While many are cheering the return of football, athletics of another nature will take center stage at Saturday’s 42 annual Scottish Games and Highland Gathering.
Held on the back lawn at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant, the pigskin will be replaced with cabers, sheafs and hammers, heavy athletic events that have a long and storied history.
What started in the early ’70s as a small event put on by a handful of folks, the Scottish Games and Highland Gathering has mushroomed into one of the largest one-day Games events in the southeast.
“It started out as a very small gathering of like-minded Scots and people who valued their Scottish history,” explains Karolea R. Lucas, president of the Scottish Society of Charleston. “We’ve morphed into this huge event that now includes everything to do with Scotland.”
And she means everything.
From haggis and Scotch to border collies and Highland beer, the Games and Gathering will include something of interest to everyone, including families with young children.
The theme of the event is that “everyone is Scottish for the day,” Lucas notes, so there’s no reason for anyone to feel like they’re not included or invited to attend.
The origins of the Scottish Games is one shrouded in the mists of the Highlands, as no one is truly sure when men decided to gather to compete in various tests of strength, play the pipes and drums, and perform Highland dances.
It is known, though, that King Malcolm Canmore organized the Games at Braemar in the 11th century, an event that stands today as the leading Games spectacle in the world with attendees regularly including members of the British royal family.
Locally, the Scottish Society of Charleston was incorporated in February of 1973 to keep Scottish heritage and customs alive in the Lowcountry. It was from this goal that the Scottish Games and Highland Gathering emerged, becoming the second oldest Games in the Southeast behind the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in Linville, N.C.
Boone Hall has been the host site for the games for 23 years now, with previous events being held at Middleton Place Plantation (until Hurricane Hugo hit) and the Exchange Park Fairgrounds in Ladson (only one year).
Despite a longstanding history in Charleston, a history that predates many other local events, such as Spoleto Festival USA, the Cooper River Bridge Run and the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, the event is reportedly more popular with nonresidents.
“We’re mostly known outside of Charleston, more than we are in our own hometown,” says Ron L. Hayes, vice president of the Scottish Society of Charleston. “People locally don’t even realize what’s happening here, and what has been for 42 years.”
Though attendance was between 6,000 and 7,000 people last year, including more than 700 kids under the age of 7, organizers are expecting growth to continue as the event grows and evolves.
With the event entering its 42nd year, Hayes acknowledges that change and evolution are required to keep drawing people in, “though nothing too radical,” he notes.
Last year brought a number of additions to the Games and Gathering, with a few more slated for this year.
“We held an evening concert last year for the first time, and it was such a success we are continuing on with this new tradition,” says Hayes.
From 6-9 p.m., after the day’s events begin to wind down, three musical acts will take the stage. Celtic rock band Rathkeltair will make a return appearance, blending rock ’n’ roll with their Celtic roots. Also performing will be Scottish balladeer Collin Grant-Adams and veteran Celtic folk band Smithfield Fair.
Tickets to the concert are included in the admission price ($17 in advance, $20 the day of) for the Games and Gathering, though after-3 p.m. tickets can be purchased for $15.
Another event that was new last year that is making a return appearance this year is a Scotch Tasting, slated for Thursday night at Gage Hall.
“Scotch to Scotland is like Champagne is to France; it’s a trademark type thing,” explains Hayes. “The Scotch Tasting on Thursday night was something new last year and it turned out really well for us, so we’ve expanded that this year with catering and more single malts; rather than the five or six we had last year we’re going to have eight or 10 very nice single malts this year.”
A sponsor of this year’s event is Dewar’s, which is using the Games and Gathering to help launch its newest flavor, Highlander Honey.
Also slated to be served at the Games is an array of craft beer offerings from Highland Brewing Company of Asheville, N.C., which will be set up in the beer garden.
“They came down last year for the first time and had a very good experience with us and are back again this year,” Hayes says. “We’ve had beer before, but we’re trying to step up the game a little bit by making it a little more exciting and a little more of the craft style that people are really liking a lot these days.”
