“YOU got all Scottish back there,” says my brother, Marco, smirking as our taxi rumbles away. It’s July 2010, and we’re outside our family home in Edinburgh, fresh off the plane from two weeks in Canada—and though I try to brush off his comment I know exactly what he means. On the ride from the airport, through the city’s sleepy western suburbs, our cab driver had taken advantage of his captive audience to expound on a number of pet peeves—the upcoming festival season, the council’s controversial tram project—and when occasionally I interjected I could hear as clearly as Marco did my accent’s sudden lurch Scotsward. I’d heard it as soon as I gave the cabbie our address that morning, actually. Had felt it, my facial movements stiff and alien, as if someone else’s hands were fumbling my lips around for me.

I understood why Marco found the shift amusing; most of the time when we’re together, at home, with our American father and his Italian mother—my stepmother—I don’t sound very Scottish at all. But even so, as I unlock the front door and we carry our bags inside, I’m instantly on edge, remembering the last time I’d been to Edinburgh, visiting over Christmas from where I lived, at the time, in the States—when my cabbie to Edinburgh Airport asked me if I’d had a nice holiday.

“I wasn’t on holiday,” I told him. “I grew up here.”

He gave me a sharp look in his mirror as if I’d just sprouted a rhinoceros horn. “You don’t have much of an accent,” he sniffed, and I agreed that, no, I did not. After that we rode the rest of the way in silence.

So that my brother could so easily detect my change in register today makes me wonder if our cabbie that morning had been any more convinced, or if each word from my mouth had stirred a suspicion that I often share: that I’m not, in fact, “all Scottish” in the slightest.

• • •

My parents moved to Edinburgh a few days past my first birthday. Then they were coming only from England, where I was born, but originally they were from America, so thanks to Lady Thatcher’s nationalist legislating I was always an odd sort of in between—not eligible for British citizenship, but given leave, once my parents permanently settled, to remain indefinitely in the country.

As immigration statuses go, it was fairly unobtrusive. For most intents and purposes I was a Scot, and for as long as I can remember I considered myself one, at least insofar as prepubescents think about national identity. It wasn’t until a school trip to France, when I was thirteen, that my foreignness really began to make itself felt: arriving at customs in Charles de Gaulle, I was singled out to stand in the Other Nationalities queue with my navy blue U.S. passport, while my peers whizzed past in the E.U. lane with their claret British ones.

After that I started noticing other differences, too, and dwelling on those that in the past I’d dismissed. My friends had mums, I now brooded, where I only had a mom; they sat down for tea in the evenings while I was haplessly eating supper. In the summertime they vacationed in places like Majorca and Alicante, those bastions of the British holiday-maker, while I spent my time visiting grandparents in the far duller settings of Durham, New Hampshire, and Ormond Beach, Florida. And then there was my accent, which certainly wasn’t Scottish, I suddenly realised, even if I’d absorbed my schoolmates’ vowel sounds and a good deal of their slang—and yet wasn’t quite American either.

I was probably more aware of my accent than most children because my father is a linguist, and while I was growing up he would sit at the dinner table and dissect my speech patterns—or anyone else’s present—because he simply couldn’t help bringing his work home. (Thank God he isn’t a proctologist.) As soon as I’d uttered my first words I became a regular fixture in the recording booth at the university, and later on he even loaned me to a grad student for a dissertation on mixed accents. (My youngest brother, Carlo, got the same treatment, and is now a famous case study in bilingualism.) But even if my father—and my stepmother, and my uncle, and numerous family friends, linguists all—sensitised me to my accent, after that trip to France I’d soon adopted it as a self-devouring obsession all my own.

• • •

When I wasn’t spending summers in the States I was spending them in Toronto, with that linguist uncle and his two sons, both about my age. That was where I went the summer after my school trip awakening, and that was where, among my cousins and their friends and their leisurely North American vowels—their cahfees and rahck bands and sitcahms—my anxiety about my accent reached dizzying new heights. My torturously Old World O’s; my gently trilling R’s; and my T’s, clipped and glottalised in some words and painstakingly over-pronounced in others—I was sure I sounded more like a yokel each time I opened my mouth. Even the damn vocabulary was different: sneakers instead of trainers, sweaters instead of jumpers, soda or pop instead of the charming Scottishism fizzy drink. And that was simple compared to the remarkably precise ontological boundaries separating trousers and pants.

So for the first time I can remember, that summer, I began, almost without realising, to adjust my accent, playing Sahnic the Hedgehog instead of the Sawnic I played at home, and introducing myself as Ehandrew instead of Ahndrew. By the end of my two weeks that summer I’d picked up a definite Torontonian drawl—which was fine until I hopped the plane back to Edinburgh and my schoolmates, throwing me into renewed paroxysms of embarrassment while my usual accent reasserted itself.

