Mary, Queen of Scots sailed into Leith Harbor on 19 August 1561, returning to her native Scotland after 13 years in France. She was just 19 years old. One year earlier she’d been Queen of France, but the death of her husband —Francois II—left her a young widow and, for multiple reasons, she decided to return to Scotland.
Among Queen Mary’s companions were her four closest friends, nicknamed the Four Maries (Mary Beaton, Mary Seton, Mary Fleming and Mary Livingston). The Maries fascinate me enough to write an entire novel about them and their loyalty to Mary, which withstood enormous strains, particularly upon their return to Scotland. And that is why I am here—to do a bit of field research.
As I flew into Edinburgh this morning for my own return to Scotland after a long absence (19 years), some of my own experiences may have echoed Queen Mary and the Maries. They arrived in Leith surrounded by fog, which obscured their first view of Scotland. Similarly, low clouds shrouded my view of Scotland until a minute before landing, frustrating my eyes eager for a glimpse. I’m sure Mary and the Maries felt the same sense of anticipation that I had and the same frustration with the weather.
I’m shortly to be enveloped by my mother’s family, scattered across Scotland but coming together this weekend. We do not see each other very often, but we are family and the bond is close and deep despite our geographical distance. I expect to laugh till I cry about things only others in my family find funny, like the phrase “there’s thousands at the beach,” which was my Nana’s battle cry as she kicked my siblings and I (“the Americans”) out of the house to find playmates.
The Queen and the Maries would also have been excited – they had grown up in France without their parents and most of their siblings, and while not unexpected for the time, they would surely have been pleased at the coming reunion. They were likely thinking less about changes in their family–who had grown up, married, died, but like me, just glad to reconnect in person.
For me, it is all roses – two weeks to research and write and spend time with my family. Not so for the Queen and the Maries. First, or rather still, there was trouble with the English. Elizabeth I had refused Mary safe-conduct through English waters and threatened her with warships. When those warships came upon Mary’s two galleys and two accompanying ships, they saluted her. But the reminder of that the English did not make for good neighbors may have stirred up childhood memories of fleeing in the night from Stirling Castle to escape the Duke of Somerset and of the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh—where Fleming’s father Alexander and Livingston’s brother John were slain. For Queen Mary herself, she must have had some misgivings about the nobles she would rule, nobles who had rebelled against her mother, Mary of Guise, who had ruled Scotland as Regent in her daughter’s absence.
But they were young – all about 19 years old – and I have to believe their excitement would have overwhelmed most other concerns, at least on their arrival. At 19, you have high hopes and the future almost always looks bright. Certainly, chroniclers report Queen Mary’s high spirits, despite the weather and a decided lack of ceremonial welcome due to the ship being early. I feel her enthusiasm! I did not, as I like to say, come to Scotland to get a tan, so no amount of rain or clouds will dampen my spirits.
As I said, my own return to Scotland comes after an absence of 19 years—hard to believe time has flown so much since we buried my maternal grandmother and I left to re-emigrate the US. Scotland is my home—or at least it is where my parents were born and raised (in Fife) and I spent so many summer months as a child in Kinghorn on the Fife coast, and as an adult many more weeks on holiday. I do still feel like it is home, though I am not sure many would call me a native daughter!
But then, I have always considered a bit of a foreigner in my native land. As a child I was “that American Lassie,” the US accent and cultural leanings branding me as “different” in the same way that Mary’s overwhelmingly French persona caused a stir—and some resentment—upon her return. I am pretty sure I took more grief for my accent that Queen Mary did! I was acutely aware that no matter how familiar everything felt this morning, even after such a long absence, that every time I open my mouth I am pegged for a foreigner, which I suppose only matters to you if you don’t feel in your heart that you are!
Tonight, I write from Kinghorn in Fife, with a magnificent view of the lights in Edinburgh and the flashing lighthouse on Inchkeith. As a child, I used to look out my grandmother’s window at this view, dreaming big, praying hard, and wondering about life. I’m long years away from that child, but tonight not so much.