Highland Fun and Games
Hoot, mon! Every summer the season of the Highland Games thunders down on unsuspecting Canadians in full hew and cry. From Newfoundland to Vancouver Island the thump and rattle of drums, the wheeze and squeeze of bagpipes rends the tranquil, morning air of what had promsied to be just another peaceful weekend. Lest anyone out of earshot remain unmoved by the Caledonian spirit, radio stations that feature classical music serenade us with “Scotch” symphonies and fantasias by such famous Scotsmen as Mendelssohn, Brüch, Berlioz and Beethoven. In farmers’ fields and civic fairgrounds across the nation, strong men in kilts test their strength, while wee lassies in tartan and velvet dance the Highland Fling to the tune of Bonny Dundee. Pipers pipe, fiddlers fiddle, and peddlers peddle a tempting array of ethnic, culinary delights ranging from hot dogs to popsicles.
H awking the coats of arms of Scottish nobility to us gullible commoners is another time-honored tradition at North American gatherings of the Clans. Because coats of arms are passed down though generations by heredity, John Doe Campbell of small town Canada has no more business using the personal arms of Lord Campbell of Cawdor than he has to appropriate the registered trademarks of the Campbell’s Soup Company! A Canadian who craves a real coat of arms to legitimize his humble existence must hope that his accomplishments may someday merit the attention of the Canadian Heraldic Authority, which grants arms to a few distinguished citizens, usually in recognition of long and outstanding public service. Except for families who trace their ancestry to Robert the Bruce or similar historical luminaries, real Scots who covet heraldic trappings content themselves with small, silver badges that symbolize only their clan affiliations -- i.e. family names. But who cares while there’s money to be made and Brigadoonery is running high? The spurious coats of arms for sale at the Highland Games are inexpensive and easy to acquire compared to the real thing. Any number of quaintly-attired merchants will be glad to accept your quaint credit cards.
One may quibble over the niceties of heraldry; but who would dare to deny a would-be Scot his or her tartan? Never mind that many of the patterns in current use trace their “ancient” origins to a pair of canny, nineteenth century Polish lads who claimed, however improbably, to be descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie.The failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 spelled the end of the Stuart dynasty, but young Charlie’s debacle sowed the seeds of a colorful legacy for the Brothers Sobieski, who in 1842 published a fanciful compendium of "ancient" tartans -- many purely their own, original designs -- in a book called Vestiarum Scoticum. Who cares? There are more kilts to be seen in Fergus, Ontario during the annual Scottish Festival every August than one is likely to find in all of Scotland. Connoisseurs of the tartan enjoy an interesting, Caledonian variant of bird watching, identifying the distinctive, blue Andersons, the gaudy Buchanans, and the yellow-and-black “horse blanket” MacLeods in the crowd. It’s fun having one of the less common Scottish monikers on such occasions, when sporting an unusual tartan becomes a satisfying game of stump the experts. The official Town Crier in Dutton, Ontario was still wearing a McAlister kilt as recently as a couple years ago -- and there was not one visitor in a thousand, including many who share our family name, who could recognize it.
Alas, not everyone appreciates the difference between Highland dress and Canadian Brigadoonery. Fifth generation Scottish-Canadians decked out in the private tartans of the British Royal family; men wearing tartan neckties (never worn in Scotland); bandswomen making an indecent spectacle of themselves with that most unabashedly masculine of all accouterments, a sporran; and men incongruously combining the formality of tartan hose and a jeweled sgian-dubh suitable for evening wear with dirty sneakers, unconsciously stage an amusing spectacle for the cognoscenti. Occasionally an officer of some North American Caledonian society struts by with eagle feathers stuck in his bonnet, as if he were a genuine, hereditary, Scottish clan Chief. Such pretentiousness would make any real Scotsman wince if it didn't look so silly.
Fortunately -- and contrary to the image portrayed by recent, bloodthirsty emanations from Hollywood -- the Scots are a tolerant race. After all, it has been said (no doubt by a Scotsman) that there are only two types of people in this world: the Scots and those who wish they were Scottish. But the Highland Games are more than an eccentric fashion show. The “heavy events” are a favorite spectacle at any such gathering -- the reason why these events are called “games” in the first place. Brawny lads (and some athletic lassies, too) wearing jockey shorts under their kilts in deference to decorum, if not tradition, practice such strenuous feats as tossing telephone poles end over end, throwing heavy rocks and iron balls, and hefting large sacks of wool over high bars with pitchforks. You never know when these skills may come in handy in the workaday world.
Professionals compete for substantial prize money, while less serious competitors hold separate contests just for the fun of it. Bizarre as these activities appear, the most peculiar Highland sport of all is surely the ancient, Celtic art of haggis hurling. The uninitiated may be forgiven for finding the haggis an acquired taste -- but here we speak of the literal kind of “hurling.” Invented as a joke twenty years ago by an Edinburgh businessman, in this wasteful exercise the contestant throws a perfectly edible, regulation haggis weighing 680 gm as far away as possible. While an undeniable similarity exists between a haggis and a football, this questionable sport has done nothing to promote the enjoyment of an unjustly-maligned delicacy to which a famous ode of praise was once composed by Robbie Burns himself. Of course, the haggis is the main event at the annual Burns Night celebrations held by Scots and Scottish wannabees the world over. Haggis hurling has become an unfortunate staple at some of the big, annual gatherings in the United States -- and it has even gained a foothold within our more sensible Canadian borders, egads!
Even the animals who may eventually become unwilling contributors to the haggis event get in on the act at the Highland Games. Docile Highland Cattle with pointy horns and shaggy locks rub wet noses with immaculately groomed Black Angus. Excitable dogs worry small flocks of sheep all over the field for the shepherding competition until it is time for the sheep shearing demonstration. After a weekend of such bucolic pastimes, predictable speeches by local dignitaries, wailing bagpipes, marching, dancing, impressive if unusual feats of brawn, and down-home gluttony, the Games conclude. Participants and spectators reluctantly disperse and head their separate ways -- until they reassemble for more of the same in a different community, a couple weeks later.
To the everlasting delight of Brigadoonians in this country, the Canada Post Corporation recently issued a 45 cent stamp honoring Highland Games in Canada. Depicted at the top of this web page, the stamp features our friend Jennifer Blackburn, a well-known Highland Dance instructor from Port Perry, Ontario. This picturesque, Ontario town is famous as a veritable hotbed of Canadian Brigadoonery. The town is the co-home (with neighboring Uxbridge) of the annual Highlands of Durham games; the location of the Scugog Shores Historical Museum; and (most importantly) the residence of your humble webmaster!
All summer long the Highland games circuit provides good, family entertainment, even for the not-so-Scottish. With Autumn, die-hard enthusiasts head south to continue the fun in warmer climes. So pack your wee bairns in the back seat o’ the car, and we’ll see you some weekend soon! Should you spy a laddie wi’ gray hair wearing the gaudy, red McAlister tartan, stop and say hello. The beer tent is open all weekend!
© 1997-2004 Neil Harding McAlister