Hiraeth

We all know the feeling, but it took the Welsh to give it a name. Hiraeth: the deep longing one feels for a person or place that has been lost or is gone forever. There is no exact equivalent word in English. “Nostalgia” comes close; so does “homesick,” but neither really captures the deep yearning, perhaps tinged with grief, that is implicit in the Welsh concept of hiraeth. 

The blind English poet John Milton might have been coming to terms with his own sense of hiraeth when he dictated his masterpiece “Paradise Lost”—the epic that recounts the eternal battle between Satan and humankind that was first joined when the snake tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit that grew on the tree of life. To Milton, ever since that delicious little bite, humans have been overcome with a deep longing to return to a place of innocence and safety—Eden, before the fall. Home; the place where we all belong.

My personal hiraeth is a little less biblical. I’ve always had a mystical connection with Scotland. My seven-times great grandfather emigrated from there in 1763, and, to my knowledge, none of his Americanized descendants have ever expressed any particular interest in the old country. That is, until I came along. At the age of six, I pestered my parents for a kilt. I was twelve years old when my parents indulged me and took me to Edinburgh to experience the Tattoo. In my twenties, I learned to play the bagpipes. At the age of forty, I sought solace in the hills of Scotland following my divorce, and at sixty, I jumped at the chance to spend six months on sabbatical in St. Andrews. By my own count, I’ve made the reverse trip across the water six or seven times and I’m longing to go again when Covid allows me to travel. I have a deep longing for Scotland; the hireath variety of longing.

I think about this often: why me? Maybe there’s an unresolved issue in some Scottish past life. Or maybe there’s some wee bubble in my DNA that keeps drawing me back to a place where I feel in my bones that I belong. No one else in my family seems to yearn for Scotland like I do; why such a deep longing—such hireath—for a country and a culture that my forebears left generations ago? I don’t know the answer to that question now, but I believe that someday, I will.

This I do know: my Celtic cousins down in Wales knew there was something in the Welsh mist, something magical and mystical that endures down through the centuries. I don’t feel that the hiraeth about which they whisper is necessarily tinged with grief, or that the place they seek is gone forever. Memories may be lodged in our minds, but they also reside in our hearts, in our blood, and in our bones. And maybe, if we listen closely enough, we can still see the old faces and hear the old stories that lie buried in the past.

But here is where I beg to differ with my Welsh friends. In their definition of hireath, they yearn for a past that is gone forever, lost. That’s not how I feel about Scotland. I don’t rue the romantic view of Scotland: its clans and castles; its kilts and pipes; its lochs and highlands; its fierce men and bonnie lassies. Life was hard back when my ancestors were living in Scotland; they sailed away. I admire Scotland more for the place it has become: an enlightened, inclusive, and evolving country that is worthy of its place in the sun of independent nations. We know there will be challenges in the years to come, but they will just that: challenges, not obstacles.

The photograph that accompanies this Musing was taken at sunrise as a friend and I set out on the second day of a forty-mile trek along the Fife Coastal Path in Scotland. We were winding our back to St. Andrews through the series of small fishing villages that dot Scotland’s North Sea coast, and on that particular day, we walked through winter’s chill, a drenching spring rain, moody autumn clouds, and bright summer sunshine. A year’s weather in a single day, but then, that’s Scotland for you. And when our destination finally came in sight, we both felt we had returned home…home to a place where we belonged.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.

Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net

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