Meet Me By The Fountain
I woke early, grabbed my coat and closed the door quietly behind me. I wound my way down the stairs and crossed the bar-doubling-as-breakfast room, my boots sticking to the floor.
Busting the hostel doors open, the freezing Scottish winter air hit me in the face. Hands stuffed in pockets I made my way to the Royal Mile, the long cobbled street that rises all the way to Edinburgh Castle at its peak.
The world was still waking up, and I had the tourist zone to myself. I stepped on well worn stones as I made my way up the slope. Souvenir shop staff pulled up their shutters, but I was looking at the alleyways beside them, narrow dark places that led to staircases or wound out of sight. What trysts, underhand dealings and drama had happened here in centuries past? Who were the people who lived and loved and died here?
Gradually more people arrived. The hum of conversation rose as did the mist, and with it came the unmistakable smell of… vegemite. Edinburgh, on the other side of the world, smelt like home.
“Ah, the breweries,” my teenage self realised, “it’s the yeast”.
I continued on up the hill, becoming one of the first visitors of the day to explore the castle.
Over a decade has passed since that trip, and shared hostel rooms and international travel are well off my parenting-in-lockdown radar.
A couple of months ago I stood at the bench making vegemite toast for my toddler. (“Lather it on”, says her dad “we can’t raise a vegemite weakling”). It was misty outside, just as freezing inside and I was wearing an old coat.
As I watched the heat waves rising from the toaster, I was reflecting on a discussion I’d had recently about how the void of perceived culture-less-ness sometimes sees white people misappropriating rituals or practices from other cultures, or seeking insight into traditional knowledges that were never ours to know.
I admitted some examples of times I had unwittingly done exactly that, and recalled how I’d scoured my family tree to look for an Aboriginal relation whose bloodline might tie me spiritually to the land, trees, sea and sky I loved.
We had reflected on how many Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and First Nations people could not trace a lineage because of what families who looked like mine (and likely were mine) did to their peoples in the last 233 years.
I opened the familiar yellow-labelled jar, and…
Edinburgh doesn’t smell like home, home smells like Edinburgh.
Because not so long ago in my lineage, Scotland was home.
Every alleyway I looked down was seen by my forebears.
Every stone I trod was walked on or placed or quarried by my relatives.
I’m making assumptions here, but this was the revelation as it came to me.
Up the top of the Royal Mile, just before entering Edinburgh Castle, is a small cast iron fountain and plaque. To be honest I don’t remember seeing it at all, and knowing my hatred of queuing for entry to anything, I probably rushed straight past it.
The fountain is called the Witches’ Well, and is dedicated to the more than 4,000 Scottish people (mostly women) who were drowned, hung or burned at the stake between the 15th and 18th centuries. Over 300 women were burned in that exact location alone.
These were Medicine Women.
These were women who ruffled feathers.
These were women who were perceived to be unhinged, unbecoming, unsavoury.
This is where my cultural exploration and ancestral unpacking begins, at this tiny fountain.
Where I plug into with the waves of women who cared about community, ceremony and connection before me.
Where I fill my own “culture cup” without tugging on the sleeves of (understandably pissed off) First Nations and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse peoples to share theirs with me, while I continue to be afforded all the privileges associated with being white.
I can still appreciate the beauty of the artwork, dance, spoken word and whatever else the true Custodians of the place known as “Australia” feel is appropriate to share with me. I still love the land, trees, sky and sea here too. I can’t explain it yet, but it feels like I have even greater reverence for these things and an expanded ability to be open to the true, painful personal histories of recent years now I have let my yearning for inclusion go.
How this story ends I’m not sure.
I have so much to learn and unlearn, and so much to feel before I can access the full weight of these lessons.
If we can ever travel again, I might head back to the Royal Mile again and make my way up to the castle, just to wander and watch, to sit there and soak it all in.
If you’re a Medicine Woman too, I’ll meet you by the fountain.
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