Updated: Jul 29, 2022
Bound for Scotland, I tucked a bundle of thank you cards in my purse. I looked forward to leaving the cards behind in the towns of Edinburgh and Inverness and on the Isles of Mull and Iona. Surprisingly, I left the last card behind in the small town of Hamilton, a destination not on our travel itinerary, but a place that left a lasting impression.
In June, Reed and I waited excitedly for the boarding call of United Airlines Flight Number 978. While waiting, I opened a care package from a friend and poured the bag’s contents out on the seat beside me. Lying among the chapstick, toothbrushes, and Clif Bars was a small notebook. On the first page, my friend had written the following message: "Notebook! For the many signs of love. For all the fish you might see, hook, hear, or experience. And for all the names of new friends you are making! Oh- and to help you remember which row you parked your car at the airport!”
The notebook provided reminders to ask each day for people’s names and extend conversations beyond a mere “hello.” A few names I wrote down from Edinburgh were Dirk, Aussie, and Sara. Each morning, Dirk, a receptionist from Belgium, greeted us with a sparkle in his eyes while providing us friendly travel advice in the beautiful city. One evening, I inquired about hair ties, and Sara, a hotel employee, offered me one of her own. As we left the mainland, the names of Carol, David, Russ, and Daniel appeared in the notebook. In our time with castles and cathedrals, puffins, and sheep, we met lovely people who guided our steps and cared for us along the way.
We spent six rainy days and three sunny days on the Isle of Iona. On our last day, the sun stayed out and our rain coats stayed in. Near the rocky shores of Iona, I relaxed on a bench while reading a few chapters about Rev. George McCloud, the founder of the Iona Community. When returning to the Am Fuaran Airbnb, the owners, Carol and David, were tending their garden in the backyard adjacent to the rental. We talked for nearly an hour among the foxgloves and rhubarb, exchanging stories about family, work, and holidays. Since David had grown up on the island, he gracefully weaved stories of truth and legend over multiple generations into our conversation.
As we talked, I mentioned that my maiden name was Hamilton. David's stories quickly switched from Iona to South Lanarkshire. He talked about the Duke of Hamilton and the Hamilton Mausoleum located in South Lanarkshire. He mentioned the Duke’s hunting lodge and encouraged me to visit the place my possible ancestors called home. Then, he told tales about his Irish ancestors who came over by boat and stayed in the land of Scotland. Since the 1800s, his family had lived in the same house along the rocky shores of Iona.
The next day, we left the Isle of Iona by ferry for a brief stay on the Isle of Mull. While visiting Scotland’s second largest island, I couldn't get the Duke of Hamilton out of my mind. After arriving at our hotel and enjoying a delicious meal, I messaged my cousin who is referred to as the “Hamilton family historian." I asked her if our family tree might include the Duke of Hamilton from Scotland.
Although Tee was buried in moving boxes, she graciously replied with an interesting article about a possible relative named, Anne Hamilton, Third Duchess of Hamilton. My curiosity about the nineteen year-old duchess increased, and I desired to visit the place Anne called home. Our original itinerary had begun and ended in Edinburgh; however, a little research made concluding our trip in Hamilton an exciting possibility. Reed happily agreed to visit Anne Hamilton's hometown as long as the change would not interfere with our returning to our hometown of Fishersville, Virginia. Visiting Hamilton involved a hop, skip, and taxi ride over to Edinburgh's airport. So, within an hour, we had arranged for accommodations and modes of transportations that would allow us to conclude our trip not in Edinburgh, but in Hamilton, Scotland.
After exploring the Isle of Mull and the city of Inverness, we spent our final weekend in Hamilton. Upon our arrival, as we had in previous locations, we set our suitcases down in our room and went for a walk. We quickly noticed the larger cities of Edinburgh and Inverness were more walkable than the small town of Hamilton. Also, Hamilton's Town Center seemed empty and neglected. I couldn't help wondering if I had made a mistake in coming to Hamilton. Perhaps we should have ended our trip in Edinburgh instead of risking a visit to an unknown place with unknown people. I kept my concerns to myself and attempted to maintain the positive spirit for the final days of our trip. If I was honest though, this was the first day in three weeks that I longed for home.
The next morning, we prepared ourselves for our Hamilton history tour by eating breakfast in the restaurant at our hotel and packing our bag with hiking supplies. Before heading out the door, we asked the receptionist to book us a taxi for our travels to the airport the following morning. Since she was so helpful, I asked if she had any recommendations for our visit in Hamilton. She was not from the town but leaned over the desk and passed the question on to one of the employees standing in the lobby. She asked, “Agnes, aren't you from here? What would you recommend this couple visiting in Hamilton?”
Agnes turned toward us with a giant smile and asked, "How long will you be here?"
I responded, “We are staying for the weekend. We leave tomorrow.”
She said, "Oh, well let's see now. One day in Hamilton. Well, you must visit Lanark." Then she turned to her friend and inquired, "Shouldn't they see Lanark?"
