Highland Fling


Highland Fling


I attended my first Highland Games at Macalester College in St. Paul.


I loved visiting the cultural tents. I loved watching the dancing and the heavy athletic events.


The athletes that compete at Highland Games demonstrate enormous strength. (Macalester College Photo)

The highlight, though, came when the massed pipe bands took the field. The music and energy seemed to pulse deep inside me. I got a lump in my throat, and had to blink back tears.


Imagine hundreds of pipers and drummers playing together, weaving back and forth on the athletic field.  (Macalester College Photo)

As I scrabbled to find a tissue, I saw that others in the viewing stands had been affected the same way.


Something about the pipes prompted a fierce pride in those of Scottish descent. (Macalester College Photo)

I’ve always been interested in Scottish heritage, history, and culture. It may be because my ancestry on my maternal grandfather’s side is partly Scottish.

The first Scottish person on my particular branch of the family tree came to North America a long time ago—so long that we’re not even sure when—so the Scottish part of my makeup is fairly small. Still, something in me responds to all things Scottish.

Grandfather Mountain C223w

The sash I’m wearing shows the Clan Johnston tartan.

One possible reason for my feelings is something called genetic memory, or ancestral memory. People who believe in ancestral memory think that impressions from the past might be passed down to us. Our genes contain information that determines whether we have blue eyes, or are shorter or taller than average.  Perhaps our genes also contain memories from our ancestors.

Want an example? Most people love to stare at fires. We enjoy campfires. We like indoor fireplaces too, even if we have central heat. Some people believe that our fascination with fires goes back to the time, centuries ago, when fire represented safety, heat, cooked food, camaraderie—everything good.

By the time I experienced my first massed pipe band concert, I’d done a lot of research about Scottish history.  My historical mystery Betrayal at Cross Creek is about a Scottish immigrant girl during the American Revolution.


This old print shows a crofter’s hut on the Isle of Skye, where my character Elspeth came from in Betrayal at Cross Creek. Might memories of such places be locked in the DNA of such immigrants’ descendants over two hundred years later?

I was also working on a video series for public television called Cultural Horizons. Production of this instructional series immersed me in the topic—what culture is, what choices we make about our own identity, how elements of our heritage are passed from generation to generation, our attitudes and beliefs.

With all these ideas swirling in my head, I decided to write a young adult novel that explored such themes. How did displays of Scottish heritage change over the generations? What decisions do Scottish-Americans make about cultural identity? Might some people be drawn to Highland Games because an element of ancestral memory is quivering in their genes?


This print shows a returning warrior doing a sword dance.

From these questions, my character Tanya Zeshonski was born. She started her fictional life in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which happens to be where Cultural Horizons was produced. The story, though, takes place in North Carolina, which has a large population of Scottish-Americans.

Although Tanya is partly of Scottish descent, she initially has zero interest in all things Scottish. She’s focused on making documentaries, and dealing with the aftermath of her parents’ divorce. But she gets talked into participating in a dance competition at a local Highland Games.


Participants in the Highland Dance competition at Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina.


At Grandfather Mountain, cultural tents circle the field. Music venues are tucked into the trees. Athletes, dancers, and pipers compete in the center area.

Tanya arrives at the event determined to show that the rampant displays of ethnic pride are overblown and perpetuate myths. But during that momentous Highland Games weekend…well, I’ll let you discover what happens for yourself.

Although Highland Fling focuses on Scottish culture, the ideas Tanya wrestles with have meaning for everyone.  We all make choices about what parts of our cultural heritage we want to ignore or to celebrate. We all can choose how we wish to define our cultural identity. Isn’t that great?


PS:  After the book was published, I was delighted to receive this picture from a young dancer.  She looks just like Tanya on the cover!

Louisa Mei Ishida Adobe

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24 Responses to “Highland Fling”

  1. marabird Says:

    It is fine if you don’t enter me for this book. I just wanted to tell you that my Uncle worked with you at some TV station. His name is Fred.

