When the ancestors of Scotland County first made their home in this part of North Carolina, they likely never dreamed that their migration would be replicated by hundreds of young Scots and Americans over a century later.
The seeds of the annual Laurinburg-Oban Exchange were planted in the late 1980s with a professor at St. Andrews College who sought to establish a link between Laurinburg and Scotland.
“Dr. Tom Benson, who was out at St. Andrews, came up with the idea of establishing a sister city in Scotland,” said Beacham McDougald, who has coordinated the exchange since its inception. “He went over there and at first thought of St. Andrews because of St. Andrews College, but then realized that all of the people here migrated from the western coast of Scotland.”
Benson then travelled to the seaside town of Oban and found its residents keen to explore a link with their distant American cousins.
A few years later, when Laurinburg and Oban had officially declared each other sister cities, representatives on both sides wished to keep the connection alive through regular transatlantic interaction.
In 1993, the first American delegation, consisting of one Scotland High School teacher and one student, travelled to Oban.
“At that time we didn’t know exactly what guidelines to follow for the student exchange. We sent one student and one teacher in October during the school year for a week; they sent us one teacher and two students in April for two weeks and both sides said ‘This is wonderful, let’s make it bigger,’” said McDougald. “Ever since that time we’ve had a group varying from 10 to 12 students and two or three adults for a two week, or as they say fortnight, exchange.”
This year’s program marks the 20th year of the Laurinburg-Oban Exchange, in which a delegation from Laurinburg visits Oban in June, and their Scottish counterparts spend two weeks in Laurinburg in October.
While in their host countries, students from both sides of the Atlantic share their culture in elementary schools. In Scotland, outings include visits to Edinburgh, Glasgow, Iona, and seafaring adventures, while the Scots visit North Carolinian mainstays like the State Fair, the mountains, and the Scotland County Highland Games.
“I really liked on the weekends when we went canoeing and we were all together,” said Mary Taylor Britt, who participated in the exchange in 2009 during her junior year at Scotland High School. “When we went to Edinburgh and travelled around together, they were able to walk us around the city because they had been there many times throughout their lives. It was cool being with Scottish people rather than a tour guide. As a high school student you really don’t get offered opportunities like that.”
For Kathryn Williams, who participated in the 2007 exchange, travelling to Oban was her first excursion outside of the United States.
“I wanted to experience something new and gain new friendships,” she said. “The opportunity to travel with friends you knew to meet new friends and see new places seemed like a perfect combination.”
While in Oban, the Scotland High students stay with the families of students at Oban High. In the fall, Laurinburg families host Oban students in turn.
“I really enjoyed some of the times that weren’t so planned out, when we spent time at home bonding with our families,” said Candace Carter, who went to Oban in the 2008 exchange. “I got to know my Scot and her family extremely well and we’re still in contact. They’re great people and a big part of my life.”
Although the chance to visit a new country is an exciting prospect for students, translating the differences between Scottish and American culture is not without its difficulties.
“Before I left, I knew that they were going to speak differently and drive on the other side of the road,” Williams said. “I also knew that they were going to have tea time, and I was really excited about having tea on a everyday basis. But I learned to appreciate their different culture and grow to love all the differences.”
For many students, the most enduring part of the exchange has been the creation of their own Scottish “family.”
“It was a big change, but I had a wonderful family,” said Leigh Williams, a 2009 exchange student. “They helped me through the changes. They were very warm and welcoming. It’s like I have a second family if I ever want to go back.”
Students’ excitement about their experiences in Oban is matched by their eagerness to share their own culture with their newfound Scottish friends.
“They got to open up their lives to us and it was our turn to do that in exchange,” Britt said. “I was so excited to have her here because she’s such an important part of my life. When she came to America with all the other Scots it was the best day of my life.”
Showing her Scot around her home state led to questions about everyday things that Carter had always taken for granted.
“I remember going to Walmart and they were so amazed at the low prices,” said Carter. “She wasn’t a big fan of fast food, which I understood because her mother cooked really well and her father worked at a fish farm so everything was very fresh. Going to McDonald’s, she was like why would you ever eat this?”
Although the exchange lasts for a scant two weeks, the memories made and lessons learned in Oban continue to influence the students that have gone.
“We were all so nervous going over, we didn’t know if we were going to get along, but the bonds that we formed and learning to work together and really understand people was amazing,” Britt, now studying nursing at East Carolina University, said. “I’m getting chills talking about it, I miss it.”
“Right now I’m applying to a lot of different study abroad programs all over the world because I want to keep having experiences like I had in Scotland,” Carter, now a junior management major at UNC, added. “It’s made me more accepting of all cultures and understanding of where people are coming from.”
Each year, students apply to participate in the exchange and are interviewed by a group of Scotland High School teachers and other community members. For students whose families may not be able to manage the costs associated with travel, there are scholarships available.
“They look at students as ambassadors for Laurinburg and Scotland County,” said McDougald. “The people in Oban are going to know us by what they see in the students, and in Oban they know that the kids they send here are going to reflect on Scotland and Oban.”
In this 20th year of the exchange, the Oban delegation will present a quaich, a ceremonial cup, to Laurinburg Mayor Tommy Parker during the final night’s ceilidh celebration to honor the two decades of shared hospitality.
And, McDougald hopes, the exchange will continue far into the future.
“It’s a life-transforming experience; friendships are made for a lifetime,” he said. “That’s what makes us want to keep it going, because you see nothing but good come out of it.”