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My journey to the land of my ancestors

The author enjoying the scenery at the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland.

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer
On June 11, I set off on the adventure of a lifetime – two weeks in Scotland and Ireland.

The journey to get there was an adventure in itself – delayed flight after delayed flight, followed by my luggage staying behind in New Jersey – but I wasn’t going to let that spoil my fun. I had a hearty, ugly cry in the Edinburgh airport, then moved on.

When I got to the hotel, the fun immediately began. I finally met up with my cousin Stephanie and aunt Sallie, whom I hadn’t seen in years.
Along with the rest of our group – 33 in total – we set out on our adventure.

Of course, when you are in Edinburgh, the capitol of Scotland, there is a lot to see. What struck me most as our bus weaved around the city was how the old and new blended together so well. The centuries old sandstone buildings didn’t seem out of place next to the modern shops.

It all just worked.

A trip to Edinburgh is not complete without a visit to Edinburgh Castle, which was at one time home to Mary Queen of Scots – a Stewart.

On display at the Castle are the crown jewels – no photographs are allowed, but we did get to see them. I can’t describe the feeling of seeing the crown and jewelry of Mary Queen of Scots, knowing that I am possibly one of her descendants.

In my genealogy research, I have yet to trace my family to the Royal Stewarts, but hey, a Stewart is a Stewart, right? I was thrilled to be walking the cobblestones of my ancestors and experiencing the history first-hand. 

One of my main goals for this trip was to have an authentic Stewart tartan made in Scotland. In the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, we were able to shop at the Tartan Weaving Mill, where tartans for kilts, scarves and other accessories are woven.

My biggest dilemma was choosing a tartan. The Stewart Clan has dozens of them, but is most known for the bright red Royal tartan. 

I almost got the Royal tartan until I saw the dress tartan. It is a subtle cream color with red, blue, green and yellow woven together. It seemed more my style. Instead of a kilt, which would weigh a ton, I went with a cashmere scarf that I can’t wait to wear this winter.

I was so excited to complete a goal on my second day.

LEAVING THE Edinburgh Castle, we could hear the unmistakable sound of bagpipes. Down the block, a piper, dressed in what I think was a Royal Stewart tartan, played traditional tunes and posed for photographs with visitors.

After one more day of exploring in Edinburgh, we packed up and headed for Glasgow. On the way we stopped in Stirling to visit the Stirling Castle, where six-day-old Mary Stewart was crowned Queen and raised by her mother.

Stirling is home to the infamous statue of William Wallace, which turned out to look like Mel Gibson who portrayed the Scot in the blockbuster film “Braveheart.” 

While we didn’t see the statue, we did tour the castle and sat in the throne.

I tried to strike my most “Queenly” pose in the throne at Stirling Castle.

The art and décor was so colorful and vibrant, a modern addition to the castle. The highlight, to me was seeing replicas of the Unicorn Tapestries. I studied the seven tapestries – also known as The Hunt of the Unicorn – in art school, so it was so great to see them in person. 

From there, we went on to Glasgow, visiting the Kelvingrove Art Gallery – where I got to see a Van Gogh – and the Glasgow Cathedral. 

The first of many cathedrals we toured, the Glasgow Cathedral has beautiful architecture with vibrant stained glass windows.

While most of the windows were traditional and centuries old, one stood out from the rest. To celebrate the new millennium, the Cathedral selected Glasgow School of Art student John K. Clark to create The Millennium Window. The window is modern and unique – made with brilliant blue glass accented with painted symbols.

We spent one night in Glasgow before moving on to Northern Ireland. I couldn’t believe how quickly our time passed in Scotland. After just five days, I was saying goodbye to the place I had longed to visit for ages.

The journey must go on though, and it did – in style.

I was a little concerned because we were taking a ferry to Northern Ireland and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been on a boat. The last time I rode a ferry was to Blennerhassett Island in Wood County when I was a teenager. 

When we pulled up to the port, however, I knew something got lost in translation. What they call a ferry, I would call a cruise liner. It was five stories, with elevators, restaurants, an arcade and spa. 

This was going to be a treat. I had a blast! I didn’t get woozy and even went out on the deck to experience the spray of the ocean. It was exhilarating.

Once we docked, we headed to Belfast – the capitol of Northern Ireland. 

