The Scottish Connection

Photos by Ellie Gunn

My paternal grandparents were born in the Highlands and came to the U.S. as newlyweds in 1893. I grew up with my grandmother's lilting brogue deep inside me. My father and my grandparents died before I was twelve, but the memories remain.

Traveling to Scotland in 2003 was a dream come true. My first novel, One Handful of Earth, was inspired by being in the far north of Scotland, listening to contemporary musicians (Jim Malcolm, Ed Pickford, and Steve McDonald), reading about the Highland Clearances and believing that the story of people displaced by greed in the 19th century has value in the 21st.

[We're] expected to die for the land of our birth,
When we've never owned one handful of earth.
--Ed Pickford

I went back to Scotland for six weeks in 2006. I spent many days walking in the hills where One Handful of Earth takes place, the Strath of Kildonan, west of Helmsdale. I sat on the mossy ledge where Nathaniel recites poetry to Rose. I found an outline of a longhouse where the MacDonans live. I followed the stream where they get their drinking water. I heard the laughter of children, the whinny of a pony, and the opening drone of a piper's lament.

One Handful of Earth is the story of a woman who leads her community in the struggle to save their land. It is also the story of tens of thousands of Scottish people who left their land against their will and settled Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Some of them died in the stormy Atlantic, some starved in the new world, but many survived and worked hard to build a home and community in their new country.