Sense of belonging for Hogg descendant Sophie as she returns to Ettrick roots

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SOPHIE Westland fulfilled a lifelong ambition this week by visiting the birthplace and grave of James Hogg: The Ettrick Shepherd – and she travelled 10,500 miles to do so.

For Sophie made the journey, which she described as a “very personal pilgrimage”, from her home in Melbourne, Australia.

The 18-year-old, who is currently enjoying a gap year before studying nursing at university, is the great great great great grandaughter – and therefore a direct descendant – of the famous writer who was born in Ettrick in 1770 and was buried in the village churchyard following his death in 1835.

Close by is the grave of Tibbie Shiel who was a servant of Hogg’s parents and went on to run the eponymous boarding house and hostelry at the southern end of St Mary’s Loch – an establishment later frequented by Hogg, Sir Walter Scott and their fellow literati, including William Wordsworth, in the early 19th century.

It was thus appropriate that Sophie, accompanied by her childhood friend Sarah Sloan, stayed at Tibbie Shiels Inn for two nights this week.

The backpacking pair arrived in the UK six weeks ago, travelling across England and visiting the home town of Sarah’s grandparents at Boston in Lincolnshire. The girls intend visiting Poland and Germany before returning Down Under later this month.

But, for Sophie at least, the highlight of her first trip to these shores came on Monday when she and Sarah went to Ettrick where Hogg’s birthplace is marked by a fine memorial and where a more humble headstone in the nearby kirkyard reveals his final resting place.

“We have an Australian version of the television show Who Do You Think You Are and I was always surprised at the emotional reaction of celebrities when they found out about their roots,” Sophie told us.

“I have to say, I now understand these emotions and I got a very strange feeling that I had come home, particularly as I stood at Hogg’s grave. It was a little eerie, but then I felt a great sense of happiness and belonging.

“A distant family member researched and drew up James Hogg’s family tree before I was born, so it has long been known in my family about the Hogg connection and it has always been a source of great pride.

“Although I’m young, I’ve had, for as long as I can remember, a personal ambition to visit Ettrick which is something my father John, a radio executive in Melbourne, has never done.”

Hogg’s daughter Harriet had a daughter, also called Harriet, who, in turn, had a daughter called Eleanor who married a Douglas Westland. That couple had a son, Ian Westland, a tea planter in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) who later settled in Australia where a son (Sophie’s father) was born.

“I called home on Tuesday and my dad was very excited that I had finally made it to Ettrick ... I felt I was there on his behalf too.”

Sophie conceded she was no great scholar of the literary works of her renowned ancestor.

“His poetry is quite flowing, but I must confess that I am struggling with his most famous novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which I began reading at Tibbie Shiel’s Inn at the weekend.

“It’s a bit of a tough read, but it’s good to know it is considered a masterpiece by many and that the Ettrick Shepherd has such legendary status in the Borders.

“I think that knowing my roots are embedded in such a beautiful part of the world is what I will really take away from my trip and hold close forever.”