We checked into a swank, modern hotel and I swear I would live in the room I had – if I could. It was the fanciest place I’ve ever stayed in my life. My bed was decked out in velvet. There was a huge clawfoot bathtub and funky art on the walls. I didn’t want to leave the room, but when you are in such a historically significant city, you can’t miss out on anything.

After making a quick stop at the Queen’s University, we went to the Titanic Museum.

Belfast was the birthplace of the ill-fated ship and the museum is located where the ship was built at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard. Two shipbuilding gantry cranes known as Sampson and Goliath are near the museum and where the Titanic was built. 

While most of us think we know the story of the Titanic, the museum personalizes the experience in many ways. There were replicas of the rooms showing how each class “lived” on the ship. Among the beds and other furniture were television screens with films of actors interacting in the space.

It gave you the sense that you were on the ship with these people. It left a lasting impression.

Along with the museum, Belfast honored the memory of all the lives that were lost with a statue and memorial at City Hall. I found a Stewart listed on the memorial, so I’m going to remember him in my genealogy research.

After the museum, we headed out to the countryside to see what easily became my favorite part of the trip – the Giant’s Causeway. The causeway is a collection of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns which are mostly hexagonal.

Depending on who you ask, the Causeway was either formed by ancient volcanic eruptions or by the Irish giant Finn MacCool who was challenged by Scottish giant Benandonner to a fight. MacCool built the Causeway so the two could meet in battle. No matter what the story may be, the Causeway is amazing.

The combination of the rocks, the lush countryside and the ocean’s crashing waves create such a wonderful environment for relaxation.
I decided I could live there, as well.

After one more night in Belfast, I had to leave my plush room and move on to Galway with a stop in Kilbeggan to tour the distillery.

I can’t tell you much about Kilbeggan traditional Irish whisky other than it burns on the way down. I don’t drink alcohol, so I can’t really describe it further than that.

Of course, the best palette cleanser from there was to stop at the Galway Cathedral. Again, the stained glass was spectacular.

One of the most unique stained glass windows at the Galway Cathedral.

In Galway, I was able to meet my second goal – buy a Claddagh ring in Ireland where they originated.

The Claddagh, which originated in Galway, is a traditional Irish ring which has a heart with a crown on top and is held by two hands. The hands represent friends, the heart represents love and the crown represents loyalty. The point of the heart shows the wearers relationship status – if the point is away from the wearers heart, they are single and if the point is toward the wearers heart, they are taken.

While there were tons of styles of Claddagh’s to choose from, I went with a simple sterling silver ring from a local artisan instead of a flashy one from a jewelry store. It’s the perfect fit for me.

The next day, our first full day in Co. Galway, we went to the Connemara Marble Factory where we learned about the five kinds of marble mined in Connemara. After a little shopping, we headed to Kylemore Abbey and Castle.

Kylemore Castle in County Galway. The building, like many we saw in Scotland and Ireland had scaffolding on it where renovations were taking place. The Castle is located on a gorgeous lake and shares its acreage with an Abbey and a Victorian Walled Garden.

We only saw part of the castle, but were treated to a choir rehearsal in the Abbey. The small worship space had columns of Connemara marble and the acoustics were out of this world.

The next day we ventured out to the Cliffs of Moher where the land meets the sea and lucky visitors (excluding us) get to see puffins in their natural habitat.

From the cliffs we went inland to Bunratty Castle which includes a historical village with actors in period costume.

The following morning, we left Co. Galway for Co. Kerry, heading into the lush fields and farms of Ireland. We saw a lot of sheep and even more fog. We also saw several Famine Walls – stone walls built by starving and impoverished men during the Potato Famine. The Irish people refused handouts and instead chose to build the walls to earn their food when the famine made food scarce.

Every time we left the cities and entered the countryside, I couldn’t help but think how much it looked like home. I’m sure everyone on the bus was tired of me saying with excitement, “it looks just like West Virginia,” but it just solidified for me why Irish and Scottish settlers chose West Virginia as their home.

Stephanie even joined in, saying “it smells like West Virginia,” every time we saw Rhododendron.

In our travel on the Dingle Peninsula, we stopped at the Gallarus Oratory, an ancient stone building which was used as a place of worship. We also made a quick stop at Killarney National Park and saw the exterior of the Ross Castle.

