LAURINBURG — Fair and foul went hand in hand on Saturday as intermittent showers doused athletes, spectators, pipers, and clan societies at the seventh annual Scotland County Highland Games.
Erected to shelter representatives of various Scottish clan organizations, several of the tents encircling the games field on the grounds of the John Blue House remained vacant on Saturday morning.
But few spectators complained as they huddled inside during the opening ceremonies as the strains of three anthems — “The Star-Spangled Banner,” God Save the Queen,” and “Flower of Scotland” — wafted overhead.
“There’s no doubt about it; we’re in Scotland,” quipped John Nolan McLeod, a representative of Clan McLeod, during the games’ opening ceremonies.
“The McLeods have a motto, and that motto is hold fast. What I wish for everybody today is that they hold fast to their culture and to their heritage … and their umbrellas.”
Competitors in Scottish heavy athletics pulled their weight — literally — in helping the show go on, as the falling rain waterlogged wooden cabers and soaked sheaves to nearly twice the regulation 16 pounds. In addition to the caber toss and sheaf throw, contestants also performed heavy and light stone throws, two weight-for-distance throws, the heavy hammer throw, and the 56-pound weight over bar.
For athlete Justin Blatnik of Charlotte, the competition was his 15th this year. But the weather kept it far from routine.
“It’s definitely harder — everything’s wet, so we try to just grip it, use a lot of tacky and different means and different types of grip to be able to hold on to different things,” he said. “I’ve thrown a couple of games that have been this wet, and it’s all the same: you just have to mentally prepare for it and know you’re probably not going to throw your best today.”
Blatnik has competed in similar events for five years, honing his technique by weight training and regular drill practice with each throwing implement.
“Some of my best friends do this now, so it’s just been really fun,” he said. “Right now it’s just relaxed, we’re out here having fun hanging out with a good group of guys.”
With a team of highly-trained Border Collies, Donald Thomas of Jackson Springs demonstrated the human-canine partnership that has helped Scottish Highlanders eke out a living in a sometimes hostile environment.
Thomas’ dogs work sheep, which can thrive even on sparse grazing and under harsh weather conditions, as well as cattle. They are even called upon regularly to round up geese on Moore County golf courses.
“They’re the best dog,” Thomas said, noting that though commands can take a month or two to train, the dogs’ level of responsiveness and focus on their task is a unique trait.
“It’s the instinct in the dog and the intelligence of the dog. They’re one of the few breeds that will accept somebody’s command over their instinct. They’ve got a strong instinct to work those livestock, and it’s a real sacrifice for them to take a command over that, but they’re glad to do it. They live to please their masters, that’s what makes them so easy to train: they want to work and they want to please.”
Of the 14 bagpipe bands initially registered to compete on Saturday, only half actually made it onto the field — including the St. Andrews University Pipe Band, the N.C. State University Pipes and Drums, the North Atlanta Pipes and Drums, and the Knoxville Pipes and Drums.
“We are definitely dedicated to what we’re doing,” Knoxville band manager John Rose affirmed. “We enjoy what we do. Everybody in our band that’s supposed to be here is here. Nobody chickened out.”
The band includes about 25 members ranging in age from 12 to 70, many of whom join without prior experience on the pipes.
“It’s an art and it’s a heritage thing, so we’re bringing up new generations of people to play,” said Rose.
Regina Sutherland of Raeford, spectating with her son Walker, said that the event is a way for her family to experience their heritage in the present.
“We came out last year and had a wonderful time, and we’ve been looking forward to it for the whole year,” she said. “We almost didn’t come, but my eight-year-old heard we weren’t coming and was not pleased.”
Though the rains watered down Saturday’s crowds considerably from last year’s 5,000 attendance tally, those that did brave the weather did not regret it.
“The weather’s not that great, but in all honesty I’m actually taking a little bit of delight watching other people get rained on right now,” said Emerson Sullivan, who travelled with his wife from Ft. Bragg to attend.
“That’s what so great about North Carolina, you have a huge culture of Scottish heritage. You see all these people bring their clans together. It’s really neat to see a bunch of people get together to talk about where their heritage came from.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.