First Northern Hemisphere Games of 2021 Held ‘Live’ in Jacksonville, Florida

The Northeast Florida Highland Games this past Saturday marked the first northern hemisphere ‘live’ outdoor event since lockdown began just a little over a year ago. As such, it may be that other Games organisers and competitors here, and perhaps worldwide, will be interested in how things went.

The event in some ways might have historical value or importance in years to come, as I think our mindset has been changed for the future by all we have experienced during the worldwide pandemic, as well as the changes which we are likely to see in years to come in the way in which we interact in large group settings.

By Bill Caudill

As a Games organiser myself, I was stunned to hear that before the start of the day that the online ticket sales were almost 500% higher than in any previous year.  I think we are entering an age of where this will be the way in which many will choose to make ticket purchases – no long lines of people forking over cash, merely show your phone and in you go. 

I was also surprised to see that the attendance at this event (which I’ve judged several times over the past 20 years or more, but for every year for the past six consecutively) was just as large, if not slightly larger, than normal.  Based on the lack of social distancing among the general public you could form the view that in the minds of the great majority who attended this event, Covid is a diminishing risk.
I’m pleased to say that the EUSPBA [Eastern United States Pipe Band Association] membership, our bandspeople, the soloists who entered, and all of the camp followers, seemed to pay strict attention to the guidelines which our Executive Committee laid out a few weeks ago for events being held before all guidelines and restrictions are lifted throughout the country. 

Masking and distancing were observed.  There might have been a few close quarters conversations and things like that, but for the most part our folks followed the EUSPBA guidelines to the letter.

At about 9:05 a.m. on Saturday morning, Laura Romine, a budding piper from the Jacksonville area, presented herself before me for what was to be the first ‘live’ piobaireachd heard in a competitive outdoor event since lockdown.  After her performance I mentioned this to her, and she said she hadn’t thought that making her way through The Wee Spree as having a significance as great as that, But when we look at the big picture, and all which has happened since last March, it was indeed ‘ground’ breaking (no pun intended).

Laura strikes a blow for freedom

My fellow judges and I had a relatively short morning of it as the number of solo competitors was roughly half or less than what it would normally be.  Nonetheless, the standards we heard weren’t drastically different from what we hear at a beginning of season competition – considering the fact that this was about six weeks later than the first normal ‘live’ event in Florida, that event being the Central Florida Games in Orlando which unfortunately had to be cancelled before the end of the Fall of 2020.

After having our boxed lunch brought to us by Games volunteers, and some good conversation with both John Recknagel and drumming judge Tom Kee about the goings on in their local areas, I ventured out to see what the rest of the Games looked like.  I had an interest in seeing how things were being staged. I may have to employ some of the same things for the event which I work with in October.

In addition, a number of other Games Presidents or officials had contacted me prior to the trip expressing the same curiosity. I set out on the 300 yard or so distance from the piping and drumming area to the arena where the opening ceremonies were held.  Wearing my mask, and observing distancing along the way, I was surprised at what I saw in the grandstands in the arena.

What about Scotland? Have your say…..

As the duty bands played in a corner of the arena for the parade of tartans, I watched as roughly 30 clan organizations marched through the arena under their tartan banners and heraldic flags, with the usual retinue of loyal clanspeople with them. Very few were wearing masks and the grandstand crowd was sitting sitting pretty closely together. My estimate is that less than 10% were wearing masks. 

Since I had crossed that Georgia state line a few miles north of Jacksonville in my 379 mile drive there to judge, COVID seems to have disappeared. It didn’t exist in  the crowds seated in the bleachers in the arena, it didn’t exist in the lines for the meat pies, bridies, and fish and chip plates offered up in the food vending area, it didn’t exist on the athletic field where one of the athletic judges told me that the competitors refused to wear their masks when not throwing heavy things.

And it also didn’t exist or cause any concern to the folks aged 60+ who I observed perusing the Scottish import booths which in this case contained very little authentic Scottish merchandise! Unfortunately for the piping and drumming community there was not a practice chanter and tutor book or a drum pad and sticks to be found.

I came away from that main area of activity with mixed feelings.  Is our ‘Scottish’ community hungry for a resumption of events and are willing to take some risks in order to attend or participate?  Secondly, I do think the general public are anxious to have events to attend for entertainment, particularly family-friendly events where one can enjoy a combination of education and entertainment on a beautiful late spring-like day (it was in the mid-80s) after being cooped up for roughly 12 months. 

Bandit country….. judges at the North East Florida Games conform to EUSPBA guidelines

That said, this situation in Florida is quite different from what I would see here in my home state of North Carolina, and likely many other places in the USA.  In fact, a few of the solo competitors who had driven down from the Charlotte area to participate in the solo piping and drumming events noted to me that they felt they had ‘entered a foreign country’ when entering Florida.  It truly was different. 

What this bodes for upcoming late-spring or early summer events is yet to be seen.  With the announcement of a third major vaccine being approved on the day of this event, as well as further rollouts of vaccination programmes, and the like, we will most likely be in a different place three months from now – at least here in the USA.  But, will that be safe enough for a major event like a fully-faceted Highland Games to take place in June? 

Will our population outside of the Florida state line have the confidence to venture forth and engage?  Will the general public who attend these early events follow the rules set forth by Games events as well as the CDC [the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and local authorities? 

That will be the question for many to consider when thinking about events in our immediate future.  By the late summer and fall things may be quite different, and things continue to change from day to day it seems.

The packed grandstand

The band competition was quite small, and a little smaller than usual.  Only five bands participated – with two other local parade bands staying over with the main crowd near the arena and none of their members seeming to care what the competing and truly achieveing bands were doing.  These are the folks we wish we could reach in some way.  Nonetheless, ‘looks like bagpipes, sounds like bagpipes, must be bagpipes’, seems to be the approach.  Sad, but true, and who needs all those taorluaths and doublings anyway?

By 1.55pm judges Jim Dillahey, myself (piping), John Recknagel (ensemble) and drumming judge Tom Kee came out from the shade of our tent into the bright sun and dust of the fairground to hear the three bands vying for their placings in the Grade V contest.  With the normal circle highlighted with an additional 10 foot red line (the pipers and drummers took precautions at least) the bands came and did their thing.   

General observations:  the bands in this case didn’t look to have suffered in numbers (the City of Mt. Dora Band had 15 pipers in their circle), and the standard was about what one might expect at this time of year with these bands.  Granted they were all Florida bands, but there wasn’t a radical difference to indicate that they had only gotten together a week or so beforehand to put something out on the field.  These were still good performances for this grade. 

The results were: 1 Rosie O’Grady’s Grade V, 2 City of Mt. Dora, 3 Jacksonville Pipes and Drums.  The Grade IV bands came after a 20 minute break with John Bottomley replacing myself in the piping slot and me being slotted for ensemble for the Grade IV.  Jim Dillahey and Tom Kee held their same spots.  There were two bands competing, with the Jacksonville band also playing for sheets with the Grade IV required tune selection.  The results were: 1 Rosie O’Grady’s Grade IV, and 2) City of Dunedin Grade IV.

EUSPBA President Jim Dillahey and I had a very long chat after the conclusion of the event – a lot to digest and a lot to think about for things coming at us in the coming weeks and months.  Nonetheless, I’m proud to say that our EUSPBA folk ‘followed the rules’ and distinguished themselves in doing so – many echoing that they ‘didn’t want to mess this up for everyone else’.  I think we are in good shape; the question is how about everyone else?  This will be a tough one for a lot of Games organisers to consider in the coming weeks – especially any events which occur before the end of summer.

  • Note: the picture at the top of this article is from the 2020 NE Florida Highland Games.

2 thoughts on “First Northern Hemisphere Games of 2021 Held ‘Live’ in Jacksonville, Florida

  1. Alarmed at the lack of responsibility displayed by spectators in the stand at Jacksonville

  2. Seems appropriate that the first piobaireachd heard was The Wee Spree! Thanks for the report Bill!

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