Her friend agreed. Agnes spoke about the rich history of Lanark and the wee town of New Lanark at the bottom of the hill. Then she mentioned Chatelherault Hunting Lodge, a historical landmark located within a fifteen-minute walk from the hotel. We spoke about visiting the Low Parks Museum as well that day, and wondered if traveling without a car would allow us to visit all three sites in one day.
She assured us, "Of course! Just outside the hotel, a wee bus comes along every hour for Lanark. First, take the bus and be sure to visit New Lanark. Then, go to the Low Parks Museum located just past the Town Center and end your day with a visit at Chatelherault up the hill."
We concurred with Agnes’ plan. She walked us outside the hotel and pointed us toward the bus stop on the opposite side of the road. She said, "Wait over there and the bus will come along in a bit. Have a good time."
Actually, thanks to Agnes, we had a great time. We rode the wee bus to Lanark and asked the bus driver for directions to New Lanark. He directed us toward the church with a clock tower at the end of the street and told us to walk down the hill until we reached the park. After turning right at the park, we should be able to find the way.
At the bottom of the hill, we found the park and turned right. We stumbled upon William Wallace’s Memorial Rose Garden. The rose garden's intricate paths took us to the trail beside the river which led to the town of New Lanark.
Agnes was right. New Lanark was a wee town with rich history. Since we needed to spend a few hours in three locations that day, rather than going inside the various buildings, we walked the Falls of Clyde Historical trail. Throughout the trip, the trails maintained by the Trust of Scotland continued to impress us. Also, I enjoyed the interpretation panels placed near key landmarks along the trails. Near the falls we read about the faithful Scotsman, William Wallace. Near the lighthouse in Tobermory, we learned about Robert Stevenson and his descendants who designed over 200 lighthouse along the shores of Scotland. We could have stayed all day in New Lanark, but we returned to the bus stop for our next visit to the Low Parks Museum near the Town Center of Hamilton.
After visiting the museum, we walked a few hundred yards to the 123-foot-high Hamilton Mausoleum. This impressive structure towered over the Hamilton Sporting complex, where tourists and locals exchanged greetings along the paved pathways and spectators watched soccer games and rugby matches on the large green fields. We paused under the canopy of trees, reflecting on how the past blended with the present, providing enjoyment for future generations.
Late in the afternoon, we walked back to the hotel to rest before visiting our last destination, Chatelherault Hunting Lodge, established by the Fifth Duke of Hamilton in the eighteenth century. When we entered Chatelherault Country Park, people were everywhere. We heard children laughing and playing on the modern playgrounds. On the front yard, we saw couples sitting on blankets enjoying the panoramic view. Along the pathways were runners, walkers, and bicyclists. When we walked inside Chatelherault Hunting Lodge, a massive stone structure, we witnessed friends having tea in the cafe, staff preparing for an evening wedding, and toddlers playing with toys among the hunting lodge's information panels. The massive building with manicured lawns was an impressive place to visit with its unique blend of past events, present life, and future hope.
Before we said goodbye to the grand place, Reed took a picture of me standing in front of Hamilton’s Hunting Lodge. In that brief moment, while stretching out my arms and smiling at the world, my mind drifted to Anne, Third Duchess of Hamilton. I wondered if she had enjoyed looking out at the magnificent view and calling this place home.
After our day of hiking and history, we walked back to the hotel. On this Saturday night, locals filled the restaurant for dinner celebrations, and the wedding rooms overflowed with excitement. We walked up the stairs to enter the hotel and greeted a groomsman wearing a kilt at the top. As we sat in the restaurant’s side room, people flowed in and out of the space with drinks and food. Shortly after we sat down, three young ladies walked out of the restaurant heading toward one of the wedding venues. All three of them were dressed in vibrant colors and wore extremely high heeled shoes. Reed couldn't help but notice that the ladies were having difficulty walking in their heels and chuckled under his breath. When he turned his head, he noticed an older gentleman restraining his chuckles as well.
Once the ladies left the room, Reed commented on their shoes to the gentleman sitting across the room. After composing their laughter, the gentleman asked Reed where he was from. Reed responded, "We are visiting from Virginia."
Then Reed asked where he and his wife were from. The gentleman replied, "We are homeless." He then turned to his wife, and they both chuckled. The wife explained their homeless situation. The sale of their previous house had not corresponded with the purchase of their new flat in the town of Hamilton, so for two weeks, while they were without a home, they were guests at the hotel.
We introduced ourselves and continued talking with Murrey and Carolyn across the room. A few minutes into our conversation, Reed suggested that we move closer to them, which we did and learned that they were two retired bankers from Edinburgh. We asked them questions about living in the United Kingdom, and they intrigued us with their answers. They asked us questions about the United States, and we responded hoping our answers were as intriguing as theirs. Murrey’s wealth of knowledge and Carolyn’s kindness impressed us and drew us closer to them. For nearly an hour, we exchanged stories with one another. Often Reed and Murrey had side conversations, allowing Carolyn and me to do so too.
Carolyn spoke about her two sons. One son lived in Canada with his family, and a younger son lived in Hamilton with his family. Although Murrey and Carolyn loved visiting Ontario, Canada, they had desired to remain in Scotland and moved to Hamilton to be near their younger son. Carolyn indicated how difficult it was to rest at the hotel. She spoke about many boxes in storage that needed to be put away in their new flat, noting this concern with her younger son who had advised her to enjoy herself at the hotel and view the next two weeks as an extended holiday.
I agreed with her son and encouraged Carolyn to enjoy being with Murrey rather than worry about the boxes in storage. She said she liked the fresh perspective of seeing the next two weeks as a holiday instead of a time of homelessness. Over the last several days, she had enjoyed the friendly staff and wonderful meals in the restaurant. She admitted that it was nice to have an extended break between packing boxes in Edinburgh and unpacking them in Hamilton.
As the sweet time with Carolyn and Murrey came to an end, I asked if we could take our picture with them? They hesitated for a moment, surprised by the request, but happily agreed. Murrey encouraged us to stand up for the picture. As we stood side-by-side, I hoped my arm was long enough for a selfie with four smiling faces in the photo. A woman who sat behind us saw my struggle and popped up from her seat saying, "Let me take your picture. I have enjoyed listening to you all talk for the last hour. It is the least I can do."
After the snapshot, we wished our new friends well with a handshake and a hug. We returned to our hotel room exhausted from the day of hiking and history, but exhilarated from our conversation with Carolyn and Murrey. The couple's trust and openness left a lasting impression on us. About an hour later, we returned to the restaurant ready for dinner. The waiter said, "The place is full. Sit down and enjoy a drink. I will come and get you in a few minutes."
As we turned around, we noticed the woman who took our picture was with her husband. We introduced ourselves to them. The woman shared how impressed she was with Reed and me. She said, "At first, when I saw the four of you talking, I thought you were family. But then I realized this young beautiful couple from the States chose to spend their holiday talking to an older couple from Hamilton. I had met the couple around town but had not spoken to them before. And here, two strangers from Virginia were getting to know them."
Reed said, "They were an impressive couple. We have a lot to learn from them.”
The husband asked, “Why did you choose to visit Hamilton during your holiday?"
I spoke of my maiden name being Hamilton, and they both shook their heads with understanding. We asked them about the town of Hamilton and learned that the town center had become lifeless as a result of online shopping. The waiter called our name for the table, and we wished the couple well that night.
Our morning departures from Hamilton and Iona were very similar. While waiting for the ferry and taxi, we lingered in conversation with those who had cared for us along the way. David shared one more legend with us, and Agnes told us one more story. It was difficult to say goodbye. Even though we had seen the "must see" attractions of each destination, we desired more experiences with the people. Our gratitude for their generous spirits led us away with the possibility of returning again one day. Carol said, "There is a saying in Iona. If you visit once, then you visit three times."
Before closing the door to our hotel room in Hamilton, I scanned the room one last time. I noticed one item left behind, a thank you card which rested on the desk. After checking out of our room, we waited in the hotel's restaurant for the taxi to pick us up for the airport. We poured a few cups of coffee and sat down at a table for breakfast. As I double checked my purse for passports, I noticed one last thank you card and knew exactly who should receive it. I pulled out the card and wrote on the blank space inside, "Dear Agnes."
After writing a few sentences, I noticed the kitchen door swung open, and Agnes appeared. As she approached our table with a smile, I slid the card under my plate. We shared morning greetings and picked up our conversation where we left off the previous day. We thanked her for the great day we experienced in Lanark and Hamilton. In between eating bites of toast, we listened to Agnes as she spoke about her cancelled trip to the United States in 2020 due to COVID. While she shared hopes of rescheduling the trip, the receptionist indicated that our taxi had arrived earlier than expected. Agnes said, "Oh, what a shame."
As she attended to another task in the dining room, I quickly scribbled down words of thanks for her generous care toward two strangers from Virginia. Having heard her hopes of visiting the United States, I presented the following offer in my last sentence: “Agnes, if you ever travel to the United States and happen to land in Virginia, I would like to return the favor of your generous hospitality by showing you the beautiful mountains of the Shenandoah Valley. Here is my number ... Blessings, April Hamilton Cranford”
I placed the card in the envelope and sealed it with a prayer. In the next room, I found Agnes talking with friends and colleagues. I gave her the card with a hug and a word of thanks for the perfect ending to our trip, an ending filled with love.
Within just one day, we moved from hugs in Hamilton to hugs at home with our two girls. After we unpacked the bags and told our stories, we rested in our own beds. The following day I received a text from area code 44 which said; "Hi April, it’s Agnes. Just a wee text to say thank you for the card. It was a pleasure to meet you both. If you ever get the chance to come back over, I have two spare bedrooms you could use as a base to see more of Scotland. I hope you have a safe journey home. X"
My Hamilton name might have led us to the town of Hamilton, but the people there made it feel like home. If we are asked again “Why Hamilton?” for our final destination in Scotland, perhaps we’ll simply respond with, “Why not Hamilton?"