With that seal broken, though, the adjustments began to happen everywhere. I have a vivid memory of being in French class one morning when the teacher asked if anyone knew what patinage meant; hardly thinking, I turned from a whispered conversation with a friend and called out SKAY-unh (skating, with the t swallowed in a brusque Scottish grunt). The teacher looked at me, horrified, and asked me to repeat myself, at which point some piece of mental machinery whirred to life and I repeated SKAY-ting with impeccable, barely Scottish enunciation.

Everyone goes through this sort of vacillation between registers to some extent, of course, which is why you probably never addressed your teachers the same way you did your friends, either. But usually such shifts consist of subtler changes in grammar, diction, and vocabulary, and even if they do involve a change in accent it’s a matter of degree, not kind. You might get more or less Southern, but you won’t become a New Yorker.

So it went with me, though: gruffly Scottish with my friends, gentile British with my teachers, and at home with my parents a more generic, American-tinged English. That Torontonian drawl kept coming back each summer, too, and the next time I visited my grandparents I even picked up some of their Eastern European consonants and broken syntax. Before long, if you’d asked me what my “real” accent was, I simply wouldn’t have had an answer.

• • •

I sometimes wonder if the reason I was so primed for this kind of switching is my parents’ divorce when I was five—not because it was particularly traumatic, but because of their amicable joint custody agreement whereby every week or two I’d move between their houses. With every move, most of my belongings moved with me, but I also had more unique items that couldn’t travel—like the giant, delicate Lego models at my dad’s house, or the plush den of cushions where I read at my mom’s—so the need to separate the two lives quickly became part of my everyday existence. And because I was scatter-brained enough that important items would always get forgotten, especially when I was still in single digits, by the time I’d reached my teens we’d developed several systems to solidify those distinctions.

There were the plastic moving crates, for example, labelled with the broad categories of belongings I’d always want with me (drawing supplies, video games); there were back-ups in place at each house (a spare school blazer, a second Lego set). And then there was The Checklist, a spreadsheet of all the most crucial, unforgettable items, printed afresh before each move—an empirical, physical artifact documenting my life in easy-to-reference bullet points. Yet the Checklist was almost more important for the things it didn’t cover, because if something wasn’t crucial enough to have at both houses, it didn’t represent the core “me”—only one of the peripheral mes I became at either one.

Because I did change, from my mom’s place to my dad’s—or from Forbes to Leamington, as we called them, after the street name of each home. At Forbes we had cable, and an endless supply of recorded American shows on VHS, lovingly sent over by my grandfather in Florida—so there I watched more TV. We had a cordless phone at Forbes, too, which I’d take to my room to spend hours talking with my friends, and a computer just for me so that I could write and play games at my leisure. On Friday, we always ordered pizza from a delivery place downtown.

It wasn’t that my dad forbade any of these things, or prevented me from doing what I secretly missed or loved; I simply did different things at Leamington, without any sense of shortcoming. I had a bigger room there, hence the Lego space stations laid out across the floor; we had a private yard where I played footie with the kids next door. I seldom watched TV at Leamington, and when I did I used headphones so the noise wouldn’t wake baby Marco. Instead of ordering pizza, our weekly take-out came from the Chinese restaurant across the street.

And yes, my language changed between Forbes and Leamington too, because my dad and stepmother were raising my brothers bilingual, and naturally I began to pick up a few scraps of Italian of my own: calling ciao instead of hi when my parents arrived home at night, referring to my dad as Papà, and carrying on dinner table conversations in a faltering Italian-English pidgin. But I’m not convinced, actually, that those differences in language played any larger role in my later accent shifts than the constant, increasingly unconscious switching between the two environments. Because by the end of high school I would simply turn up on moving day, drop off my bags, and get down to business as if I’d been there all my life—just as I do whenever I cross the Atlantic now.

• • •

Once I finished high school I put my blue passport to good use and enrolled in college in Boston. You might think that, thrust among North American teenagers as I had been in Toronto, I would have self-consciously adapted again, but this time I wasn’t so worried. After all, every freshman wants something to make them cool and unique—right?—and boy did I have one. There were no more embarrassments to be suffered from my accent, I told myself, only people to be intrigued. Let me sound however I sound.

