Desert Vista High School junior James Gossett wasn’t sure what to expect visiting Scotland’s craggy shore of the North Sea in July.
James didn’t remember much from his only other visit to Anstruther, where the family of his mother, Jill, goes back 200 years. After all, he was only 6 months old.
This time, the lanky, basketball-playing 16-year-old was not just visiting this historic fishing village on the southern coast of the East Neuk of Fife.
He was there to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Cellardyke Sea Queen Gala.
That gala started in 1948 to celebrate the village’s centuries-old fishing community and relationship with the sea. For more than 150 years, it was one of Scotland’s primary fishing communities, and the locals still gather to celebrate its glorious past.
What compelled James to leave a summer filled with basketball activities and fly to the seaside village – 10 miles from St. Andrews – was his desire to visit his maternal grandmother – who, as Agnes Brunton, was crowned Sea Queen in 1953 as a curly-haired girl of 15.
That teenaged queen found her career in the sky, not the high seas, however.
She became a stewardess after learning that American Airlines need English-speaking young women who spoke a second language. In her case, it was French.
After marrying a handsome American returning from the Army, she “retired” at age 26 as married stewardesses – as they were called back then – were being laid off by the airlines.
The young women who had been forcibly retired formed an informal group called the Kiwi Club, after the flightless bird.
With her married name, Schmiecher, Agnes returned to work as a gate agent at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in 1972.
Although the ban on married stewardesses had been lifted, she chose not to go back to flying because she had small children at the time.
Later, she was promoted to American Airlines’ international department and trained employees in Zurich, Munich and Italy. She then worked in Chicago’s Admirals Club for a number of years and retired from there after 42 years of service.
Agnes lives in Burr Ridge, Illinois, and at 79 still travels the world. But nothing, she said, could compare to this homecoming, the Sea Queen Reunion, and the ceremonies at Cellardyke Harbour.
“When the pipers started playing, I felt a lump in my throat and was very emotional. Always am when I hear the bagpipes, as it’s in my Scottish blood,” she laughed.
She recalled the beautiful sunny day when throngs of people lined the seawall, the flag-festooned homes and the moment when the procession proceeded from Anstuther Harbor to the Cellardyke Harbour and past her family home.
“We passed by the Brunton house where I was brought up. It was the family home for 200 years,” she said, recalling both her great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were lost at sea.
Today, models of her father and grandfather’s respective ships, The Lasher and The Noontide, are featured in the Scottish Fisheries Museum as significant contributors to the local fishing industry.
“When we arrived at the Cellardyke Harbour, where the crowning would take place, they’d started the music. I couldn’t believe it was the same music they played years ago when I was Sea Queen,” she recalled, adding:
“It was from ‘Aida.’ I get tears in my eyes every time I hear it. I remember giving my speech after the lovely young lady, Katie, was crowned Sea Queen, and it seemed like the years melted away and I was reliving the moment. I have to thank my daughter, who persuaded me to go.”
For Jill, the trip from Ahwatukee back to Scotland and the County of Fife was the result of a call last year from Scottish Fisheries Museum Director Richard Wemyss.
It was he who, after a 18-year hiatus, revived the Cellardyke Sea Queen crowning and festivities honoring the East Neuk crab and fishing villages that sustained the area since the 16th century.
“Scotland is a second home to me as I was fortunate to grow up summers there in our family home,” said Gossett, a 15-year Ahwatukee resident who has worked with Univision Communications for six years.
“When I learned there would be a Sea Queen Gala commemorating the 70th anniversary, and a reunion for all the former Sea Queens, I thought this would be something special that my son James, and my mother, a former Sea Queen, would have to experience together.”
When her son was asked to be in the procession, it became all the more poignant.
James carried the wreath made of sea pinks to commemorate the men lost at sea and those who died during World War I.
Gossett said she thought how pleased her grandparents would have been to meet the next generation, represented by her son.
“The energy at the event was electrifying, people beaming with pride. As we followed the pipe band with James carrying the wreath to commemorate those lost at sea and in WWI, I was overwhelmed with happiness and tears, and so happy to have James experience the Scottish culture I know and love.”
As moving as this was to Agnes and Jill, James found it a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
And though July is an important college recruiting month for high school basketball players, James – a 6-foot-5 power forward/center who played junior varsity his freshman and sophomore year – said he didn’t think twice about going on the 11-day trip.
“It was really a cool thing to be a part of this family heritage,” he said. “When I heard about it I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds cool.’ But when I was there, seeing so many people looking down on us on the pier, and watching her walk – it was beautiful.”
James was well aware of his family sea heritage, having heard the history from both his grandmother and mother, but experiencing the day firsthand was memorable.
“We were on the pier on the harbor side, and I handed the wreath to the oldest living man, aged 93, who made his living at the sea. He handed the wreath to the Sea Queen. She was taken out in a boat on the North Sea and released the wreath into the water to commemorate those lost at sea. You could hear the bagpipes playing,” said James, who’s also on the Thunder swim team.
“Looking back, you know it’s something you’ll never experience again. It was beautiful.”