This year, new additions include a Celtic Nations Tent and rugby and hurling demonstrations.
“The Charleston Hurling Club will put on a demonstration of their sport for the first time at this year’s games,” Scottish Society of Charleston Membership Chair Jeff Castle wrote in the September-October edition of Oblique magazine. “Hurling is believed to be the world’s oldest field game and was invented by the ancient Celts, who may have begun the sport more than 2,000 years ago. Hurling is the Irish version of the game known as Shinty in Scotland and features 15 players per side. The sport combines the skills of lacrosse, hockey and baseball at a breakneck pace.
“The Charleston Rugby Club will also demonstrate their own ancient Celtic sport, which is one of the top spectator sports in western Europe and maintains a rabid fan base in the United States,” he went on to say “Both sports give an excellent glance back in time at team sports played in ancient Scotland and Ireland.”
One of the event’s long-standing features is one attendees will likely be talking about long after they leave Boone Hall: the heavy athletics events, which include the Clachneart, or stone of strength, the heavy weight for distance, the light weight for distance, the Gaelic hammer, the caber, the sheaf and the weight over bar.
Amateur and professional athletes from the world over will be competing Saturday, with the professionals competing for prize money and a chance to move forward to a championship event in Stone Mountain, Ga.
“The athletes are amazing; their strength is — I don’t even have the words — it’s very humbling,” says Lucas.
Ricky Norred, athletic director for the Scottish Games and Highland Gathering, knows firsthand the strength and ability it takes to compete as he was a heavy athlete for nine years before a knee injury put him into the judge’s chair.
“It is tough when you realize that you can no longer play with the boys,” he says. “You are still a part of it, you are still on the field, but you are no longer strong, tough or young enough to be an impact player.”
Centuries ago, Highland Games revolved around athletic and sports competitions. While other activities were always part of the event, many still consider the Games and Gathering to be all about the athletics, with the caber toss becoming almost a symbol of the event.
“The spectators all love the caber. There is just something exciting about watching a guy flip a telephone pole that gets the crowd involved,” says Norred. “The crowd also loves the weight over bar. It’s exciting, and the athletes are usually very close to the crowd and the interaction is fun.”
While the athletes are competing against each other for prize money and entry into championship events, there’s still a strong sense of camaraderie.
“We love to compete, and this is a fairly low-key yet intense sport,” explains Norred. “The fellowship is wonderful and the competition is great. The guys are friends and very supportive of each other.”
In addition to the heavy athletics, another impressive moment for attendees and organizers alike is the mass band.
“I love every aspect of the games ... but my absolute favorite thing I always wait for is the mass band,” Lucas says. “It’s such a thrill to see all those men and women playing the same song and marching in step.
“The mass band in the afternoon, when they get all together, is pretty spectacular. I mean, how often do you see 20 pipe bands all at once on the field,” he says. “It will really set you back, and you feel like you’ve seen something really rare and exciting.”
The more than 20 bands are traveling from all over the southeast, including from Knoxville, Tenn.; Atlanta; Raleigh; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Charlotte; Savannah; Greenville; Jacksonville; and beyond.
While the mass band may have more appeal to the adults, an event that will wow the kids is the border collie demonstrations.
“The border collie demonstration is fabulous, people just love that,” Hayes says. “People come to the front gate asking ‘When is the demonstration?’ They want to see the dogs out there. And they’re wonderful, what they’re able to do. If you have children, you don’t want to miss that at all because they do a really good job and the kids walk away worn out and filled with excitement.”
In addition to the border collies, there are a number of events specifically geared toward the younger crowd, including the Wee Scottish Athletics, the Scotch egg relay, Highland wrestling, face painting, a jump castle, storytellers and more.
There’s also a good chance that Ronald McDonald will make an appearance, as the Ronald McDonald House is the primary benefactor of the day’s events.
