Over Memorial Day weekend, I will be attending the United Scottish Society’s Scottish games in Costa Mesa, CA, known as Scottish Fest, (click here for info) selling my Celtic saga, Three Legs of the Cauldron. Alas, I have only attended Scottish Games in California, so my impressions are not of any Games in Scotland. Those are competitions in athletics and dancing, far different than the Celtic fairs of America. Even the one at Braemar that the Queen regularly attends and draws about 20,000 people is focused on the competitions. There will be kilts and pipe bands, but no clan booths or musicians (sorry, pipers, I mean no slight to your musical talents). They harken back 950 years to the time of Malcolm II, known as Canmore or Bighead, who is said to have had the games as a way to have Scots compete with each other without someone literally losing his head. Since he’s the guy who killed the historical Macbeth, there may be some irony there. But I digress. Back to the New World.
The games in America are more of a fair or festival, hence the name Scottish Fest for Costa Mesa. I first attended these games when they were held at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona. It was 1981, a hot Sunday afternoon, and my little clan (family) barely made it to them before closing time. They were a rather small affair then, but I was bitten by the Scottish bug. My nearest tie is through my father’s mother, a Fraser. A couple of years later, I went to the games the Clans of the Highlands used to hold in Chino as a member of Clan Fraser Society of North America. Although a small games, they had the necessary components of a games in America: clan tents, vendors of about every item Scottish and not so Scottish as well as food and drink, and Scottish, or at least Celtic, musical entertainment. Oh, yes, they also had Scottish athletic and dancing competitions as well as pipe bands. Other games might add a Highland animal exhibit, sheepdog competitions, whisky tasting, historical re-creationist groups (Want to meet Mary, Queen of Scots? Well, not the real one, since she’d be rather decomposed by now, but someone who has taken a lot of time to learn to act like she would have. She just might be there.), and even odd events like beard competitions.
What do the Games in Scotland and the Scottish Games in America have in common? Much. The athletic competitions always have some uniquely Scottish events. The most dramatic is the caber toss, which has been termed the telephone-pole toss by those of non-Scottish descent. Some burly guy in a kilt balances a log the size of a telephone pole upright against his shoulder, slowly trots ahead and heaves it upward so that it lands on the other end and falls forward. It’s supposed to land perfectly upright and fall directly away from the competitor. Take it from me, it’s not easy even with a smaller, practice one. (click here to see) Then there is the stone toss. It’s like shot putting, except with an irregularly shaped stone weighing about 18 lbs. and done with no approach, feet firmly planted. (click here to see) Next is the weight toss over a bar, similar to a pole vault bar. The 56 lb. weight has a ring attached for gripping and tossed over a bar 18 ft. or more directly overhead. Not keeping an eye on the weight could be fatal. (click here to see) Then there’s a 28 lb. weight toss for distance. Finally, there is the 22 lb. hammer throw for distance. This is also an Olympic event. In the Scottish games, the big guys throw it 185 ft. or more. (click here to see) In the Olympics, the record is 284 ft. Of course, the Olympic hammer is 6 lbs. lighter and has an easily-gripped handle on the end of a chain instead of a simple pole! Maybe the Scottish one is a little too much for the rest of the world. The real kicker is that, unlike the Olympics, Scottish heavy competitors compete in all these events and over a relatively short period of time. Not exactly the same, is it?
Another common ground for Scotland and America are the dancers. Highland dancing is not done with a partner and is energetic, to say the least. The sword dance is done over a pair of crossed swords, supposedly originally done by Malcolm Bighead celebrating his victory over Macbeth. If a dancer touches one of the swords in this difficult dance, he or she loses major points. (click here to see) The Highland fling requires the dancer to stay in the same spot while going through fast and rigorous steps. (click here to see) Both of these are performed mainly on tiptoe. Although there are other dances like the sailor’s hornpipe, these are the essentials of Highland dance competitions. There is no improv in any of these dances. The dancer must learn the steps and follow them.