It worked fine for a while. Girls cooed and fawned over my exotic European brogue; mingling at parties was a breeze. (Oh my gawd, are you Scawttish?) But the less I paid attention the more my accent began to drift, and when I returned to Edinburgh the summer after freshman year my friends there were aghast at how American I sounded, even—and this is the part that really shook me—when I thought I was talking to them in the same, Scottish way I always had. Worse, when I returned to Boston for sophomore year, the new people I met increasingly didn’t even believe me when I told them where I was from. “But you don’t have an accent!” they’d cry, as if expecting me to slap my forehead and remember I was actually from Des Moines. And though I would always reassure them that they’d hear it once we talked a little longer, and though indeed they always did, it was unsettling to be told on a regular basis that I wasn’t—couldn’t possibly be—from where I was from.

Before long it wasn’t just unsettling, either, it was annoying, not only because I got tired of answering those same old questions but because, no matter how long I stayed in Boston, and then Montreal, and then Boston again, and no matter how much I came to love those places, I didn’t want to be from them. I wasn’t from them. So it was frustrating to always have to follow up “I’m from Edinburgh,” with “Yes, I know—my accent comes and goes.” To have to talk like a Scot, it seemed, to be considered one. Because why should I have to go through life defending myself like that? Why should I have to feel like a fraud in my own country, just because of some childhood linguistic accident?

After another few years it wasn’t just frustrating—it was upsetting, because people were now more-often-than-not assuming I was American, just as the anti-American sentiment sparked by President Bush and the Wars on Terror and Iraq reached its zenith. By this point I didn’t even want to stay in America myself; I wanted to return to Scotland, to my home and its feeling of safety and belonging—and yet whenever I visited, I enjoyed no such thing. Instead I found only those friends telling me I sounded foreign, or cab drivers glaring at me in their mirrors, or total strangers taking out their anti-American frustrations on me just because of my accent—of which one example in particular comes to mind.

It was August, and I was at the box office for one of Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival venues, where I work as manager during the summers. A customer had decided to kick up a fuss because he wasn’t admitted to his show, and though this was manifestly no one’s fault but his—he was carousing in the bar and didn’t hear the repeated calls for the house—he was nevertheless demanding a refund. After arguing in circles for almost half an hour, his manner progressively unpleasant, he finally wrapped things up by saying, “Look, mate, thirty quid is a lot of money. We can’t all afford to get flown over from America on our trust funds.”

This seemed like an especially outrageous complaint coming from someone who was late for the theatre at four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon because he’d been too busy quaffing expensive Irish cider (a glass of which he continued to wave at me throughout our conversation). But even more outrageous, to me, was the implication that I had unreasonably swanned into his country and fucked it up for him when in fact I had been there fucking it up for most of my life, actually, and felt as if I had at least as much license to do so as he was liberally exercising. By this point it was even official; I had earned my British citizenship. But his comment stung—still does, when I think back to it—because it stirs my fears that somehow my claim to Scotland is illegitimate; that no matter how I feel about the place, I’ll always be an outsider.

Lately that fear has been even worse, with the Scottish independence referendum looming ever closer, because under the separatists’ proposed rules, if the split were successful, I wouldn’t automatically qualify for citizenship. (The vote is about two weeks from this essay’s publication date, so depending on when you’re reading I may already have been officially labelled “not Scottish” by my own damn country’s government.) And that, I’m sure, is the biggest reason why, whenever I go home or meet a fellow Scot abroad, I still swing back to “being all Scottish” again. It’s the one small act of dissent I have; the one way to insist that I belong.

Because I do belong in Scotland. When I really think about it there seems no other possible conclusion. My earliest memories are of waking on Christmas Day in the pitch black of an Edinburgh winter morning; of crossing the Bruntsfield Links through a thick, claustrophobic fog. The city’s skyline is burnt so thoroughly into my memory I could draw it with my eyes shut. And most of all it’s the place that feels like home to me. The place that’s always felt like home. If anything my time in other countries has made that connection more certain—because I’m never calmer than when I step off the plane at Turnhouse or the train at Waverley, and by the time I’ve reached my neighbourhood it’s all I can do not to grin like a drunk. I may have spent the last thirteen years elsewhere, but that doesn’t change my first eighteen—the ones I spent in Edinburgh, absorbing the rhythm of life there, and falling in love for the first time, and learning how to be with other people, among other people, apart from other people. How to be a person myself. Those are the things that make you of a specific place, I think, far more than the peculiar bursts of air coming out of your throat. So when people comment on my lack of accent now, I tell them what I try to tell myself: that I am Scottish, whether I sound that way or not.


Andrew Ladd's debut novel, WHAT ENDS, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Prize in the Novel, and his shorter work has appeared in Apalachee Review, CICADA, Graze, Memoir Journal, Yemassee, and The Rumpus, among others. He grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has since lived in Boston, Montreal, and New York; currently he lives in London with his wife.

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BT #011 © 2014 Andrew Ladd. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, September 2014.


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on a scotch bard,
gone to the west indies

by andrew ladd
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