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Hunting Down My 'Auld Country' Scottish Roots

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My earliest memory is of oatmeal. Not a crib, not a baby's toy. A bowl. Behind it and a busy spoon was my grandmother, Nanny Liz, who made it clear to me, even in those days, that I was by half a Scot.

My father's Russian Jewish roots seem tinged with mystery: details were scarce. But my mother's Scottish line has always had reams of memories of the "auld country," the area around Aberdeen in the country's raw and heathered northeast.

A few years back, I made up my mind that this was the time to reconnect with my McGregor and Emslie roots, scope out the farm where my oatmeal-spooning grandmother grew up, and trace as many other family landmarks as I could.

The morning I arrive happens to be sunny and Aberdeen is as sparkly and spread out as the sea. "It's the granite houses," explains my cousin, Greig, who meets me at the station. "The stone is speckled with mica. But doesn't it look like silver?" It does.

Next day, Greig and I drive down to the area near Inverurie where our McGregor ancestors owned a farm and market and where the family of my grandfather, Thom Emslie, were the gardeners at Fetternear, a local laird's estate. Hills on the horizon are purple with dots and dashes of forest. Fields are full of fat black cows.

"Aberdeen Angus cattle!" says Greig. "Great steak, great steak."

Fetternear is easy to find thanks to records I've clicked through at Edinburgh's Scotlands People Centre for family research. Greig and I bushwhack around, scaring a pheasant and watching as it shudders into the air--a jet of brown and red. Paths around Fetternear estate are thick with bracken. A gatepost lurches sideways like an ominous drunk.

Are any estate owners still alive? Greig isn't sure. We can't find a thing that connects to gardening. No potting sheds where Emslies might have worked, no rusted spades, old rakes. No tractors or tools.

Greig can see I'm disappointed. "There's still the McGregor side," he reminds me, as we huff and puff up a mountain path. Passed by children and puppies out for a Sunday walk, we stagger to the top of 1733-foot-high Bennachie where we can look down at the farmland where my grandmother was born.

With two more cousins to help, Stuart and Pat -- plus Stuart's binder stuffed with family notes--we meet up later by a gravel road. Whitewell. The old McGregor farm. Someone's in the garden behind the small stone farmhouse. A sheepdog woofs. Stuart and I get out to rap on the door.

A part of me thinks my bearded great-grandfather James McGregor will appear in period dress. He'll have us in for tea. But no McGregors live here now. An elderly couple blinks at the interruption. "Wha? A farm?" says the man. "Well, 'tisn't one now."

He shows us what is left: A row of horseshoes and some stones for stacking grain. "I was an entertainer, y' know," he adds while shaking our hands goodbye. "Held a torch in a movie. An' for this, I got three Pounds a day."

I have two days left to turn into a top detective. I must be Hercule Poirot to solve the Emslie side of my Scottish roots. I go back to the computer. To my cousin Stuart's notes. It is when I am about to give up the search that I get a call. It's Greig. "I'm coming to get you," he announces. "We're heading back to Fetternear."

There's no time to argue. We're in his car, flying past blurry hills, coiled-up cigars of straw, more cows. His mother, Margaret, who is in her 80s, has had a sudden memory. Knowing I was in Scotland, she'd been trying to remember my middle name.

"It's Bevan," I tell Greig.

"Exactly," he responds. "Your Emslie granddad's middle name was the same -- and everyone called him Bevan. The name put Mum's mind in gear: She knows where Bevan Emslie's house is."

I am nervous as we get to the edge of the estate. It's evening and the sky is like a lake with island clouds. One bird calls and calls. Then stops. It's silent when we get to a granite cottage. Ivy covers its walls and row after row of potted flowers guard its door. Marigolds. Just what my grandparents grew. No Emslies live here now, I'm sure. But I don't care.

Seeing light from a kitchen window, I get closer. Something glints -- it's mica in the stone. Just inside, by a sink, there's a recognizable box. A familiar, old-fashioned brand. Scottish steel-cut oats.

I think of someone mixing this with steaming water. Pouring sugar and salt. Stirring and spooning.

I am hungry again. I am remembering.

I am home.

Peter Mandel is a travel journalist and the author of nine books for kids including his newest about the joys of a good hamburger: Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).