“This yer first time in Scotland?” The cab driver asked, inquisitive brown eyes peering at Avery through the rear-view mirror.
“Yes.” After a brief pause, Avery furrowed her brow. “Well actually, no. I was born here, I guess. But my parents moved back to the US when I was just a few months old.”
“Aye, they here for work or something?”
“Is everyone I encounter here going to be this nosy?” Avery thought to herself. Talking with him was helping distract her though. Calming her frazzled nerves. After a short look out the window at the dreary countryside flying by, she decided to answer. “Yes, my father was a doctor. He was doing a short assignment at a hospital here in Edinburgh when I was born. When it ended, my parents headed back home.”
The cab driver looked up at her in the mirror once more, squinting slightly. She could see that he caught that “was.”
“Well, hey, as far as I’m concerned, if you were born here, you’re a Scot. Welcome home!” He said enthusiastically.
“I really am Scottish though,” Avery wanted to say. But, that was getting way more personal than she wanted to with a complete stranger.
“Thanks. I am really excited to be here.” Avery said finally. And she did mean it, despite that fact that there was an entire swarm of butterflies in her stomach. She had been vacillating wildly between nervous and excited since she had bought the plane ticket.
After a few more minutes of idle chatter about her sightseeing plans, and the persistently damp weather that the country had been experiencing, they lapsed into comfortable silence. Avery watched the city approaching, focusing only on taking deep even breaths, and not the fact that she had no idea what lie in her future.
“It’s a new start. And no matter what, it will be an adventure.” Avery thought, trying to convince herself.
An hour later, officially checked into the hotel in Old Town, and fully unpacked, Avery sat on the bed holding a worn white envelope in her hand. With a barely noticeable tremor in her hand, she pulled the pictures out and laid them gently across the blue and green tartan bedspread. There were ten pictures in total. All old polaroid style photos, faded and crinkled. Each featured the same young woman. She was in her late teens to early twenties, average height and build, but with beautiful thick dark hair and vibrant green eyes. One picture featured the young woman standing at the top of Arthur’s Peak, the city and ocean spread below her, hair blowing in her face as she smiled coyly at the camera. Another picture showed a slightly younger version of the woman, in a pretty urban park, Edinburgh Castle just visible on the hill behind her. And so it went. Each picture featured the same woman, but with a different landmark in the background. Standard photos one might have from outings with family and friends. The woman appeared to be happy and carefree in these photos. A young woman with her entire life ahead of her.
One picture stood out from the others though. More tattered around the edges, clearly handled more often. Avery picked it up gently and gazed at it, chewing on her lower lip. The woman was twenty-three in this photo. She was leaning against a low stone railing, the entrance to Edinburgh Castle directly behind her. There were a handful of tourists in the background, along with men in traditional Scottish dress, holding bagpipes. It must have been summer at the time, as the woman in the foreground was wearing a simple short-sleeved dress, while holding an ice cream cone and laughing. She was also approximately 8 months pregnant.
“The first picture of me.” She said to herself, tracing her fingers over the picture. Avery had found out that she was adopted when she was twelve. She remembered the day vividly. It was an early fall day, bright and brisk. It was a Saturday. She had spent the day playing in the backyard with her best friend, Jessica. Just standard kid stuff, hanging upside down from the lower tree branches, occasionally tossing around a frisbee, all while gossiping about their friends, and boys that they thought were cute. Just before dinnertime, her parents called her inside. They sat her down in the living room, handed her a cup of apple juice, and told that they needed to talk to her. They told her a tragic story about a young woman who was pregnant, and who got in a bad car accident. Avery’s father, Daniel, was a doctor at the hospital where the woman was brought. He told her that they couldn’t save the woman, but the baby girl she was carrying survived. It was something of a miracle.
The baby stayed in the NICU for weeks, but no one ever came to see her, or claim her as their own. As it turned out, there would be no one coming. The woman’s parents had both passed away within the last few years from illnesses, and no other family could be identified. No one knew who the baby’s father was. When Daniel asked what would happen to her, he was told that a social worker would be coming to take her to into foster care as soon as she was cleared to leave the hospital. According to Avery’s parents, they decided right then and there that they wanted her. Avery’s mother, Elizabeth, had been having trouble conceiving, and they had recently started discussing other options. They contacted the social worker that day, filled out the requisite reams of paperwork, and eventually got approval to adopt her. A few weeks later it was official, she belonged to them, and they had never been happier. It was all meant to be. Fated. A few months later Daniel’s temporary assignment was over, and he was needed back at his hospital in Philadelphia.
And that was it. While Avery had never suspected that she was adopted, she also was not entirely surprised about the news. She had loved her parents to death, but something had always felt slightly off, deep down, in a way that she could never verbalize. While it took some time for her to process, there was no drama, no family therapy needed. Avery accepted it, and moved on.
However, after telling Avery about her adoption, they gave her the envelope of pictures. Although no family or close friends ever came forward, apparently someone had mailed the pictures into the adoption agency a few weeks after the accident. Other than her name, Cora McKay, these pictures were all Avery had of her birth mother. At one point in her mid-twenties, Avery had done a bit of internet searching. She had found some basic information, including the article about the car accident, and the name of her grandparents: Beth and Andrew McKay. As her parents had originally told her, they had passed away a few years apart. Andrew first, from a heart condition, and Beth a few years later, from cancer. There were some references to Cora in articles about school events, but that was all Avery could ever find. In the days before social media, the information was sparse. Shortly after this search, Daniel passed away, and Avery decided to stop investigating her birth parents for the time being.
It was just one month ago now that Elizabeth had also passed away, leaving Avery, like her birth mother, completely alone. She had recently turned thirty-three, and was surprisingly unsettled in life. Her only real long-term relationship had ended about six months ago. There were a few, distant cousins on both sides, but no close family. Avery had friends, of course, but most had either moved away for work, or had married and settled down. They kept in touch, and had reached out after the funeral to check on her, but none were really able to be there for her while she adjusted to this new, parentless, life. The final straw had been getting laid off from her job two weeks after the funeral. She had been working as a journalist of sorts, writing for an online news and lifestyle website. After getting bought out by a larger company, they had decided to streamline the team, and remove the redundancies, which apparently included Avery. It had been a hell of month, and she had needed to make some big changes.
After packing up her mom’s belongings and putting the house on the market, Avery made one of the first truly spontaneous decisions in her entire life; she bought a one- way ticket to Edinburgh. Her parents had given her a wonderful life, but now she wanted to explore her heritage. She might stay just a few weeks, or maybe a few months. It was an undefined, fuzzy plan, which normally would have terrified Avery. But right now, she was rudderless. And this was a direction she could take. She had a small inheritance from her parents, plus some life insurance. Selling the house would keep her solvent for long enough to figure out what her next move was.
Her plan was simple. Visit the places in the pictures, stand where her mother had stood. The rational part of her brain said that it was silly, and it wouldn’t really do anything to connect her with her dead birth mother. But, it was a start. Besides, the city was beautiful and exciting, and she couldn’t wait to explore it. Avery absolutely adored the gothic architecture she had seen in the pictures, and her parents had told her some fantastic stories about their time spent here. They had always planned on taking a trip back, but it had never worked out.
Three days after arriving in the city, Avery had hit all of the landmarks that she could easily identify. She had trekked up to the castle and spent hours exploring. After tea at The Colonnades she hiked up to Arthur’s Seat, which had been far more exerting than she had planned on. However, the view had been glorious. After hitting most of the picture locations, Avery had also strolled up and down the Royal Mile, visited Holyrood Palace, and done some shopping. One of her favorite activities had been the tour of Mary King’s Close, followed by a ‘Haunted Tour’ of the city. Although Avery didn’t particularly believe in ghosts or the supernatural, she was engrossed by the history, and it fit the gothic mood of the city perfectly.
There was one photo landmark, however, that she could not identify. In the photo, her mother was standing in a beautiful garden, simply landscaped, with a sizeable castle-like house in the background. Complete with towers and turrets. The castle didn’t have any markedly unique identifying features, and in this country, it could be almost anywhere. Theoretically, it might not even be in Scotland. After scanning through dozens of pictures of local castles online turned up nothing, Avery started asking around. She showed the picture to the hotel staff, a random person she sat next on the bus, and she even stopped into some travel agencies to see if anyone recognized it. Unfortunately, no one did. With nothing more than an image, there was no way to look it up. In a last-ditch attempt, she posted the picture, with her birth mother blurred out, onto a Scottish message board. If no one answered soon, Avery was going to cut her losses and head to Glasgow for a week or two to start exploring the west coast of the country. Nine out ten wasn’t bad.
As the fates would have it, the response only took two days. Just as she was getting ready to pack it up and leave the city, she got a promising response. Someone had responded to her post with just one sentence: “Pretty sure that’s old Havenwood Castle.”
Armed with this new information, Avery delayed her departure another day. She headed down to the City Council building the following morning to see about getting an address for the castle, half wondering if it was even still standing. Once there, it took the man helping her, Ewan, at least half an hour to find any useful information. Avery found herself surprisingly nervous during this wait. She had to keep reminding herself to still her feet, and untwist her fingers. She wasn’t sure why she felt this way, she hadn’t when visiting any of the other landmarks. Although she hadn’t wanted to admit it, there was a very small part of her, a part she was fighting to push down, was hoping that there was some significance to that building. That maybe it had something to do with her birth father? Or even a good friend who could tell her about her mother? Lost in thought, Avery didn’t hear Ewan return.
“Alrighty, I’ve found finally found it. Havenwood Castle, aye? He said, holding up a manila folder proudly. “Located a bit north of Inverness, not far from a small town called Kildary. The current house was built in the 17th century, and it looks as if it has always been a private home, not open to visitors. I can get you directions if you want, but it is pretty far out there.” Ewan showed her the file, topped by a picture that looked similar enough to the one featuring her mother.
“If it is a private estate, especially one so remote, why on Earth would my mother have been there?” Avery wondered. All of the other pictures had been popular landmarks in Edinburgh. Why this one obscure place, hours away?
“Cannae tell you that, miss. Maybe she knew the people who lived there?”
“Maybe. Can you tell me who owns it?” Avery asked. If there was even a chance that they had known her mother it would be worth it to make the trip up there. She wasn’t under any time crunch these days.
“Aye, give us a wee second.” Scanning through the pages, Ewan suddenly frowned. “This is a bit odd. It seems the house is owned by a trust. The most recent owners died some time ago, but no new owner has been identified.”
“What does that mean, then?” Avery asked him. Property law was definitely not her forte. Putting her parents’ house up for sale had been about all that she could handle.
“Well, normally in a case like this the courts would try to find any possible family members, even distant ones, to transfer ownership to. But, it looks there was a special arrangement made here. Not even sure this was entirely legal. It says that if no direct heir was identified, the house was to be kept up by a property manager, but had to stay vacant for a period of 50 years. At that point other relatives could be located and, if they wanted to, could petition to take ownership of the property.”
“That does seem a bit…odd.” Avery replied. She didn’t know what to make of any of this. Then a thought occurred to her.
“Wait, what year did the last owners die? It would be even stranger if my mother visited a completely vacant house, right?” Avery asked.
“Hmmm. Last owner died in 1986. It was owned by a married couple. The husband passed away in 1984, and the wife two years later, 86.” Flipping to another form, he scanned it. “There is a note here. Says that there had been a daughter, although she isn’t named. By the time they located her, she too had died. Car accident it seems. Wow, tragic family story.” Ewan look up at her, expression solemn. He seemed to be genuinely saddened by what he was reading.
Goosebumps broke out all over Avery’s body as her mind starting playing connect the dots. “There was no way, right? It HAD to be a weird coincidence.”
“What were the owners names?” Avery asked in a small, trembling voice.
Flipping back to the first page, Ewan placed his finger on a spot halfway down. “Andrew and Elisabeth McKay. Does that mean anything to you?”
Heart pounding in her chest, Avery sat in a stunned silence.
“Miss, are you OK?” Ewan asked. He had a vaguely concerned look on his face.
“Those were my grandparents.” Avery whispered, staring at the file in Ewan’s hands. Her family had an entire castle, sitting abandoned in the Highlands wilderness? This was starting to feel like something out of a novel. Adopted girl jet sets to Europe to find her long lost relatives, and discovers that she owns a castle. What next, was she also a duchess?
