Can You Take Highland Games Out of the Highlands?

Longing for summer? Missing those glorious days at the Games, piping midst all the fun of the fair? Here US piper and enthusiast Peter Beckford looks back on his trip during the Summer of ’15 and compares games on both sides of the Atlantic…..

I’ve never been to a Highland games as an impartial spectator. I go for the piping, as a competitor in the US, or parent and fan. But I manage to wander around, and since I’ve embarked on an annual pilgrimage to Oban and Inverness (I’d say an unbroken string of two years is enough to call it a set-in-stone annual commitment), I’ve been asked how the American versions compare to the original. Piping aside, here’s an answer that will focus on four of the nine staffs of life: drink, food, dogs and philosophy….

Drink. The obvious difference is that at American games no one with a walking stick will pull out a flask and offer a little refreshment with instruction for the Yank. At Highland games, such as Birnam, you will be frazzled (brain fried) because that’s life, and then you’ll find yourself next to an expert with a three-cornered flask from which will flow Bunnahabhain, a Rusty Nail and Big Peat. Your opinions will be respected.

At Braemar, it’s not only the judges that will be offered a wee dram. Chances are excellent that it will be sufficiently windy and cold, if not wet, for anyone with a warm heart, maybe even piping royalty, to share a flask with a fellow piobaireachd enthusiast. On the beer front, it bears reporting that the pleasure of wandering with a local ale, or crowd-judging a jig contest with a stout in hand, is not one to be had in the US. Alcohol is strictly confined to a tent over here.

Peter, pie and peaks
Peter, pie and peaks

Food. Well…..bring your own? Don’t get me wrong, no one will starve at Games in either Scotland or the US. There’s food everywhere, but you better not get picky! So here’s a free marketable idea from an expert: Sell delicious, fresh, not-fried, local food, maybe even made of vegetables, that you’d be glad your kids were eating. In the US there will usually be vendors of Scottish themed treats, from gooey strawberry deserts to haggis. A large tent will sell imported exotic delicacies with overdue expiry dates, like Irn Bru, McVitie’s Biscuits, jams and of course Walkers Shortbread, who must have one big oven that never stops cooking. That stuff is everywhere! And I do my best to diminish it!

Ursa helped pay for dad's pies with many wins at the games
Ursa helped pay for dad’s pies with many wins at the games
 But back to Birnam, they take the lunch prize from my limited tour of Games. There is a booth at the piobaireachd end of the pitch, actually it was quite near the three corner flask, that I suspect is one of the reasons for my two year streak of cross – Atlantic flights. Their selection of small pies, pastries, even casseroles, is delicious and unparalleled. And inexpensive. And it raises money for charity!! (The food cart in opposite corner of the field wins the aggregate tatties and neeps prize).Scotland's-Finest

Dogs. Never seen so many good-looking hounds outside of a dog show, which I’ve also never seen. (No piping at dog shows.) Rarely, if ever, do US games allow dogs on the grounds. At Highland games they often seem to come in matched sets, pure bred varieties, and dogs don’t seem to be a problem. The exception being one incontinent mutt with no respect for a particular MSR. No piper should have to face criticism like that…

Philosophy. Compare Scottish and US Games? It’s a little like being asked to compare the shadows in Plato’s cave to the objects casting the shadows. It depends on which direction you’re facing. However, the fundamental difference is that Highland Games in the Highlands are homegrown, they are the organic results of what a town and culture care about and enjoy. In the US, games are held with pride of Scottish heritage, love of things Scottish (or more generally Celtic, especially jewelry), and a longing to be in Scotland. A trip to Scotland will often be the grand prize in a raffle, 2nd prize will be a kilt, and 3rd will win you a claymore! In the US we do our best to imitate the original.

The Last Word. In case you’re looking for the US games that P/M Alasdair Gillies believed most closely resembles a Games in the Highlands, head for (I kid you not) Scotland, Connecticut, on a frosty October morning. The car park will be a grassy field turning sloppy as the sun warms it. The size of the games field is best described as cozy. And maybe you can fill the role of rover with a flask.

Need some heat? Get on down to the South Florida Pipe & Drum Academy…hot in every sense!

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