The last commonalities for the New World and the Old World games are pipers and the kilts. Pipe bands are the mainstay for the music at the games. You can hear pipers practicing their music, often eerily wafting through the games. You either love them or you hate them. There is a joke that says that a bad piper sounds like someone strangling a cat. A good piper sounds like someone strangling a cat gently. However, if you’ve got any Scots blood in your veins, the sound of a good pipe band will send cold chills down your spine. (click here to see and hear) I remember when my wife and I were first in Scotland in 1986, we were driving along a glen when we saw some red deer and got out for a photo. It was about 11:00 at night, but still twilight and the hills along the burn were covered with heather. There was not a person or a house in sight. A lone piper was playing somewhere in the far distance, echoing along the glen. It was so beautiful it almost brought tears to my eyes. (click here to listen) I am a Scot, not only by some of the blood in my veins, but in m heart.
And then there is the kilt. I cannot take the time to go into the entire history of the kilt and tartans, but what has evolved is a pleated wool garment with a tartan that is registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans. For most, that means a Scottish Highland clan or Lowland family. In America, you will see many men in these kilts at the games. but many more who are not. They are custom tailored, somewhat expensive and, quite frankly, take a little courage to wear. Although, as I said, I have not been to any Games in Scotland, I would imagine that is the case there. Here, however, things have changed since I got my kilt in 1983. Now there are Utilikilts and their Pakistani knock-offs. These are off-the-rack, made in heavy cotton, solid-color or camo instead of tartan cloth and (shudder) have pockets. While it’s a free country and anyone can wear whatever they wish, I will never wear a Utilikilt. To me, it would be like wearing Jockey underwear (Y-fronts for my British friends) and calling them swim trunks: not the same thing and rather embarrassing to be seen in in public. An American site summarized my thoughts very well. “They took a traditional garb and perverted it. A kilt is a symbol of Scotland and its history. A Utilikilt is someone trying to functionalize culture.”
It’s like wearing white athletic shoes with a tux: just not right. If you figure the cost of my kilt for the 30-plus years I’ve owned it, it’s not that much, far less than an iPhone and lasting far longer. If you want to show your Scottish heritage, do it with the real thing and not a cheap substitute. When you walk in a real kilt, there is a “swoosh” of the fabric side to side. When you walk in a Utilikilt, it hangs stiffly down. A U.K. site called it, “hardly a kilt at all, but a man skirt, marketed as a kilt.” If you wear a Utilikilt, just be honest and say it’s a man-skirt. Like a man-purse or a man-bun, it’s a masculine version of a feminine fashion item.
But back to the games. For Americans, they are a Scottish festival as well as competitions. The music reflects that, although I do wish there were more in the traditional style than the modern, rock-type, but the organizers book what draws the crowds. While they’re not to my taste, I guess I can live with that. The vendors provide a chance for purchasing British food and drink, Celtic jewelry, British knick-knacks and Celtic-themed clothing that varies from T-shirts to kilts and tracing your name’s ancestry. There are also books on Celtic topics, which is where I fit in. As I said, I will be autographing and selling Three Legs of the Cauldron at the Celtic Nook booth in Costa Mesa as well as Pleasanton, CA, over Labor Day weekend. (click here for info) Then there is that American innovation, clan tents.
For native Scots, they consider clan membership to be a matter of birth, not joining. If you’re born a Fraser in Scotland, you are a member of the clan. However, in America (and I now understand in a number of other countries as well), you join a clan society. Requirements vary, but most bend over backwards to find a way to include those interested in membership. We are a nation of mutts, so pure-blooded Scots are rare and oft times the connection is many generations back. Many clan societies have ties with the clan chief or chief of the name in Scotland, but there is no copyright on a name and some are not connected with Scotland at all. Nonetheless, it is all about preserving our Celtic heritage. In this modern, mobile and transitory society, many of us are looking for roots, a tie to the past that will keep us grounded in the present. Having manned the Clan Fraser Society of North America clan tent as Southern California Convener for many years, there is a special place in my heart for those who put time, effort and money into preserving this heritage. That great duo, Men of Worth, have made a tongue-in-cheek song about them entitled The Clan Tent Cavaliers. (Click here to listen) At the clan tents, diasporan Scots can find their connection to their heritage. Dedicated volunteers are more than willing to share their research and knowledge with any who stop by. It’s all free. If you attend the games in America and have any Scottish name in your ancestry, take the time to check out your clan tent. It’s a part of the Scottish games experience in America.