Ewan sat back in his chair, staring at Avery, looking a bit stunned himself.
“Are you sure?” He asked, slowly. “It’s not an uncommon name around here. And it says the young woman died shortly after the parents, no children mentioned.” Ewan’s eyes stayed trained on Avery.
“My mother was Cora McKay. She was pregnant with me when she died. In a car accident, in 1988.” Avery said, staring intensely at the folder. “They couldn’t save her, but I survived, obviously. I was adopted by an American doctor working at the hospital at the time, and we moved back home a few months later.” Of all the scenarios Avery had imagined when she decided to take this trip, this was not one of them. She had hoped to learn more about her family, yes. But she had been picturing having tea with a lovely middle-aged woman as she shared funny exploits from her school days with her mother.
“If you can prove this…” Ewan started to say, his head resting in his steepled hands. After a minute, he looked at Avery again, and smiled a small, crooked smile. “IF you can prove that this Cora was really your mother, then I think that this property might rightly belong to you.”
The next week was a whirlwind. After one of the most unexpected revelations of her life, after the adoption bombshell anyway, Avery retreated to her hotel room. Laying on her bed, staring at the ceiling, Avery attempted to process. Before leaving the office, Ewan had given her some paperwork and a phone number. If she wanted to petition for ownership of Havenwood, she would need to start there.
“Did she want to do that though?” She had no idea. Although her plans had been vague when she had come here, this definitely hadn’t even been on the list of possibilities. Traveling and sightseeing? Absolutely. Spending a reasonable about of time looking into her birth mothers’ family? Sure. If things went really well, she had been entertaining the idea of doing a short-term lease on a flat in one of the cities, staying for a bit longer to see how living over here long-term might feel. But even that had been a stretch. A whole house though? Especially an ancient, massive one, miles from civilization? Who knows what state it was even in. And if it wasn’t inhabitable, it would be probably be a nightmare to offload.
Luckily, it was Friday, meaning she had two days to decide before she could do anything. She started by doing some research online. She checked out the area, and looked for history on the house, which turned up very little. She might also be only person in history to google ‘owning a castle.’ That hadn’t been overly helpful either. What Avery really needed was to talk it out with someone, so she called two of her friends back home. They both thought that owning a castle sounded exciting, and that she would be crazy to not check it out at the very least. She assumed that they just really wanted to visit her cool castle. But, by Sunday night she had decided to at least call the man on the card, and see what was involved in taking ownership, and what her rights were. Worst case scenario, she could always tell them that she wasn’t interested, and for them to let the trust continue to manage it.
Monday morning arrived, and Avery spent the whole day on the phone with a steady parade of lawyers, clerks, notaries, and who knows who else. So far, everything Ewan had told her was accurate. Her grandparents had owned the property, but when they had passed away without a direct heir, Havenwood had remained empty, under the management of a local company appointed by the executor of the trust. If Avery could prove her heritage, she could petition to take ownership. She had to provide her birth certificate, of course, the adoption papers, and eventually even track down the hospital records that affirmed that her mother had been pregnant when she was brought in after the accident, and that a baby girl had been delivered, alive. Then there were a thousand papers to sign. It was a long arduous process, but at the end, she owned a castle. She wasn’t even sure when she had decided to take the castle, it had just…happened.
It wasn’t until she was signing the last document that she realized that, although this was essentially a done deal, she still hadn’t even seen the castle in person. The documents she had received had been full of dry details, things like square footages and dates of renovations, and appraisal values. There were also some old black and white photos, and a Historic Register certificate. But, in reality, she had no idea what condition it was in, or what she could do with it. This had all happened so fast. Too fast. This wasn’t like Avery. She thought things through, planned them out meticulously. But ever since her mom died, she had been acting not like herself. She didn’t believe in signs, but this seemed like a pretty clear one. She was jobless and homeless, and had no living family that she knew of. But it turned out that she not only was the rightful owner of a castle, but one that had belonged to her family for decades. Hopefully it could provide much her with some much-needed answers.