  2. Sue Says:

    Great subject for a novel! Looking forward to a coming family trip to the Lowlands to explore my own Scottish roots.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Sue, enjoy your trip! I loved visiting Scotland, but I didn’t make it to the Lowlands where my ancestors likely once lived (and possibly stole cattle from other Lowlanders). Let me know your impressions!

      • Sue Says:

        Will do. I’ve visited Edinburgh once before but we are concentrating on Fifeshire where my ancestors lived…and where Pittsburgh’s Andrew Carnegie also had roots. Am looking forward to taking lots of photos and blogging about the trip in the coming year. Travel is always inspiring!

  3. Labyrinth-Living Says:

    I experienced genetic memory very deeply when I first visited my ancestral farm in Norway. But an interesting note is that the bunad from my family valley in Norway (Gudbrandsdal) has the Sinclair plaid in the vest. Are you familiar with the story of PillarGuri? See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prillar-Guri and http://www.archive.org/stream/historyscottish00michgoog/historyscottish00michgoog_djvu.txt

    Another possible connection for me to Scotland is the similarity of Cawdor Castle of McBeth and Kaldor Farm in my Norwegian genealogy. Viking Men from Kaldor farm went to Scotland and some married and stayed, as the story goes.

    Of course, as with any legend, there are various ways of telling! I need to do more research!


    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      RuthAnn, I remember walking in the village square in Switzerland where my grandmother grew up. Sometimes the connection we feel to a place like that is hard to define, but very real. And–I was not familiar with PillarGuri or any Scottish-Norwegian connections! What a great story. Perhaps my interest in things Norwegian isn’t so hard to explain after all…

  4. caroleestbydagg Says:

    Love all your photographs, and an insight into how research and imagination work together!

  5. Molly MacRae Says:

    Grandfather Mountain is a great place to go for the games. And they take place in MacRae Meadows!

  6. Liz V. Says:

    Learned the Scottish sword dance in school, with sticks rather than swords thank goodness.

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      I love the sword dance! Although the whole idea of having to step out of competition if you kick one is distressing. Good thing I never tried to be a competitive Highland dancer. I was meant to admire from the audience.

  7. Kathleen White Says:

    Another interesting tale of research and history, excellent background for reading these stories! Please enter me! Thanks!

  8. Ruth Nelson-Lau Says:

    I have recently found more of my Swedish roots and it is fascinating. My step-daughter has also started tracing her roots. Maybe that comes from her being a new mom and wanting to know where she came from to pass it on to her daughter? I would be thrilled to win any of your books

  9. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    Kathleen, I wonder how to explain the genetic memory when influenced by a step-grandparent. That was my experience with Grandma Anderson. Attended my first Highland Games in LA and went for several years. On arriving in Santa Rosa, CA, delighted to find the games were here for more than 100 years…only to lose them to another county. My Anderson half-brother was a redhead as are my daughter and my son’s daughter…I read extensively of the games, the history of the country and feel there may be another Scottish vein running thru me! Love the pics and your story of the confluence of Norwegian and Scottish threads (yarns?) Great post!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Well, that’s fascinating to contemplate. Perhaps there is indeed a Scottish vein in your mix, or perhaps she found some other way to nudge you in that direction. And that opens up a whole new topic to explore…

  10. Tricia Says:

    Sounds like a book I would enjoy – I have Polish in my heritage but no Scottish that I know of.

  11. Elizabeth Johnson Says:

    I love that you bring so many different cultures and traditions to life through your stories!

    Will you be enjoying a Syttende Mai festival this weekend? 🙂

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Elizabeth, I love exploring different cultures, and writing lets me dabble with lots of different traditions. In the Chloe book (#5) I’m writing now, I’m focusing on a new ethnic group, and having lots of fun with it!

      Alas, I will not be able to attend a Syttende Mai festival this year. I’ve got a couple of deadlines looming and need to stay home. Enjoy some lefse for me!

  12. Susan Nelson Says:

    Katleen, it was so nice meeting you in Brookfield. I love how you tie in all the details of your stories to a satisfying conclusion. Please enter me in drawing for Highland Fling. God bless you in all your endeavors. Susan Nelson

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