"Cuimhnich air na daoine o'n d'thainig thu."
"Remember the men from whom you have come."

It need hardly be mentioned that during the 1990s, there was a huge growth of "American" (read: U.S.) interest in all things "Celtic" (read: Riverdance). However, some people seemed to forget that the Scottish are Celts too, and many of the traditions of Scotland got left out of the culture vulture's repertoire. For your typical "merkin", the word "Scotland" chiefly conjures up images of Mike Myers' character Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers flicks, bestiality, bagpipes, and possibly Trainspotting if you're speaking to someone particularly hep.

Needless to say, the only one of these icons you should pay attention to if you're serious about being a Scot is that of the bagpipe (you should especially stay away from Trainspotting, Mark Renton's best speech in that film will do nothing except rile you up). What you should do instead is track down the nearest set of Highland Games held annually, and attend. That is, in fact, the entire purpose of the Highland Games-- to provide a place for people who are serious about being Scottish to meet, greet, find out about their shared heritage, and party like only the Scottish can. Say the word "sheepfucker" with any strength of voice anywhere near these diehard Gaels, and you're likely to suffer physical consequences. Take them seriously, and they will be happy to teach you about a tradition based on honor, the value of strength and endurance, and sheer joy. These lessons will probably employ a strategy few Americans can pass up: education through competition.

A Brief Summation of the Long History of the Games
The Highland Games have been key to Scottish pride for centuries. Their origins are not clearly documented, but are instead part of Scotland's oral tradition (which is something of a cue as to just how old they are). One of the touchstones of the legend of the Games is that they were first held with an organized, official format during the reign of King Malcom Canmore (1057 to 1092 C.E.), who wanted to increase the strength of his soldiers and runners, and that the central event at the time was a race to the top of a mountain. However, the games certainly did not start with King Malcom; the oldest of the events, "putting the shot" requires nothing more complicated than a smooth stone from a riverbed and nobody in your way. Some scholars believe that the Highland Games can be linked with the Teltown "funeral games" in Eire.

Whether or not this is a case, a well-established history of the Highland Games begins with the revival of interest in tartan and Highland culture* that occurred during the era of Sir Walter Scott. This was after the repeal of the Act of Proscription that had been imposed by Parliament upon all things Scottish after the Battle of Culloden in 1746; the Proscription lasted approximately 40 years, and its effects fell short of the complete forced assimilation Parliament had intended (though the Scottish suffered greatly during these years, their culture forced underground). In 1798, the first of the Northern Meetings was held; they began as simple social gatherings, but the Scots needed little impetus to begin reviving old traditions. In 1819, at the Perthshire (that's in Scotland, in case you can't figure it out) estate of Lord Gwydir, the first of the documented Highland Games took place; in addition to several athletic events, the 1819 Games featured "Highland Reels and the Ancient Scotch Sword Dance".

The Games rapidly grew in popularity, and many different towns started to hold their own Games annually-- which was, of course, the entire point. In 1848, Queen Victoria attended the Braemar Games, which had been hosted by the Braemar Highland Society starting in 1832, and enjoyed herself so thoroughly that she requested they be held annually at her summer residence, Braemar Castle, to which they relocated in 1849 they are still held today. In 1891, the Northern Meeting started to take on a game-type flavour when it incorporated piping and dancing competitions. And as wave after wave of Scots emigrated to the "New World", they brought the Games with them, to cities like Chicago, so that little high school suburban chicks, like me when I first attended, could enjoy them decades later.

Just What Counts As a "Highland Game", Anyway?
The Highland Games are competitive events, primarily, and can be divided into three categories: the "heavy events", dancing, and music.

  1. Heavy Events:
  2. Dancing:
  3. Music: can essentially be divided into individual bagpiping, individual drumming for bagpipe accompaniment, pipe bands (various numbers of bagpipes and drummers), and vocal competition (seen less frequently, along with any other kind of instrument that does not relate back to the bagpipe).

...But That's Not All!
"Primarily" competitive does not mean solely competitive. No decent Scot would consider the local Highland Games worth attending if there were not other activities available for those who choose not to compete. Expect to see genealogy organizations, clan tents, a temporary marketplace for a variety of artisans and merchants of Celtic goods (fair warning, from what I saw much of this was simply cashing on that trend mentioned above, caveat emptor), educational demonstrations of Scottish swordplay and the proper way to fold your own kilt (or kilted skirts for a bonnie lassie), not to mention real Scottish cuisine. Don't worry, silly merkin, no one will make you eat haggis, in fact to my great disappointment the Chicago Highland Games don't even sell haggis, instead offering a wide variety of meat pies. And no Highland Games celebration would be complete without a ceilidh (pronounced "chay-lee") to round off the evening. Dance, and drink, til you drop, surrounded by more Scotsmen than you could ever handle (take that in whatever way you want to, they love the fightin' and they love the lovin' too).

Fair warning, you can expect that you will continue to hear bagpipes ringing in your ears for several hours after you leave a good old-fashioned Highland Games. But if that doesn't sound like a good thing to you, why would you go in the first place?

* = precisely how much of "tartan culture" originated among the Scots, and how much of it got imposed on them by the British in order to foster a caste system and in-fighting ("the Wars of Independence fought against the British in the fourteenth century encouraged clanship, as did the feudal tenures introduced to regulate the use and ownership of land...unless united with other clans to fight a common foe, they fought between clans") really is a subject for another writeup entirely.

sources for this writeup: www.crieff-highland-games.co.uk, www.fergusscottishfestival.com, www.grandfathergames.com, www.lochnorman.org www.scottishgames.org, www.siliconglen.com, and my own experience.

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