Pendleton pilgrimage was an experience I’ll never forget

Eric Mackinnon (far left) sporting dodgy bleached hair job with some American friends and hosts and fellow Nicolson Insitute pupils.
Eric Mackinnon (far left) sporting dodgy bleached hair job with some American friends and hosts and fellow Nicolson Insitute pupils.

‘HAI-O hai-rum stocainnean daoimean,’ we wailed in unison to a grinning hall full of pupils in what could be described as our very own Gaelic Glee club - although had any TV exec’s been there to witness our performance it would definitely have been the first and last episode.

It was back in 1998 when I, and a mish-mash of my school mates pulled on our tartan

Nicolson Institute staff and pupils in Pendleton in 1998.

Nicolson Institute staff and pupils in Pendleton in 1998.

togs, warmed up our creaky vocal chords, pulled on our dancing brogues and took to the stage, a world away from our own in Stornoway, to perform for Pendleton High School in South Carolina.

Our song (about socks with diamond patterns by the way) was warmly received by the school who whooped, cheered and slammed their hands together in great appreciation.

But that response was one I had grown to expect from a school which has become more than just a twin to my own former school, it has become a soul mate.

This coming May will mark the 20th anniversary of the long-standing twinning partnership between the Nicolson Institute here on the Western Isles and Pendleton High School from the southern state of South Carolina.

Literally hundreds of pupils have benefited from a life changing peek at the American dream while the chance to sample a unique culture from a land far, far away has been reciprocated to our Pendleton pals and their parents.

We’ve given them Gaelic, breath taking scenery, beaches, and a taste of life in bonny Scotland among other things while they’ve given us a taste of traditional American and American Indian culture, stunning weather but most importantly they’ve given us a friendship – one which is deep and long lasting and one which both sides of the sea hope will last forever.

I remember my own American adventure it as if it were yesterday. Off the plane I hopped with a spring in my step, a chip on my shoulder and a whole lot of hope in my heart.

I was one of 20 sixth-year pupils taking an almighty step into the unknown, crossing

the deep blue of the Atlantic to grasp the hand of friendship from our American cousins.

Not that we were the first. By the time I had reached high school seniority in 1998 there had been five previous treks from Stornoway to Pendleton but to my mind we were the pioneers, the adventurers and I was ready for the time of my life.

I don’t know what I expected but I still remember settling on my first-ever long haul flight with my school mates and having to pinch myself that this was really happening.

At the risk of churning out a cliché, Pendleton was so much more than I dared imagine it would be. The weather was hot, of course so were the girls, and everything about the trip seemed gigantic and impressive to a teenage boy who had never been abroad before.

My hosts were wonderful, as if they had been handpicked by the big man upstairs himself. They were approachable, friendly, loving and fun in equal doses.

Their eldest son was the same age as me and shared my love for ear splitting rock music, talking nonsense and football – or soccer as he called it.

Many times we sat up into the night dissecting our respective cultures and countries as we debated who was the greater Scotsman, Rabbie Burns or Ally McCoist? Or we listed ten reasons why Axl Rose was the greatest American of our time.

My host family made me feel like one of their own, welcomed me in with open arms and my American ‘Mom’even presented me with a photo album, complete with captions and comments, and a special note on the day I left – which I still have to do this day.

The whole time I had been a guest in her wonderful family home she had been going flash-happy with her camera to document the trip of a lifetime.

In the days before FaceTube and YouBook she helped capture a moment of time forever.

Pics of my grinning mug braving the gigantic rollercoasters at Six-flags Theme Park, or line dancing at an American barn dance, roasting marshmallows by the fire and perhaps most cherished off all, enjoying family time with my host brothers, sister and family who although temporary, left a long-lasting finger print in my soul.

Outwith my ‘family’ life I also enjoyed an unforgettable time where as a group all of us Stornoway schoolies attended the local school for lessons, visited the kinds of places we’d only ever read about in text books, represented our school on an American high school stage and in the end we changed our lives.

I truly believe these kinds of trips, as much a logistical and financial nightmare that they must be to organise for the schools, have the ability to change your life for the better. To open your eyes and your heart to another world, to new people and they give you a kick up the posterior at just the right time to accelerate your growing up.

In a time of rising travel costs and other considerations it would easy to let the hard work of the past 20-years slide but the twin-ship is so much more than a jolly to the other side of the world.

It is the annual pilgrimage to a place now forever in the hearts of so many islanders and one we should work hard to maintain. I know I will still reflect with a smile my own memories long after I start using a stair lift and subscribing to the Reader’s Digest.

Maybe in future they can modify the song we sung to ‘Hai-o hai-rum cridhean daoimean,’ as that’s what I found most frequently of all on my trip - diamond hearts.