“The Scottish Society is a 100 percent volunteer nonprofit; we all have careers outside of the Society,” Lucas says. “Because we use volunteers, we’re able to give so much more back to charity and back to the community. ... Our goal is to donate the majority of our proceeds to charity, that’s why we exist.
“Ronald McDonald House is our main benefactor ... we knew that was an organization we wanted to get involved with,” Lucas goes on to say. “There are also several other charities we donate to from our games, six or eight charities we give to each year ... the larger our games get, the more we can give back to our community.”
Games and Gathering attendees can also expect to see the Highland dancing competition, yet another event highlight. Competitors dress in colorful traditional garb and are judged as seriously as the heavy athletics competitors, according to Castle.
“The Scottish Highland Dancing, performed by ages 6 to adults, whose feet fly so fast, it’s remarkable. And I especially love the young, tiny girls dancing,” says Lucas. “Scottish Country Dancing, they actually encourage participation.”
There also will be a genealogy tent for those looking to trace their Scottish heritage and an abundance of food, Scottish and not.
“I encourage everyone to try something Scottish,” Lucas says. “Cameron’s has great meat pies, Scott’s Keltic Kitchen have the best sweets and breakfast foods. Molly MacPherson will be there with shepherd’s pie. And of course there will be haggis, and don’t forget the haggis chips! We’re all addicted to the haggis chips. I can’t help it. They’re delicious.”
For those less adventurous, Zeus Grill and Seafood and Sticky Fingers, along with several other options, will also be on-site offering food options.
“It’s a pretty inexpensive way to have a really big day, to kind of explore and kind of see things differently than maybe you’ve seen in other places and get a real feel for what the culture is all about,” Hayes says.
“It can be overwhelming, but also, in a way, it keeps you coming back, because you feel like that there’s more to see, so you do want to come back,” Hayes adds. “Our job is to keep it fresh and to keep changing it a little bit here and there, small changes, but certain things that will add a little more excitement to it. ... Take your watch off, don’t even pay attention to the time, just go and experience it all, it’s worth it. You’ll really get a lot out of it.”
Ricky Norred, athletic director for the Scottish Games and Highland Gathering, explains the Heavy Athletics events in the traditional order of appearance.
The Clachneart, or stone of strength: Like the movie “Braveheart,” the stone throw is a lot like the shotput in track and field. Clachneart in Gaelic means “stone of strength.”
The heavy weight for distance: The heavy weight is 56 pounds, or four stones in the old UK measurements. The athlete stands behind a “trig,” which is a toe board, and spins and throws the weight with one hand.
The light weight for distance: The light weight is a 28-pound weight, or two stones in the old UK. Like the heavy weight, the athlete spins and attempts to throw the weight for maximum distance.
The Gaelic hammer: This is a 22-pound ball on the end of a 52-inch handle. The athlete stands with his back facing the throwing area and spins and throws the hammer as far as possible. Many athletes wear spiked shoes to help hold them in place while they throw. Interestingly enough, the hammer is exactly that. It’s a Scottish blacksmith’s hammer used to beat metal into shapes.
The caber: The caber is the signature event of the Games. Caber in Gaelic means “tree.” It’s a tree that is tapered on one end. The athlete picks up the caber by the small end and attempts to throw it end over end. A perfect score is when the small end finishes at what the judge determines to be 12 o’clock, as if on a clock face. This is the only event that does not judge distance or height, but accuracy. The secret is pulling equally with both arms. Charleston uses big cypress trees as their cabers and they are about 20 feet long and weigh about 140 pounds.
Sheaf: The sheaf is a burlap bag that is filled with oiled rope. The athlete uses a pitchfork to throw the sheaf over a high bar that is advanced in 2-inch intervals.
The weight over bar: This is traditionally the last event of the day and is a height event. The heavy weight, 56 pounds, is thrown for height — with one hand — over a bar that advances in 1-inch intervals. As in the sheaf, the athlete gets three attempts at each height to clear the bar. If he clears, he advances to the next round. The winner is the overall highest, or, in the event of a tie, the athlete with the fewest misses at the lower heights.