“I’m so darned restless and unhappy these days just can’t make a decision one way or another. If only I could get right away for a while I’m sure it would help. I’ll never get out of my own light while I continue here.” Margaret S. Tait, 2nd May 1950
In May 1950, aged 25 years, Margaret Tait set out alone, on a journey that took her from Orkney across the North Atlantic, then right across Canada. Margaret Tait was my grandmother. In 2013, also aged 25, I set out on my own journey: to retrace her steps and try to fill in the gaps in her story – gaps created by the tantalising disappearance of one crucial volume of her diaries.
Margaret’s uncle, James Tait, had emigrated from the green islands of Orkney to the Canadian prairies in the early 1900s, married, and brought up a family. During the war years, his sons Lorne, Del and Arnold were stationed all around Europe with the Canadian army. Margaret wrote regular letters to her cousins and each of them took time during leave to visit their family in Orkney. In the years after the war, Margaret found herself facing a difficult decision and, ‘restless and unhappy,’ decided to travel half way around the world, staying with her Canadian cousins, and using the time away from Orkney to rethink her life and make some difficult decisions. Her chief dilemma: whether she should marry her fiancé, Iain, or another dashing suitor, Sydney. One of these men had the surname Bichan, and was my grandfather.
Margaret’s long-forgotten diaries were discovered after her death in 2008, along with many letters written to and received from her cousins throughout the war. To my family’s relief, amongst her belongings was a long lost recording of her singing on a Canadian Broadcasting Company radio showcase, during her brief visit to Winnipeg in 1950. How did she come to record for the CBC? How did she decide who to marry? I felt compelled to explore my family ties to Canada (which grew more deep and complex the more I looked into them), my own connection to my grandmother (who I seemed to have more and more in common with), and our shared love of music.I have taken inspiration from Margaret’s diaries, the memories of my elderly Canadian cousins who I tracked down and interviewed, the precious photographs which remain from her trip, and photographs I took on my own trip in her footsteps. And above all I have been inspired by the traditional music of Orkney, music I grew up surrounded by, music that Margaret had a surprising relationship with. Music that I still play every day.