So you’ve decided to attend your first Celtic Festival and Highland Games, but you’re wondering what to expect. You’ve got questions like - Do I have to wear a kilt? Will there be haggis, or worse, will there ONLY be haggis? What are Highland Games anyway? That’s where they throw that giant log right? We’ll get to these and other questions in this handy guide.
I know the first question you have. If I come to this thing, do I have to wear a kilt? The short answer is - no, of course not. The most important thing to keep in mind when dressing for the festival is that it’s rain or shine (or since it’ll be June in Southern Ontario… rain, shine, snow, record breaking heat or all of the above) so dress appropriately. Having said that, if you wish to embrace your inner Celt, you are encouraged to dress to the Highland nines! Lot’s of people do.
So what is Highland Dress? The term really just describes the traditional clothes of the Highlands and Isles of Scotland. Kilts, but more importantly, tartan - is a large part of that. The tartan you wear is usually based on the Clan or family line you belong to.
To break it down let’s go to everyone’s favourite Scot, Groundskeeper Willie. Men’s Highland Dress may include (from top to bottom)
Sporran (front pouch)
Cuffed Knee Socks
Buckled Ghillie Brogues (shoes)
Women’s Highland Dress includes a tartan full length skirt as opposed to a kilt and a tartan sash instead of a jacket & cloak. For a more in-depth look and history at Highland Dress check out Wikipedia.
Highland Games (The Heavies)
The words “Highland Games” actually refer to the competition of dancing, piping, drumming and athletics found at a festival celebrating Celtic culture. To the average person though, it conjures up the image of a hulking, kilted man throwing what appears to be a tree trunk. That, would be the caber toss. Just one of the athletic events that make up The Heavies.
A caber is a full length log, traditionally made of Scots pine, that weighs up to 175lbs (what?!). The log is held at at one end by the competitor while resting it against the body. The competitor then runs to gain momentum and throws the caber end over end. The event is judged on style however, the distance the caber travels is irrelevant.
Probably the most recognizable of the heavies, the shot put is much like it’s Olympic counterpart. A metal ball, weighing 20-26lbs, is thrown by the competitors as far as possible after a short run or from a standing position. I can only imagine the first incarnation of this event was done with a rock.
Two teams of eight pull against each other while a coach for each team yells technique and encouragement until one team is pulled across the centre line. It’s spectator favourite and only gets better if it’s been raining.
This isn’t a test of who can throw a nail hammer the furthest. A hammer in this sense is a metal ball (22lbs for men, 16lbs for women) attached to a wooden pole. The competitor whirls the pole around their head, throwing the hammer as far as possible.
Scottish Highland Dancing
Scottish Highland Dancing is one of the oldest forms of dance. It is thought to date back to the 11th century. Highland Dancing is the traditional solo dancing of Scotland, not to be confused with Scottish Country Dancing (we’ll have that too!), the social dance of the country. Here’s just a few of the dances you’ll see.
(A special thanks to Jennifer Hamilton from the HDAO for the dance descriptions!)
THE HIGHLAND FLING
This is likely the oldest of the traditional dances of Scotland, signifying victory following a battle. It was danced on a targe (shield), which was adorned with a large spike in the centre. Agility, nimble footwork, and strength allowed the dancer to perform the dance on the targe while avoiding the large spike. Thus the Fling today is danced in one place.
Seann Truibhas is Gaelic for “old trousers”. It is largely believed that the dance developed after the 1745 Jacobite Rising. Eventually the government made an effort to end the Jacobite military threat, and rounded up all of the Jacobites, who were then imprisoned or executed. The clan system was dismantled, and kilts, plaids, pipes and weaponry were outlawed.
When this Act of Proscription was repealed in 1783, the Highlanders were once again allowed to wear their kilts. Parts of the Seann Truibhas depict the men trying to shake off the hated trousers, and the quick-time following the clap is thought to reflect the Highlanders’ joy at regaining the freedom of their native kilts.
THE SWORD DANCE (GHILLIE CALLUM)
The Sword Dance is mentioned in documents dating back to the reign of Malcolm III, King of Scots in the eleventh century. He allegedly danced over his bloody claymore (the ancient two-handed sword of Scotland), crossed with the sword of his defeated enemy. Following this, the sword dance was traditionally danced by warriors on the eve of battle. If the dancer touched the sword, this predicted his being wounded the next day. If the dancer kicked the sword, this predicted his death. Following this tradition, dancers today are disqualified from competition if they kick their sword.
The clap near the end of the dance tells the piper to speed up the tempo, showing off the dancer’s endurance and mettle.
Here we get to the million dollar question - Will there be haggis? Yes, of course! But you won’t be forced to eat it. You are encouraged to try it though! You may be pleasantly surprised. The festival will have a variety of food vendors and food trucks that will be sure to fulfill any appetite! Here’s a list of some of the food vendors you’ll find at the festival: