Southern Song: Why I changed my surname

I thought about changing my surname to Sutherland five years ago, as I left Tasmania by boat. As the sea spray from the ferry erased the industrial skyline of my hometown, I thought of my grandmother, Helen Sutherland, arriving in Tasmania by boat in 1950. I had found a newspaper clipping of the social pages on the day of her arrival. Even through the grainy microfilm scan, in amongst those tiny black dots, I could make out her huge, apprehensive smile. She told me she was dragged begrudgingly from Scotland to Hobart by her parents when she was 19. She started nursing training and married my grandfather, becoming Helen Upchurch. I loved the name Upchurch for the connection it gave me with my grandfather’s family who were Irish pioneering orchardists of the Huon Valley. But unlike Sutherland, Upchurch is an awkward, arhythmical name. Strangely easy to forget. Dad even composed a more singsong intonation of its spelling to help:

“It’s Upchurch. U-p-c-h… u-r-c-h. Yewpeaseeaitch, yewahseeaitch.”

Despite this, we’ve often been mistaken for the more musical Churchills, Churchers, Uptons or Ulsters.

But Sutherland has resonance for me extending far beyond the aural. Of the many reasons I changed my name, I ultimately did it because I want Sutherland to be heard as part of my scholarly identity. This is my way of honouring my grandmother, who fed me, sat with me, read with me and laughed with me when I lived with her briefly during year twelve. She helped me begin developing the studious practices that are a huge part of who I am today as a scholar. I want my PhD to be awarded to Dr Jennifer Sutherland.

Sometimes, it is only years after a person passes that you truly, experientially understand the resonance of their impact upon you. This interaction happened a few months ago and cemented my decision to change my name, five years after leaving our southern land:


I approach the counter to place an order with the shop attendant. He’s slightly older and taller than my father, sharply dressed in a dark blazer. In his polite and deferential manner, he reminds me of one of the valets from Downton Abbey.

He says, “Hullooh theare, whoat whuld ye leyke todey, Mahm?”

And the phrase rings in my head a dozen times before I have the ability to answer. A myriad of memories of my grandmother echo forth.

 “Are ye peakish? Whoat whuld ye leyke for loonch thean?”

She cuts white bread and cheese sandwiches into tiny triangles and places the rosy china plate onto the table;

“Theare thean, darling gurrel”.  

I mutter my order and he repeats it back, then asking, “Hahve ye treyed our newest vareyetie?”

I remember the percussive clinking of ice in her whisky glass as she sits in her reading chair after dinner, Siamese cat on lap.  

I say no, and ask him to tell me what it is like.

“It’s a daruk urthey one, it’s veeearey stroang and if ye laiyke this one, ye meyt feynd it to yer fancy,” he says, smiling and cheerily patting my order as he packs it up.

This phrase sounds like the chalky crunch of her buttery shortbread, the strong smell of her floral perfume, the way she placed her leather gloves gently inside her handbag before getting out of the car.

His intonation is Scottish Standard English, like the BBC, but there’s more hiding beyond the rounded edges of those vowels. “Where are you from?” I ask him, eagerly. He’s focused on the eftpos machine, which I am grateful is very slow.

“Scoatlund,” he says as he rings my order up. It’s that curt, matter-of-fact Glaswegian intonation this time; he is tired of every Australian asking him this. People say Glaswegian Scots is an impenetrable staccato, but to me it’s always been a pragmatic chant or song.

I remember Grandma handing me a towel for my shower, then holding it back from me instructing, “Jeannifur it’s a tohwl, not a TAAA-WEL!”

“Yes, where in Scotland? Glasgow?” I press. His eyes light up.

“Yeas! Weal doon!” He replies, like a primary school teacher praising a pupil. “Doe ye have fahmily theare?”

This inquiry sounds like the melodious tings of silver cutlery as I hide under the tablecloth of her claw-footed table at Christmas dinner with my cousin. The inflection sounds like Grandma conversing with her cat down the long hallway between the dining room and bedrooms of their Launceston home.  

“My grandmother lived there, you sound just like her, but I mean JUST like her, and she was from near Aberdeen…”

He smiles, this time with teeth.

“I groe up aroound the Aberdeenshire, and thean I moved to Moth—”

“Motherwell?! That’s where she lived!” I say, a little too excited.

“Weal! Isn’t that funny?” He says, with a slight gasp and a pause, looking me over. He’s run out of excuses to keep the transaction going, “Yoe have a neyce day thean, woan’t ye?” It’s a caring instruction, not a pleasantry. He hands me the bag, and pauses again, holding onto it until I say,

“Yes, and you too”.

And we both mean it.


Image: Jennifer and her younger cousin Samantha with their Grandparents, Helen and Geoff, Christmas 1995.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *