LAURINBURG — Upon entry to the John Blue House Grounds, the record crowds at Saturday’s Scotland County Highland Games could be forgiven for thinking they had stepped through a portal in time and space.
“It was awesome, I was really digging the Border Collie display — those are awesome dogs,” said games attendee Brandon Kruger of Fayetteville. “I actually found out about it when we were driving back from an Oktoberfest in Georgia and saw a billboard for it.”
With competitions in Scottish athletics and Highland dancing as well as bagpiping and drumming, some 400 people attended the games to test their skills in arts that have been forgotten by many. The games’ 40 Highland dancers, both male and female, were scored on their presentations of the Irish Jig and the Sailor’s Hornpipe.
“Our motto for highland dance is finding strength in tradition,” said Lauren Wall of Cary, who placed first in the 13-16 age group. “All of the dances we do are completely traditional and have been done for hundreds of years.”
Each pair danced a uniquely choreographed number, scored on technique and enthusiasm for the dance. Most Highland dances performed today, including the Scottish Sword Dance and Flora MacDonald’s Fancy, convey age-old themes and stories in their movements.
“The sword dance is the one they did when they were going into battle — they danced on a shield with a giant spike in the middle, and if you touched it, you were going to die,” said dancer Dominique Koontz of Cary. “In the dance named for Flora MacDonald we’re supposed to hold our skirt out because in the myth she’s holding her skirt out and hiding Bonnie Prince Charlie under it.”
The Irish Jig is known as a character dance, with dancers shaking their fists in an imitation of an Irish woman angry with her husband for lingering too late at the bar.
“For the hornpipe the story is that that’s what Scottish sailors did on the ships to keep in shape,” Wall said. “If you look at the dances, in one of the steps they’re climbing a rope or they’re supposed to be pulling nets out of the sea.”
The dancers attracted their fair share of the games’ spectators.
“We came out to have some fun, learn a little bit, and eat some food,” said Sarah Patterson of Fayetteville. “The piping competition was really what we came for, but I loved the dancers, the dancers were awesome.”
The event drew people from far and wide, some of whom sang along to “God Bless America,” others to “God Save the Queen,” and more still to “O Canada,” all performed during the opening ceremonies. A special moment was held for The Rev. Jim Thompson, one of the event’s founding organizers.
The Parade of Tartans featured people in modern and traditional dress, wielding banners featuring their clan’s name and colors, some yelling a name or phrase into a microphone presented to them as they passed the main stage. This year’s honored clan was Clan Donald, and the guest of honor was David Macdonald of Castle Camus, 17th Hereditary Chieftain Lieutenant of Sleat.
The 16 pipe bands competing throughout the day performed en masse during the opening and closing ceremonies. Each band comprised some 18 members between its pipers and drummers.
“Since the pipes play at a single volume, they don’t have dynamics and you can’t have soft or loud, so the drum section is very important in adding the dynamics and some of the expression into pipe bands,” said David Crampton, pipe major of the Savannah Pipe and Drum Corps.
The band were judged on their tone, tuning, and ability to play precisely in unison.
“It’s certainly not about how we’re dressed,” said Joe Brady, major of the Wake and District Public Safety Pipe Band, of Raleigh.
Wake and District’s primary purpose is ceremonial, to play at funerals for firefighters and law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Pipers competing included members of all ages and levels of experience, with Wake and District’s youngest and oldest members — both drummers — aged nine and 65.
“There’s a girl in the band, she didn’t learn to play the pipes until April and here she is in a kilt, in a circle, competing,” said Brady.
The Highland Games’ vendors also added an element of Scottish flair to the day, offering wrought-iron metalwork and all manner of Celtic clothing.
Kathy Rodriguez, of New York City, spent several minutes eyeing traditional Scottish dress under the tent of one vendor’s booth. She had traveled to the event with Anne McElheron, of Glasgow, Scotland, who said the event makes her feel like she’s at home.
“It makes me feel like I’m at home, too,” Rodriguez said.
The games offered a limited quantity of barbecue and hot dogs but haggis and chips, Scotch egg, and clootie dumpling with Devon custard were in plentiful supply.
Mary Lou Scott and her husband James had made the trip to Laurinburg from Myrtle Beach, bringing along their food truck, Scotts Keltic Kitchen. The two were selling dishes that Mary Lou cooks from scratch, including those she learned to bake in her native Scotland.
“It’s more authentic that way,” she said.
Nine-year-old Jackson Dale, standing nearby, gnawed on a turkey leg almost as large as his forearm.
“I’m lovin’ the stick toss,” he said, referring to the heavy athletic event the Turning of the Caber. “Just the fact that they’re throwing a 140-pound stick, it’s amazing to me. I want to know how they do that.”
The caber turn was a highlight of the event, with the large crowd gathered at the main field holding its breath to see if a competitor could turn a log, ranging from 17 to 21 feet, end to end. Competitors also tried their luck at tossing a bundle of twine off the end of a pitchfork and over a bar; throwing a stone of various weights and letting out loud grunts of effort as they twirled and let loose of a Scottish hammer, a weight on the end of a long wood or plastic pole.
The spectator turnout for the games’ fifth year broke records, with organizers for the first time opening auxiliary parking space for some 150 cars at the James L. Morgan Recreation Complex. Shuttles carried passengers from parking to the games and back throughout the day.
“I am just overwhelmed with the number of out of town people and the military support,” said festival committee member Carol McCall. “We’ve had a lot of active duty military out here.”