Posts Tagged ‘scottish heritage’

Betrayal At Cross Creek

June 12, 2013


Betrayal At Cross Creek448w

When I was a kid, I read lots of novels set during the American Revolution.  Every one I recall portrayed Patriots as “good” and everyone else as “bad.”  As an American, I’m enormously proud of what our foremothers and forefathers did to establish our country.  But the truth is, many good people fought on both sides, trying to defend what they believed in.  And some wanted to stay out of the fighting all together, and simply keep their families and homes safe from the violence.

I was already thinking about writing a Revolutionary War novel when I was invited to write a third mystery for Pleasant Company’s “History Mystery” series.  I chose to write about the Scottish community in North Carolina for a couple of reasons.

I’d read a lot about these immigrants—many of whom had suffered terribly under English rule in Scotland.  To the best of my knowledge, there was not a book for young readers out there that explored the experience of Scottish immigrants struggling to create new homes and lives in the colony.  I have a wee bit of Scottish heritage myself.  And the Scottish community in North Carolina was politically divided during the Revolution, providing lots of conflict to explore.

Some Scots became Patriots. They had bad memories of British rule, and wanted to fight for American independence. Others decided to fight against the Patriots because they knew how harshly the British dealt with dissenters. How difficult it must have been, trying guess which side would prevail!

I began with a simple premise. My main character, Elspeth, would be a newly-arrived Scottish immigrant in North Carolina. Her family, which had struggled to survive conflicts in Scotland, would face new challenges. All they wanted was a peaceful new home where they could start again—but with the American Revolution underway, everyone was forced to pick sides. Before I could begin writing, I had lots more research to do.  So, off to North Carolina!

I started in Raleigh, the state capital.  First stop, the North Carolina Museum of History.  I had already spent a lot of time on their website, searching through their online exhibits and collections.  (Try it!  It’s lots of fun.)


The North Carolina Museum of History was a great place to begin exploring.

I also visited the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.  It’s no substitute for exploring outdoors!  But I knew that the landscape Elspeth would have known, the Longleaf Pine Forest, was almost gone.

NC- Museum Display448w

The museum gave me at least a sense of the plants and animals that greeted the Scottish immigrants.

Fortunately, there was still a place where I could see a remnant of the original Longleaf Pine Forest. Fort Bragg, a huge military base, is still home to some swatches of this rare ecosystem. Some kind people got me hooked up with the base’s Cultural Resources department, who arranged for me to visit.

The area was home to many early Scottish settlers, and I learned a lot from the people involved with archaeological work. I also got to visit Longstreet Presbyterian church, surrounded by longleaf pines. Walking here beneath the enormous pines, squinting at a couple of gravestones that had been inscribed in Gaelic…it was very, very special.


The church building itself doesn’t date back to the colonial period, but the cemetery does.

There was lots more to see in North Carolina.  I visited the Moores Creek National Battlefield  on a quiet, sunny day when I seemed to be the only visitor.  That was a special visit, also.


Here, the Highland Scots who’d chosen to fight with the British made a courageous charge.  “Shouting ‘King George and Broadswords!’ they advanced across a bridge, not knowing that nearly a thousand North Caroline patriots were hidden and waiting.  I wandered the field, reading the interpretive plaques, and trying to imagine how the Loyalist Scottish men fighting there must have felt.



I also visited the Scottish Tartans Museum. At the time of the American Revolution, particular tartans were not yet associated with individual clans, as they are today.  Still, it was helpful to learn more about the types of clothes worn by early Scots—and how they were made.


(By the way, I chose to make Elspeth a weaver in part because I learned to weave an on old loom while working at Old World Wisconsin.)


That’s me, back in 1982.  I loved to weave!

So much time has passed since Elspeth’s time that little material culture remains. I’m grateful to a number of historians who were willing to help me imagine life during those turbulent times. And I’m grateful to my husband, Scott, who suggested that we travel to Scotland so I could learn more about Elsepth’s life before she came to the American colonies. I hope to one day write a prequel to Betrayal at Cross Creek, set on the Isle of Skye.


That’s Scott at one of the open-air museums we visited in Scotland.


Elspeth’s original home might have looked something like this.


Blocks of peat waiting to be used as fuel.

Betrayal at Cross Creek is, I must admit, one of my favorites among the books I’ve written. I hope you enjoy it too!  The book is out of print, but a wonderful  audio version is available.

PS:   After publication the book garnered a lot of attention, for which I’m deeply grateful. One of the greatest honors I’ve ever had came when St. Andrews Presbyterian College presented me the Flora MacDonald Award. I had done some research at the Scottish History Center at the College, and it was an amazing experience to return for the awards banquet.

That's me at the banquet.

I’m in black, wearing the tartan sash of Clan Johnston, which was my maternal grandfather’s name.  To my right is the talented Flora MacDonald Gammon, who was honored for all she’s done to preserve and share traditional Scottish music.

Highland Fling

May 11, 2013


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