The sights, sounds and smells of a Scottish Highland event in America are exhilarating. Excitement abounds whether it is billed as Highland Games or a Highland Festival, or Celtic Festival or a Clan Gathering. Signs of heraldry, brightly-colored tartans and banners, the skirl of bagpipes and rat-a-tat of drums fill the senses.
The Games and Festivals can be one-day events or may last for an entire weekend or more. Some venues have weeknight receptions for sponsoring clans but there will always be a full festival on Saturday and/or Sunday.
The Pacific Northwest Highland Games in Enumclaw, Washington offer Scottish Social Dancing on Friday and Saturday evening. Experienced dancers teach complete novices the steps of dances like the Virginia Reel and the Gay (happy) Gordons danced to the music of fiddles, harps and bagpipes. These dances also make a great spectator sport as you watch the novices try to remember which foot is their left or right or whether the direction they should be moving is backward or forward. Hilarious “traffic jams” occur with regularity. A great time for all concerned. These dances are a staple at house ceilidhs* in the Scottish Highlands and in Canada. *(kay-lees: Scots Gaelic word for a party, meeting, or concert)
Brawny men, and a few women, compete in Heavy Athletics Competitions at the Games. These include throwing various items of differing weights for height or distance. Portand, Oregon includes a Kilted Mile race with all participants, mostly men, required to wear a kilt. Some events include a golf tournament held on a nearby golf course.
Other events are the Hammer Throw (a weight on the end of a stick, Weight for Distance and Weight for Height. Putting the Stone involves throwing a stone, weighing as much as ninety pounds at some events, as far as the athlete can manage. Some of the stones are smaller and the process is very much like the shotput in modern competitons. In the past all of these events had a practical use in warfare and were a test of a Scottish warriors abilities.
The athletic contests culminate in the Caber Toss event. The caber is a straight, tapered pole 19 to 21 long. The athlete holds the pole in a vertical position with the larger-diameter end at the top. The object is to balance the caber vertically, carry it forward the prescribed distance then toss it end for end.
The competitor who comes closest to having the pole turn in the air and land in the twelve o’clock position with the small end of the pole furthest away from him is declared the winner. The Caber Toss depends more on the skill of the athlete than on his size or strength.
The Caber Toss is easily the most exciting of the athletic contests and judging from the crowds the event draws I think it is also the most popular. It is an amazing feat of skill. Do you think the athlete in the picture to the right succeeded in a good toss?
Highland Dancing is another competition held at many of the Games, especially the larger events. The competition always lasts two days with the finals held on Sunday. The young contestants perform dances like the Highland Fling and Sword Dance dressed in plaid pleated skirts or kilts, knee socks, jerkins (vests) or jackets and ruffled white shirts. The individuals are judged on their grace, body position and the accuracy of their steps, turns and small kicks. Like the athletic events the winners at the smaller competitions will go on to regionals and then on to the National Highland Dance competitions.
The dance competitions are for both boys and girls up to the age of 18. Several years ago a MacRae boy won the 15-18 year old category at the Pacific Northwest Highland Games.
The larger events have bagpiping and drumming competitions for both individual musicians and for entire bands.
Portland has a Friday evening competition called Piobreach (pee-brock) for pipers. Piobreach is an ancient form of musical storytelling, the tune of which was known and recognized by all who heard it, and can be up to thirty minutes long. The piece begins with a simple melody with each subsequent repetition embellished with more and more difficult fingerings before it all returns to the original melody,
The Pacific Northwest Highland Games include a competition for harpists and others have competitive fiddling.
Check back Monday for more about Highland Games and Festivals.