Now deep into our second week of the trip, we were ready for some hair-raising adventures and that came, courtesy of our next stop – the Blarney Castle. Stephanie was a little scared due to the height, but with the help of my goofy antics, I managed to distract her all the way up to the top.

We took our turns kissing the Blarney Stone and celebrated overcoming fears. It helped that we had our own cheering section and the man who held us had such a great personality.

From Blarney, we went to Waterford and toured the Waterford Crystal Factory.

A glass artist at Waterford Crystal concentrates on etching designs into a vase.

The glass was gorgeous and it was fun to see the process – from blown glass all the way to the etching process. It kind of reminded me of the Fenton Factory in Williamstown.

Our last two nights were spent in Dublin, the capitol of the Republic of Ireland. We started in a large city and it only seemed fitting to end in one.

In Dublin, we saw St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Trinity College and the famed “Dublin doors” –apartment and business doors which are painted bright colors.

At St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there was a war memorial in the shape of a barren tree. Near it were podiums with paper leaves for visitors to write messages for loved ones lost during wartime. It was humbling to see the floor around the tree littered with leaves.

At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, a sculpture of a barren tree was in one of the naves. On podiums near the sculpture were paper leaves and instructions to leave a note in remembrance of a loved one who was lost during wartime. Above, leaves are seen scattered around the base of the sculpture.

For our last free night, I, along with Stephanie and a few of the other ladies, had ourselves a pub crawl with an added bonus – our youngest tour member pretended she was engaged, and we had a Hen Party. Europe’s answer to the bachelorette party. We just wanted to have a little fun and enjoy the nightlife.

We went to The Temple Bar and saw the Irish band Ladlane perform. They were incredible. Along with Irish tunes, they threw in a few covers including “Little Lion Man” by Mumford and Sons.

At our last stop of the night, a man was performing covers on stage and he broke out into “Country Roads” by John Denver. I, of course, was dumbfounded. We all joined in singing and were shocked so many Irish patrons knew the words, too.

On our last day, a few of us broke out on our own and toured the Guinness Brewery. It was interesting to see the process, but again, I don’t drink alcohol. I was impressed by one floor of the brewery which was more like an art gallery. Installation art designed for Guinness including videos and sculptures drew me in and added to the tour.

Although I’m not a beer fan, I did learn the proper way to pour a Guinness at the brewery. Of course, when deep in concentration, it is important to stick out your tongue.

We all got samples of Guinness, which, I’m sorry, I thoroughly did not enjoy, although the rest of my group said it was the best Guinness they’d ever had. Not to be the odd man out, I even learned how to properly pour a Guinness. I’m just glad one of the other ladies took one for the team and drank mine for me.

The highlight of the Guinness visit came as we were leaving. Four men, dressed in black vests and kilts performed cadences on field drums in front of the brewery. The beat was nice and the view wasn’t bad either.

After we dragged ourselves away from the drummers, a few of us went to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and The Long Room of the Old Library.

I was looking forward to the Book of Kells – an ancient illuminated manuscript Gospel book. The illustrations are stunning and each page is a work of art. Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed, but it was enough to see it in person. The Celtic symbols and words are breathtaking, considering the book is roughly 12 inches by 10 inches, and each page has intricate writing and drawings.

On the top floor of the Old Library is The Long Room, a bibliophiles dreamland. The Long Rooms is home to 200,000 of the library’s oldest books and a collection of busts of famous authors.

That evening, the entire group gathered together for our final dinner of the trip. It was bittersweet. We were all together for one last time before we had to say goodbye and go back to our “normal” lives.

When I went on this trip, I knew I was going to have a blast – seeing Scotland and Ireland, and spending time with Stephanie and Sallie – but I had no idea how attached I would get to the other people with us. They were part of a life-changing experience and that makes them my family.

Thankfully, social media gives us an opportunity to stay in touch and we do. I miss them all and maybe one day, we’ll have a “reunion.”

I never thought I would get to take a trip like this – not even thinking about the money, I was more concerned about taking off two weeks in a row from work. It is a part of my life I will never forget and I am so grateful I was able to do it.

Now that I have experienced the land of some of my ancestors, I feel more connected, not only to my family, but to West Virginia, because they chose to be here and in a way, chose West Virginia for me.

Being connected to the Stewart side of the family has inspired me even more to explore the Hevener side, so my next trip will be Germany.
Stay tuned.

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