Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Tartan tales and traditions

January 7th, 2017

DSC04145UNTIL A year ago I had unquestioningly accepted the family tradition that all Scottish Whitsons sprang from the loins of “three Norwegian brothers who, in the old Viking days, came over in their galleys and remained in Scotland. One landed in the estuary of the Tay, one in Berwickshire and the third in Galloway.

“He who landed in the Tay was called Quhitson, as near as the sound can be spelt, although the name really was Whitson – son of the white one.” According to my great-uncle Toby, who put together the family tree in 1935, the name was still pronounced Quhitson in Shetland.

“The brother who landed in Galloway was called Hewitson and the name is still so pronounced and spelt there. The brother who landed in Berwickshire was, and his descendants still are, called Whitsum.” A Patrick de Whitsum granted the monks of Melrose a part of his lands in the village of Spott near the town of Dunbar in East Lothian.

Like any family tradition all of this can be dismissed as romantic speculation. But it is so plausible and if your great-uncle writes it down and says it is true why would you doubt it? Anyway, I wanted to believe that I was a Viking.

In 2011 I wrote an article for The Scottish Banner, an American Scottish-interest journal in which I set out to prove that, on a balance of probabilities and historical fact, there was every reason to believe the family tradition was credible.

The first entry in the family tree is dated 1140 which falls well within the period of Viking immigration and settlement in Scotland which ended with the Battle of Largs in 1263. While plunder may have been the Vikings’ primary objective, many came to Scotland as traders and settlers and married into the local Celtic population.

Despite their savage fighting reputation the Viking Norwegians were a farming nation. Mountainous Norway was mostly settled only along its coastal fringe and as its population expanded, and pressure increased on its farmland, Scotland offered opportunities to acquire land and settle here. So it is not romantic speculation to suggest that there had been Whitsons in Scotland for several hundred years before 1140.

Bring forrit the tartan
Confident in the belief that Viking Whitsons had been in Scotland for the best part of a millennium it seemed only proper that we should have a Whitson tartan. The Doyenne and I, and our daughter Cait, with guidance from the then Scottish Tartans Museum in Comrie, took on the project.

The green, blue and black of the Black Watch sett formed the basis of our new sett and we added three red stripes – red being the Viking colour – representing the three Viking brothers. We showed a trial weaving to my mother whose immediate comment was – “It’s a Whitson tartan, dear. It needs a touch of the sun.” Yellow lines were added, transforming the original trial, and the birth of the Whitson tartan was complete.

To settle the whole Viking question once and for all, a year ago I had my DNA tested. I was on hecklepins for weeks waiting for confirmation of my ancestry.

It’s taken a year to admit it but imagine my chagrin on finding that, after all I have said and written, I am not a Viking and my ancestors originated in Ireland and I am genetically related to the Ancient Irish group.

Counterattack
Despite this setback there are other family traditions to support the Whitson’s fighting spirit.

The first Battle of Dunbar in 1296 was fought on Spottsmuir, part of the farm of Spott, near Dunbar, when the army of Edward Longshanks, King Edward I of England, Hammer of the Scots soundly routed the Scottish army under King John Balliol, known disparagingly thereafter as Toom Tabard or Empty Shirt.

Family tradition has it that the tenant of the farm was a Whitson ancestor.

History does not relate what happened to the old ancestor after the battle, but they were inclined to duff you up just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I like to think that, nonetheless, he gave them all a good round of the guns for the shocking state they’d left his farm in.

A Border Whitson (Whitsum?) and his six sons marched out in 1513 to fight at the Battle of Flodden when the Scottish king, James IV, and the cream of the Scottish nobility were amongst the more than 10,000 Scottish casualties of Henry VIII’s invading army. The father died alongside his monarch and the story that the six sons were captured by Welsh bowmen and marched to England for ransom was probably nothing more than a vicious rumour put about by the Welsh bowmen.

I should make it clear that I have no objection to being Irish. Many moons ago now the Doyenne and I honeymooned very happily in Connemara and perhaps it was the pull of the old genetic strings drawing me back to the mother country that helped us choose there.

Still, I wouldn’t have minded being a Viking.

Written on Saturday, January 7th, 2017 at 11:01 pm for Weekly.