The new title also proved to be something of a bragging point. When we tried to find decent parking for the event, Wendy confronted a kilted old gentleman guarding one of the parking lots and in the course of discussion reminded him that, “My dad is the High Chieftain.”
By my reckoning, Payson marks the northernmost border of what’s left of Old Utah, a charming anachronism and vanishing part of the world. It’s varying and indistinct boarders stretch from Payson in the North down to Kanab in the South and spread across a swath just wide enough West and East to encompass jewels like Manti, Beaver, and Levan. (Levan, by the way, is located at the dead center of the state and ostensibly derives its name from “navel” spelled backwards.)
Many of these towns only exist because Brigham Young once decided they should. Either they served as trail markers along great wagon routes or they were outposts to mark the expansive borders of the unofficial realm of Deseret, an independent and theocratic territory that was never to be.
Either way, small groups of families were called to move and settle, so they did. And if they ever refused, they heard stern prophetic rebukes like, “You can either go to Provo or you can go to Hell.” For example, Kanab, a tiny desert town where my Dad grew up, was settled by just 10 Mormon families who never would have gone there without being commanded to do so. It’s so barren that it was used as the backdrop to film Planet of the Apes.
Stepping into Old Utah feels something like traveling in a confused time warp. You end up in a place that still has McDonalds and Wifi, but also retains the look, feel, language, people, and culture of your great-great-grandfather’s Utah. Towns like Manti remain small and rural with the Mormon Temple set prominently in the center of town and with all street addresses spanning outward expressed as a distance from the temple. (Even in the more contemporary Salt Lake City, if I say I live at 2100 South and 700 East, I’m just describing how far my house is from the temple.)
City records, cemeteries, and monuments in Old Utah feature Welch, Gaelic, and Icelandic inscriptions. Whole communities here often clung to their ancestral languages and customs for years, and annual cultural festivals continue on to today. The City of Payson sponsors the Scottish Festival and offers it for free to the community because it still thinks of itself as a Scottish town. The high school has had a Scottish Band since it was founded.
But, as has always been the way in Old Utah, genealogical pride is always couched in the context of American celebration. There’s never any question among Old Utahns about where the Promised Land is located or how fortunate they are to live there.
So oddly enough, in Old Utah, someone knows they are a Mormon in the same way that they know they are a free American or that they are also still—down to their bones—Scottish, Welch, or Scandinavian. It would be near impossible to carve out one identity from the other three.
It was therefore no surprise to me when the Payson Scottish Festival opened with a gifted young tenor singing the Star Spangled Banner in a Scottish brogue while standing in front of a Mormon church.
What did surprise me was that it moved me to tears. I suppose my own pride in my Welch and Swedish ancestry plus joy in my American liberty and reverence for my Mormon pioneer heritage were all much more tightly interwoven than I had ever known. That morning, I became a citizen of Old Utah.
I’ve met a lot of people who pretend to like haggis. But I know they are lying. There is no “good” version of haggis in the way that there are good and bad versions of kung pao chicken. It’s simply horrible and that’s all that can be said about it. I once heard it accurately described as having the taste and mouthfeel of a combined mix of “scabs, sawdust, and toothpaste.”
But we don’t eat haggis because it’s good. We eat it to remind us that we are descended from exceedingly tough ancestors who were willing to eat that awful puree of cheap grain and leftover organ meats. Those ancestors were strong and brave and they were willing to survive harsh conditions all because they believed that someday their descendants might have it better than they did. They suffered through haggis so that someday we could thoroughly enjoy cheeseburgers.
Needless to say, my lofty idea went horribly wrong. The kids hated the haggis and refused to see any symbolic benefit in its consumption. Wendy spit hers out and reminded me that, as my spouse, she didn’t have to do what I said. So there.
I tried to eat mine bravely and ceremoniously, showing all proper respect. But all these attempts at fatherly condescension were spoiled by the gritty chew and metallic taste. I got it down, but with a lot of grimacing. And my stomach was still unsettled by it hours later.
It turns out that although we eat haggis to remember those tough ancestors, there’s also good reason that we only eat it once a year.
But I still hold out hope that the activity worked. I hope that someday my kids will reflect on their amazing heritage and be a little grateful for being forced to eat haggis. Maybe they’ll even make their own kids eat it. Perhaps in that simple act, some reverence was achieved for those many ancestors who came before us, who had it worse than us, and who hoped that someday we’d be as lucky and as blessed as we are.
From the prophet Gordon B. Hinckley: “It is good to look to the past to gain appreciation for the present and perspective for the future. It is good to look upon the virtues of those who have gone before, to gain strength for whatever lies ahead. It is good to reflect upon the work of those who labored so hard and gained so little in this world, but out of whose dreams and early plans, so well nurtured, has come a great harvest of which we are the beneficiaries.”