, sister, eldest brother and I) and “black”: my mother and another older brother. He would be called black Irish: black hair, blue eyes.
    Weird thing about blood lines, right? How far they can stretch, back, back in time, and how petty and narrow they can – sometimes – be at close range.
    ‘Hope you are well, my dear. Regards to Hubby.

    • Yes, the D is for Douglas. My maiden name. There were too many Julie Douglases already out there, and more than one are writers. So I had to find another writer name. πŸ™‚

      Blood lines are fascinating and mind-boggling. I’m actually a typical American cocktail – mostly Slovak/Polish/Scottish, but there’s also French, Native American, Gypsy, and Kashubian.

      • “Cashoube”? Had never heard of that. You got me. And I used to be quite… knowledgeable about the people of this earth. Wanted to be an ethnologist… πŸ™‚

  6. A grand part of the world Julie and well captured. Good golfing country but not somewhere I have been tempted to play at Β£120/round 😦 You really need to head further north and west into Mackay country for the true wild and bleak but, maybe as a Douglas, that might be considered enemy territory πŸ™‚

    • Hi Robin – We also went up to Aberdeen, the Highlands, and Inverness/Loch Ness during the trip. We wanted to go to Skye, but didn’t have time. As for enemies –I more avoid the Campbell realm. THAT one has endured, at least in my life.

    • Yes, it’s the words unsaid (at least to your face) that poison the atmosphere. We’re always told that we must make the effort to get along, even if the others make none. “Be the better person”and all that sanctimonious crap. It feels good to let it all go. Thanks, Chris.

  7. “… you can’t choose your family” is part an old adage I think about sometimes when those who share my blood make mine boil. Luckily, we have no deep enmity, but as you note in some comments, I think I’d be over it, ready to move on to those I can choose – my friends. Beautiful photos of this brooding land (which makes up nearly half of my own ancestry) and a masterful intertwining of your trip with your mother and the old family divisions.

    • Yeah, that’s one you hear a lot. Living overseas for so long (and refusing to use facebook) has given me an excuse to back away from petty drama. But even if I were to move back to the epicenter I wouldn’t tolerate it anymore. Living “wild” has taught me so much about letting go.

  8. I have more family than I know what to do with, on my Dad and stepmother’s sides, Julie, but my own little family is very small and self contained. I often wish it was different and there was more of a crossover, but it’s not so easy to maintain. πŸ™‚

  9. Maintaining control / contact with a large family group is difficult. This in my opinion is because of non interest, and self interest of everyday preservation. I also believe that disintegration of individual family units for whatever reason, means that limb of the family tree stops dead in its tracks. Those children of broken families don’t even know they have family, it is just they have never been exposed to it, so how can they maintain a connection.

  10. Beautiful writing and pictures, Julie. I particularly loved that close-up shot with the stones of so many differing colors. It was almost like my eye had trouble looking at it–like there were probably colors there we don’t know how to see yet so the brain had to pick something from its stocks, and it came out all over the map. Like one of those really early photo editing filters from twenty years ago. Ha!

    I was introduced to family constellation work recently, and know very little about it, but your post reminded me of that, and the way various difficulties in families can be passed along energetically and reappear and still be working themselves out many generations later. It was fascinating to consider. Not fun to live with, but it’s pretty clear no family is without a legacy of human fallacy and pain.


    • Hi Michael – Well, that’s an interesting reaction to the bricks photo. πŸ˜‰ The family constellation idea sounds fascinating. I’ve always suspected that certain family traits linger a very, very long time, either encoded in the DNA or passed down through some channel that we can’t yet comprehend. Thank you, as always, for sharing your thoughts.

  11. Beautiful writing Julie as always. I love family photos and I’m always interested by family tales and genealogical trees…

  12. Families can go through many things… including War of loyalties & Greed for money. I know what you mean and can relate…
    It is a good feeling when time seals the pending issues and we can look back at those times with different eyes; IΒ΄d say-
    The location & photographs are absolutely beautiful, by the way…. Sending love & best wishes, dear Julie! πŸ™‚

    • Hi Aquileana – Rare are the families that don’t have at least some sort of turmoil. The location of Tantallon is very dramatic indeed. One of the most stunning that I’ve ever seen.

  13. Hi Julie, greetings from the departure lounge of DuΕ‘anbe airport!

    I’m not big on symbology, I was utterly hopeless in philosophy at school and I had to have the missus explaining patiently the hidden “message” of Kontroll, that Hungarian film staged in the Budapest metro if you remember, but your last sentence makes me think that your mum eventually found closure with the past.

    Hope I got that one right at least!

    • Hi Fabrizio – Interesting thought. Maybe she did.

      I’m sure you’ve got some stories to share from your offbeat trip. Looking forward to them.

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