At Fergus, the kilts do swing, the pipes do blow

July 28, 2016   ·   0 Comments

‘Tis the season, b’gor, as they say, although the spelling may be a bit off. The Highland Games, which are mainly being prefixed by also calling them Scottish Festivals, to help those folk who never heard of a Highland Games festival before.

According to one of the top authorities on the subject of Highland Games,  David Webster, OBE, there is clear evidence of the athletic events that were the original versions of the games dating back to Malcolm III, who was King of the Scots from 1058 to 1093 AD. Running competitions and others were organized and attended. Malcolm was the first to make a Royal connection with these rudimentary games.

Since those early days when records of the games, which were call Gatherings, exist in some measure, although the real history of them was carried orally, in songs, poetry and tales about the chieftains who called people together to compete. Often, there was the additional motive of finding the strongest, the fastest men for military and service to the chieftains or the King.

Letters and  manuscripts from Henry VIII’s reign durning the early 1500’s, offer clear evidence of the popularity of the Gatherings or Highland Games. Throughout the ensuing centuries, there was an understanding of the cultural importance of the games to the Scottish people and, for example, in 1781, the first “Society Gathering … the Northern Meeting for Gentlemen, Ladies and their Families.”

As Mr. Webster tells us in his little history book, “By the 1920’s Highland Games were in full swing throughout Scotland..”

Queen Victoria was enthusiastic about all things Scottish and a true patron of the Games. She is sometimes mistakenly given credit for the rise and strength in popularity of the Highland Games. However, it generally felt that they were already very entrenched in Scottish culture long before her time.

It is the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games that is the last word for the season in Ontario for the Highland Games. Beginning on July 1 at Embro, a well-hidden village somewhat south of Stratford and then, almost every weekend sees one or more event being hosted in one or another park or, indeed, farmer’s field. They are each patronized enthusiastically by the crowds, and not only Scots or those of Scottish background but also people of every culture come now to see the bad pipers and drummers walk the parades and fill the main with their colour and music.

Those who are new to the culture will find much that odd. It could be the tossing of the caber, which was born as an amusement by early woodsmen whose lives were married to the log they harvested. A caber (log) needs to be straight but as long as 19 feet and as heavy 100 pounds and more. It is cupped in the hands of the competitor and tossed not for distance but for straightness and the way in which it is pointed once it lands. Landing at an imagined 12:00 o’clock point on the field wins the day.

To quote Mr Webster, “One of the oldest, most picturesque and popular of the dances done at the Highland Games is the Ghillie Callum, the world-renowned sword dance.”

He goes on to remind us that with such a “bloody and stormy [history],” it is not much wonder that “sword and dirk dances feature so largely over the centuries.” He may say so but, history or no, a stranger to the dance may find it odd indeed.

As did the Romans when they braved the shores of northern Britain into Scotland where Tacitus, the great Roman historian, was astonished to witness as the Caledonian warriors would stick their swords in the ground and dance around the blades. Remember that it was the Roman, Hadrian, who built the wall to keep the Scots out – who is to say the sword dance was not an influence?

While the Glengarry Highland Games, at Maxville, an hour east of Ottawa, are acknowledged as the largest highland games in the world, more locally, Fergus comes in a good second with nearly 20 bands attending this year to participate in the band competition and the massed bands to play together, the music of the games walks with us for days after.

Be sure to take a drive to Fergus on the weekend of August 12 to 14 for the wonderful Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games. There are a great many events and celebrities, including Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander. There are so many wonderful features for families and children to enjoy, not to mention the many dancers, other competition and vendors, all on deck, as it were, to create a wonderful and memorable weekend.

Like so many of these shows, the volunteers who are an essential part of the whole have been volunteering for many years. Of them, Rob Thom, who is the commercial vendors coordinator comes from a family history of being involved with the show.

Asked what keeps him and the many others coming back to work so hard for the Fergus games, he told us, “It is a passion for the games and for our Scottish heritage that matters so much.” 

He added, with real affection, “We love being part of it.”

The Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games takes place at the Community Centre on County Road 18 in Fergus on the weekend of August 12 to 14.

For all the details and to buy tickets :

Readers Comments (0)

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.