A Scottish Love Affair

I began a private, very personal love affair with Scotland decades ago when I first learned that Buchanan is a Scottish clan name with its own colorful tartan and coat of arms and that our Presbyterian church came from Scotland. The more I learned about Scotland, Scottish history, Highland culture, the Scottish Reformation, the more deeply I fell in love.

When the first opportunity to visit Scotland presented itself, I jumped. It was 1973. I was 35. Sue and I had five children, ages 13 to 3, we lived in Lafayette, Indiana, where I was serving as the pastor of Bethany Presbyterian Church. A respected mentor, J. Dayton McCormick, took an interest in me and told me it would be a good thing for me, and for my family, to live in Scotland, exchanging pulpits with a Church of Scotland minister. He contacted friends in Stirling who put me in touch with a Scottish pastor who wished to come to the U.S. and a deal was negotiated and sealed. We would travel to Scotland and live in the manse of the Parish Kirk in Kinlochleven, a small village in the Western Highlands. He and his family would travel to the United States and live in our home. We would each preach in the other’s pulpit and be a pastor to the congregation for the summer. He would drive my nine passenger Chevrolet station wagon and we would drive his tiny, well-used Morris Miner. We scraped together every penny we could and borrowed the rest from a church member and the seven of us, with 21 pieces of luggage, flew from Indianapolis to New York to Prestwick, an old R.A.F. base on the Southwest coast of Scotland. It turned out to be the adventure of a lifetime.

I preached every Sunday to my tiny Highland congregation and we traveled, visiting as much of Scotland as we could, seven of us squeezed into our tiny auto. We saw more castles than our children could possible care about, walked through the rainy, windy, muddy hills, shivered by a coal fire every night. We knew at the time, and it has become even more apparent with each passing year, that it was the very best thing we could possibly have done.

So we did it again, five years later, in 1978. I was a pastor in Columbus, Ohio, Broad Street Presbyterian Church and the children were 18-8. This time we exchanged pulpits, houses and automobiles with a Church of Scotland parish pastor in Moffat, a lovely small town in sheep country near Dumfries, in the Border Country. Once again we scraped together the money, borrowed the rest and had another amazing experience including making friendships that have lasted over the years.

Now I am writing in a hotel room near the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, a two minute walk from St. Giles’ Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh where my colleague of 17 years and our dear friend, Calum MacLeod is the  minister. We are traveling with daughter Diane and her husband, Rick Andrew, and daughter, Susan. Sue and I feel like celebrities on this trip with our own Trip Planner and Tour Guide – Diane, Driver and Porter – Rick, and personal physician – Susan. We have had a perfect 12 days beginning with a weekend in Edinburgh, worship at St. Giles’ with Calum’s elegant and brave sermon on Europe Sunday, suggesting – in the face of a fair amount of jingoism and xenophobic hype, so reminiscent of Donald Trump – that at the heart of Christian Faith is the deep understanding that human unity is always better than separation and disunity. A four day, three night visit to Glencoe in the Western Highlands gave us opportunity to visit Kinlochleven  where we discovered the minister in the manse front yard throwing a ball to a dog and visibly irritated him by introducing ourselves as long-ago summer residents of the manse and village, asking him to interrupt his playing with the dog to unlock the church so we could have a look inside which he did without enthusiasm. There was no sign of life in this poor little Kirk which was locked up tightly of course, to assure no stranger could walk in – which may or may not be part of the reason fewer and fewer Scots seem inclined to inquire within.

The Western Highlands are quite unlike anything I have ever seen. Simply being there is, for me, powerful. They are not as high as the Rockies and not nearly as lushly green as the Appalachians: steep, rocky, mostly barren, they loom literally and just as literally brood, but not ominously, not at all. There are deep ravines, an occasional dramatic waterfall. When it rains, as it does frequently in the Highlands, rivulets and steams appear, rushing down from the heights so that the mountains appear to be weeping. Scottish lore names Glencoe the “Glen of Weeping” because of the phenomenon but also because of the famous massacre of the MacDonalds by English soldiers and their Campbell Clan allies. From the Highlands we drove across to St. Andrew, site of the University of St. Andrew and the famous golf course, for a night’s stay and magnificent meal, and then across the Firth of Forth bridge back to Edinburgh.

From Edinburgh we drove to Moffat where we spent the summer of 1978 to meet dear friends. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch and two hours of catching up with our families. The “wee ones” in 1978 are all grown up, married with children of their own. Of course, we oohed and awed at pictures of one another’s children and grandchildren, and we reminisced about those special weeks together almost 40 years ago. We visited their beautiful St. Andrew’s Kirk and met their minister. Carefully and delicately our Scottish friends raised the Donald Trump issue and expressed great relief when we assured them that his bullying and vulgar narcissism is as offensive to us and to many Americans as it is to them. We assured them of our hope and confidence that although the British and American media is obsessed with him and his antics a majority of Americans still seem inclined to vote for his Democratic opponent.

