Lady Baublehead’s Funeral: A Parable of Scottish Highland Historiography

Lady Baublehead was someone I only saw from a distance, sometimes in brief flashes through the windows of the mansion of the sprawling estate I espied on my long walks through the countryside beyond our village. By this time she was already entering old age, reportedly falling into a state of dementia which only increased after the demise of her husband, Lord Baublehead, rumour had it, accelerated by family squabbles over the future of their collective legacy.

When the funeral was held in our parish church, I was too curious not to enter anonymously and surreptitiously into the ritual proceedings, and try to learn more about her, and the goings-on of the reserved yet illustrious family.

The first to speak at the funeral was Dr. Wiesner, cousin to Lord Baublehead, who was present at the time of her death. His manner, as expected of a man of his rank and learning, was cool and collected as he addressed the assembly. “I shall be as objective as possible, presenting only the facts as they stand. Lady Baublehead was born Sarah Stewart, on February 22, 1922 in Staffin, the Isle of Skye, weighing 8 pounds, 9 ounces. She received very high marks throughout her education, earning distinctions in English and Mathematics in particular. She met Lord Baublehead when they were both students at Edinburgh and were wed on June 3, 1956. Only one child issued from their union, Margaret. Lady Baublehead experienced increasing levels of dysphasia after the death of her beloved husband in 1999. She passed away last Wednesday from related complications. That completes my account.”

The doctor disappeared with a dramatic swish of the black curtain behind the coffin.

Lord Baublehead’s sister, Lady Wrymouth, emerged from the front bench, walking with a steady, stately gait to the pulpit. “We are greatly saddened by the death of our beloved sister,” she stated with decorum. “She was a great asset to our community, indeed to our entire nation. She gave of herself generously whenever anyone asked of her help. She was there with me when I was working tirelessly on my charity for the orphaned children of veterans, just as she exerted herself selflessly with me when I was labouring in the garden. We are so proud of the improvement she was able to effect in her own life through being adopted into our family, having refined herself from a simple and rude state of affairs to that of polish and civilisation.  She thus offers a model of progress for all those who wish a better life for themselves and others. If she were here herself, we have no doubt that she would reassure you not to suffer on her account, but only to reflect on your own path, have hope and be grateful.”

She returned to the front bench, apparently only now allowing herself to express grief, without her face being exposed to the rest of the congregation. After a long and awkward pause, a woman arose from the opposite bench. The sorrow was much clearer to read on her countenance, even under her dark veil. She carried a compact black book in her hand and opened it as she reached the pulpit.

“This is my mother’s diary. It allows her to speak for herself, over the years, in a way that others cannot. She found it very difficult to leave the community of her birth and the language of her youth. She was courageous and adventurous, able to accommodate herself to the expectations made upon her – learning English, donning apparel previously unknown to her, moving in circles of people previously strange to her – but she was seldom allowed to assert her own opinions or spend her time as she would have preferred.” At this, there was some uncomfortable stirring and coughing from some of the family.

But she continued. “The name she bestowed on me at birth is Maighread, her own mother’s name, although she was willing concede that an English version of my name be used by those who could not pronounce it. She taught me her native language and we spoke it in the privacy of our home and on family visits to Skye, but it was not considered polite to use around others. My father did not entirely disapprove of our language and did not insist that we abstain from our linguistic habits, and he even shielded us from the censure of the rest of his family. Mother was exposed to the disapproval of others after his passing.”

“It was her wish that our home become a museum to the history of her people on her passing, and that is my wish as well. Although many of her brothers and sisters, and their children, have little interest in maintaining the memory of their humble origins, she preferred to celebrate and commemorate all that which built the foundation of her life, and that of many others who did not enjoy the privileges that she married into – even if the strain added greatly to her unhappiness.”

There was an impassioned discussion between neighbours after the funeral was over, with some saying that the doctor was the only person qualified to speak authoritatively about Lady Baublehead, and that the daughter was far too close to the issue to be objective. Others professed preference for the words of Lady Wrymouth, noting her fine, noble sentiments and her advocacy of all that is worthy of emulation. It was a curious proceeding. Some said that the daughter was hoping to find a publisher who could put her mother’s diary into print, to help to settle the conflict over the family inheritance, but seeds of doubt about the lucidity of Lady Baublehead, especially in her later years, have been well sown now – Highlanders are, after all, known to be prone to odd flights of fancy that cannot be taken seriously, and even Lady Margaret must have a touch of that madness –, and the Wiesners have great influence amongst people of letters.

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