How a Nebraska Farm Boy Came to Write a Novel About Scottish Earls and Kings and Someone Named MacbethHistorians/History
tags: books, Saints and Heroes
When ‘me Mum’ died, I promised I'd write about her family. My mother was a British war bride who arrived in America in 1946. I arrived in 1949, and she raised me in a predominantly Czech community, Schuyler, Nebraska, to be an Edwardian gentleman. Unfortunately, it never took.
Mother was a proud British expatriate, a London school teacher who'd regularly herded her students down into the underground during the blitz. She'd married a heroic sergeant in the Army Air Corps, Lumir Schultz, a Czech farm boy, who'd convinced my mother that he was the equivalent of British landed gentry when he'd inherited the farm in the “bohemian alps” of Nebraska.
Nebraska was a bit of a shock for someone from London, as the farms in the countryside were still without electricity and the town, Schuyler, was just installing sewer lines in the early 1950s. There were still many outhouses in the town. As a kid she sang me to sleep with "Charlie is me darlin'," "Rule Britannia" or "Christopher Robin" and she made me a kilt from the Menteith family tartan for my first day in kindergarten. Yes, I was that odd boy.
Her maiden name was Jean Monteith Rathbone, the melding of a fine English family name, Rathbone, (she vaguely claimed Basil Rathbone as "a distant cousin") with one of the ancient clan names of Scotland, Monteith, and its earlier spelling variation, Menteith.
Thus, I grew up with tales of the Scots and the Menteiths, of their deeds and misdeeds, of the interactions with the Stuarts, the Comyns, and the Grahams, how Rob Roy stole Menteith cattle, and of course, how a Menteith infamously betrayed William Wallace.
So, naturally, after an abnormal childhood living in two worlds, rural Nebraska outside and a hyperventilating Britannia at home, I sometimes felt a citizen of both and occasionally a boy without a country. I failed at spelling bees because I spelled theater as theatre, color as colour, and because my mother had taught her students the Queen's English, I spoke grammatically perfect English, much to the chagrin of my classmates, some of whom had Czech as their first language.
In 1987, when she passed, I began to write down the family stories she'd told and sorted through a host of pictures she'd left.
I'd been stationed at Edzell, Scotland for three years from 1970 to 1973 while in the U.S. Navy at the northeastern edge of what had constituted the Menteith Earldom in Perthshire. This tiny burg is midway between Dundee and Aberdeen and about 120 miles north of Edinburgh. While in Scotland, I'd tramped the mountains, prowled the lochs, visited the castles and cairns, tubed the rivers, hunted the game and visited the pubs of Scotland with great abandon. My roommate in the barracks was an ornithologist, John Trapp, and he and I roamed the coastlines and fence lines in pursuit of golden eagles, curlews, rooks, puffins, water ouzels and the great hawks and harriers of the coastal plains before the Grampians. We hung out around harbors and stalked the wild asparagus. John had a sparrow he called "Woodstock" and a hedgehog living with us in the barracks and he was always returning from a ramble with some wild thing he'd discovered in his pockets.
Together we attended fests and county fairs and we heard a good number of squeezeboxes and fiddles in the pubs where we'd eat our lunches and suppers. The musical tradition was profound. Every pub rang with song and these songs spoke of the ancient land, the old heroes and the sad lamentations of poverty, war and hard lives.
I was the anchor on the base tug'o'war team and we pulled at highland games throughout the country. Our most significant moment was pulling before Queen Elizabeth and Princess Anne during the Braemar games in the early '70s. We were a group of eight 20-year old sailors and marines and our opponents were the Arbroath farmers, a team whose median age was at least 62 years old. They towed us three times across the chasm to our utter humiliation.
The cox (or whatever the equivalent term is in tug'o'war parlayance) cried, smoke pouring from his pipe, his tweed coat and cap atilt, "Ah rat na boys, tek a strain", and we leaned back on our heels and the thick hawser snapped taut. After ten minutes my forearms and hands were screaming and then the cox coughed, "And a one, and a one, and a one." On the first count, 8 of the farmers right boots stomped backwards, digging their heels into the turf in perfect harmony. They tugged us to and fro three times. Humiliating is not an adequate a term.
As these memories were recalled, I wrote them down and added them to the stories my mother told, and sorted through the pictures she'd left me, how to tell the story I'd promised. Ah, research. I'd learned how to conduct research through my graduate studies and as I was in California at the time, I began at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, which maintains a large archive of British historical documents. I also searched at the Library of Congress, University of Virginia, and University of Nebraska.
The earliest mention of the Earldom I could find was in 1138 when King David awarded a tract of land to Gilchrist, Earl of Menteith, but another reference referred to it as one of the seven ancient earldoms of Scotland. These were: The Earldom of Angus, Earldom of Caithness, the Earldom of Carrick, the Earldom of Fife, the Earldom of Mar, the Earldom of Menteith and finally the Earldom of Strathearn.
Then I came across a reference to King Malcolm Caenmore establishing the seven ancient earldoms. Who was this King, I asked, and what was his story? As I studied, I found it was Malcolm who'd been orphaned by Macbeth killing Malcolm’s father King Duncan as Shakespeare had written, but that this occurred in the 11th century not the 13th. With that realization, I thought, "the games afoot" to quote my mother's improbable cousin, Basil Rathbone. I wanted to find out this story, the "true" story and this is what’s led me to finishing Saints and Heroes, the true story of Macbeth, Malcom Caenmore and his Queen, Saint Margaret of Scotland.
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