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‘I knew I was home’: Mom, 87-year-old Fargo bartender explore shared heritage on trip to Scotland

Traci Nichols of Fargo and her 7-year-old daughter, Jennifer, traveled to Scotland with 87-year-old Bob Russell, a bartender at Dempsey’s Public House in Fargo. The trio learned about their shared Scottish backgrounds during a week in the country. Special to The Forum

FARGO  - When Bob Russell stepped off a train alone in Scotland in 1975, he felt “an electrical thing” shoot through his body.

“In my subconscious mind, I knew I was home,” he says.

After 39 years, the 87-year-old West Fargo man and Dempsey’s Public House bartender returned to Scottish soil in early July. This time, he traveled with a friend.

Shared heritage

Traci Nichols, 33, met Russell in 2009 when she worked at Walgreens in the photo department. He’d come in at least once a month to have her help him print photos.

Soon, they developed a friendship and discovered a mutual love for Scotland. Russell researched Nichols’ ancestry and found that she’s Scottish and part of a Highland clan, just like him.

Eager to explore their shared heritage, Nichols suggested they travel to Scotland together.

“Bob’s a really great guy. He helps out a lot of people,” she says. “He’s really generous with his time and everything. If I have anything I need to talk about, I can talk to Bob about it. I just thought that should come around to him.”

Bob’s friends and family weren’t dazed when he announced he’d be traveling to Scotland with Nichols and her 7-year-old daughter.

“They never are surprised at what I do,” Russell says. “My sense of adventure keeps me young.”

Nichols had a few questions from people, though.

“A lot of people have asked if Bob had energy to do it. I said he had more energy than me. Bob was up at the crack of dawn saying ‘You’re not going to sleep all day are you?’ ” she says.

Russell’s always been that way – he can’t sit still. He graduated from high school in Buffalo, N.D., and the next day, joined the Navy.

The self-described “people person” eventually moved to Chicago and worked at a bar for 12 years before migrating home to North Dakota. He’s been a bartender at Dempsey’s since the Irish pub opened in 2006.

“He’s kind of a Fargo secret, I think,” Nichols says.

Going back to Keith, Scotland, the second time was just as enchanting for Russell as it was decades ago. He reconnected with old friends and distant relatives and stayed at the same hotel he’d visited 39 years earlier.

Russell didn’t have much to go on when he first traveled in 1975. His father had left him the only hint to his heritage – a slip of paper that read “Paithnick Crossroad Mains, Banshire, Scotland.”

After he stepped off the train all those years ago, Russell says he knew exactly where to go.

“It was strange, I can’t explain it,” he says.

Again, it seems fate or luck led him where he needed to go this year.

He rode a taxi outside of town, and at a gravesite, met a man who knew the previous owners of the hotel – two people Russell had hoped to see on the trip.

A distance cousin also happened to be the bartender at the hotel bar and another worked at a fish-and-chips joint down the road.

“I think that’s one of the fun things about travel, too. People are really good, really nice, and if you’re interested in their homeland and you express that, they’ll do anything to get you where you need to go,” Nichols says.

The two friends were open to seeing where the trip would take them, and it’s part of what made them exceptional travel partners.

But there’s another reason they enjoy each other’s company, Russell says.

“We both have a sense of humor so nothing bothers us,” he says.

They explored Nichols’ ancestry in the Isle of Skye, a scenic island on the west side of the country, and ate ice cream from a concession in front of Edinburgh Castle almost every day.

One day was spent hopping on and off tour buses in Edinburgh, where they saw the lilac pantsuit and proper wave of Queen Elizabeth II, who was visiting from London.

After returning home July 8, the pair decided they’ll do it all over again. But this time, it’ll be for Russell’s 90th birthday in less than three years.

After she saw how happy Russell was in Scotland, Nichols suggested he retire there. He said no. Scotland may be his homeland, but Fargo is home.

“I could live there if it wasn’t for missing my friends,” he says. “I’ve got too many friends, and they’re all younger than me so they keep me young.”

Anna G. Larson

Anna G. Larson is a features reporter with The Forum who writes a weekly column featuring stylish people in Fargo-Moorhead. Larson graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in journalism and joined The Forum in July 2012. She's a Fargo native who enjoys travel, food, baking, fashion, animals, coffee and all things Midwestern. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @msannagrace 

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