Seven summers ago, when I visited Kirriemuir, Scotland, for the first time, I hiked up to the Hill Cemetery hoping to locate at least some ancestors’ headstones. I found none.
This vast cemetery, which overlooks the beautiful, undulating Strathmore Valley, was opened in 1858 and has been the favored resting place for the town’s inhabitants ever since. Today the population of Kirriemuir is said to be approximately 6,000. My wild guess (since I was unable to find the exact figure in my research) is that the Hill Cemetery is home to about as many dearly departeds.
On that first visit to Kirriemuir’s Hill Cemetery in 2011, I knew I wouldn’t find my great-grandparents’ gravesites because, according to my online research, they’d left Kirriemuir as newlyweds in the early 1880s to begin a new life in Natal, South Africa. Within three years of their arrival there, they both were dead, leaving an orphaned son (who was destined to become my grandfather) behind. The records of their deaths do not exist.
As I wandered among the headstones then I felt like a lost soul, filled with incessant, unanswerable questions. Why did they – Helen and William Black – leave what to me, at least at first glance, seemed to be a perfectly charming, friendly, and beautiful little Scottish town, in order to emigrate to Africa? What were they running from – or to? Why did they have to die so young, so far away – with no eulogies or proper burial or grave markers – so unmourned and forgotten? What could I do to change that?
My recent trip back to Kirriemuir brought me – and I like to think, Helen and William, too – full circle. In the years between that first visit and this one, I’ve tried my best to answer those gnawing questions. I listened to my heart, followed my muse (Helen herself?), did my homework, used my imagination, wrote and rewrote many drafts, and (finally) produced a novel based on their lives and deaths, titled Jamie’s Muse.
I returned to Kirriemuir this time to share this book with the locals who helped make it possible and to thank them for their kindness.
And, miraculously, I feel, I was also able on this trip to see to it that Helen and William Black would find their rightful place in the Hill Cemetery. A friend in Kirriemuir agreed to inter a copy of my book in her family’s plot. Helen and Will will be laid to rest at last.
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