At our request our Scottish friends took us out of town to Grey Mare’s Tail, where we hiked, as we did years ago with our family, to view the stunning waterfall, one of the highest in Great Britain. We were reminded once again of what a precious gift these long friendships are and how they have so enriched our lives.

Sunday worship at St. Giles’ was, again, inspiring and, for me, powerful and deeply moving. It is not only the place where my ecclesiastical tradition was born under the strong and often controversial leadership and preaching of John Knox in the mid-sixteenth century, it is the mother church of Presbyterianism, our own St. Peter’s. It’s a magnificent gothic building with a typical cathedral collection of plaques and monuments and side chapels commemorating military battles and lost Scots soldiers who were the casualties. St. Giles sits on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, midway between the famous Edinburgh Castle at the top and the Palace of Holyrood House, the Queen’s Edinburgh residence, at the bottom. There are thousands of tourists. Calum told me that one million people from all over the world visit the cathedral every year.

Calum MacLeod is a native Scot who came to Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, for a nine month internship and stayed for 17 years, has been the minister of St. Giles’ for a year and a half. He is obviously doing a fabulous job and from my studied perspective, doing the work he was called to do in the place he was called to do it. I confess to a heart full of pride in him and dear Missy, his American – Chicago – Fourth Presbyterian wife. Sue and I shared Kleenex for most of the service.

It was nice to be away from the presidential campaign for a while although Donald Trump and, to a lesser degree, Hillary Clinton are regularly in the news there as well as here. The British press and everyone we talked to is as perplexed and disappointed by the Trump phenomenon and the virtual disappearance in front of our eyes of a long and distinguished Republican Party tradition of prudent, wise, responsible national and international leadership. At the same time, reading about Great Britain’s own issue of whether or not to remain or leave the European Union, I am struck by the similarities to our own issues of fear of immigrants and immigration, Islamaphobia and a nostalgia for an imaginary day when all was well with Great Britain and the United States and we were pretty much in control of things across the globe. Closer to the continent, it is impossible not to notice the emergence of a radical right wing xenophobia in France, Germany and Italy mirroring what is happening here.

I return home hoping and praying for political wisdom, experienced, smart, measured, thoughtful about the realities of the world in which our nation must live and lead. And I return with renewed and happy gratitude for priceless time with daughters, son-in-law, and dear Sue in a place I find I love as much as ever.


  1. Becky Dedo says:

    Thank you, Dr. Buchanan for this post. I miss your stories from the pulpit, so this eases that longing a bit. And I’m thrilled – but not surprised – to hear Calum is thriving. I would have liked very much to see the two of you together in the same church again!

  2. Diane Buchanan says:

    Thank you for taking us there, Dad…so that we could begin a love affair with that special place too! You and Mom were so brave to take 5 young children into the unknown in 1973…way before there were cell phones and internet access and even before it was so easy to make phone calls overseas! You really didn’t know what you were getting into! It was a risk…exciting but still a risk. And it really turned out to be the best thing you and we could have done! It exposed us to another culture and ways of living and fueled our love of travel. It was an important influence on 5 young people…think about how MANY times we’ve reminisced about those summers?! I’m so grateful that you and Mom took that risk!

  3. Thank you for a wonderful travelogue. As a proud descendant of Scottish grandparents (and longtime member of Fourth Church), I felt like I was right there with you.

  4. Carole Ogden says:

    Thanks so much for sharing. I especially enjoyed the update on Calum. Good to know that he is doing so well.

  5. bill and sonja thank you for the travel (great mind pictures – Morris Miner, etc.)
    we just do armchair travels mostly — nice remembrances, looking over your shoulders.

  6. Nancy Jo Myers says:

    So happy to hear it was a safe, meaningful and beautiful trip. Thank you for sharing your views, both personal and environmental. In this curious time we are living in, you offer hope and assure me that I need to keep Scotland on my bucket list. Hugs to all of you!

  7. Lee Shackelford says:

    Delightful to hear about a favorite family and minister having an inspirational reunion in a setting I love.

  8. Ted Davis says:

    What a wonderful gift — your blending of your special experiences there in Scotland and your observations of today’s hopes and fears in the same places. Thanks! We will travel there in August with the McCrackens, as you know, and plan to see Calum and Missy too. A very special place — and the fact it is so special to you makes it even more attractive to us. Seems to me there is also a special beverage that we should sample together in honor of that special place…

  9. Susan mccoy says:

    Hello, Dr. Buchanan. I met your daughter, Diane, in Denton,Tx through mutual friends and our support of Planned Parenthood. Diane posted your latest blog regarding the Republican Convention on Facebook and, despite the fact I’m an atheist, I am very inspired by your blog. I have subscribed to it and I’m now reading other posts you have made. Your writing is so thoughtful, kind and all-inclusive – it brought me a fine sense of calm, despite the republican chaos. Thank you, Susan McCoy


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