Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Little Highland Culture

Currently I’m busy getting photos ready to sell at the Portland Highland Games later in the month.  For the past few years I’ve had a small booth at the games where I sell my books and photos.  

If you have never been to the Portland Highland Games (or any Highland games) you should try to put a visit on your ToDo list.
Our first Highland games was in 2000 on our very first visit to Scotland.  After landing at the Glasgow Airport and spending the day in town, our second day we drove with a great deal of fear and trepidation (small roads, steering wheel on the other side) towards the Borders and our first B&B in Peebles.  We came into town from the east on the main road and before we found our lodging we spotted a sign that said, “Highland Games Today.”  A block further we saw crowds of people, some pipe bands, and carnival-type tents in a large field (called a pitch).  

We parked, paid our £5, and visited our first Highland games.  Highland games are events held as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture and heritage.  The first games can be traced to King Malcolm III of Scotland in the 11th century when he summoned contestants for a foot race in Braemar in the Highlands, now the site of games attended each year by the Royal family.  The modern Games are a product of the Victorian rediscovery and fascination with all things Scottish. 
Modern Highland games, whether in Scotland or other countries, consist of similar events.  Athletic contests include heavy events: tossing the caber (a 12 foot 140 pound pole thrown to turn end-over-end),

stone put (20-22 pound shot put), hammer throw (a 22 pound stone attached to a 4 foot handle),

weight toss for distance (a 56 pound ball attached to a short chain), 

weight over the bar (56 pound ball on a short chain thrown one-handed to clear a height above the thrower’s head).  Athletic events also include running and cycling events.  Music events revolve around the bagpipes (solo and pipe band) and various dancing contests for girls and boys.  

Many games will have tug-o-war contests and herding dog trials, as well.  On the less strenuous side, Highland games will also be carnival-like, including rides for youngsters, 

games of skill (which means you have no chance of winning), and local merchandise sellers, 

and fried, fatty, and fun food for all (burgers, hotdogs, fish and chips, ice cream, snow cones, tea room sweets, etc).   
Besides the first games in Peebles, Anne and I have attended games in Pitlochry and Blackford in Scotland.  Most of our experience with the games, though, comes from the Portland Highland Games held in July at Mt. Hood Community College (this year on Saturday, July 21).  Races, including the Kilted Mile where all competitors must run in a kilt (and yes, it’s expected competitors will wear appropriate attire under their kilt), are run on the track while the infield is where solo piping and dancing contests are held.  Various booths will be set up around the perimeter of the track--food vendors (including fish and chips, pasties (meat pies), bangers, and beer), Celtic clothing, Scottish, Welsh and Irish memorabilia, etc.   In the gym will be another set of merchandise vendors--that’s where Anne and I will be with our books and photos.  The heavy games, as well as Clan tents, will be in the upper fields.  
The highlight of games, for most, is the pipe band competition held on the track in front of the grandstands after the races and dancing competitions have been completed (about 1:00 PM).  

Bands from all over the US compete along with guest bands from Canada and sometimes even Scotland.  
Whether our own Portland Games or the village games in Scotland, a day at a Highland games is full of fun, food, and fascinations.  Join us!
We held an interesting conversation with some guests at Merlindale B&B this spring.  They had stayed at the B&B overnight and where moving on to Blair Atholl where their son was entered in the solo piping competition at the Blair Castle Clan Gathering (Highland games) later that day.  In the conversation they said we might have seen their son piping in Edinburgh--he’s a busker who plays his pipes for coins up near the Edinburgh Castle walls.  I said we’d seen several pipers in Edinburgh and, in fact... At this point I went out into the foyer and grabbed one of the photos I have there for sale.  I took the photo back to the dining room and showed it to the couple.  

“That’s our son!”  was the ecstatic comment of the mother.  Just as I think she was going to offer to buy the photo, Jacky (our B&B host/friend) said, “Bob will probably be glad to send you the original, won’t you Bob?”  I reluctantly nodded.  Jacky later apologized as she realized she’d killed the sale--and she gets a 45% commission on all the photos that sell.  
The last day of each of our trips we spend in Edinburgh.  This year we stopped in front of a piper busking near the castle.  As he came to a break in his playing I asked if his name was Craig and if he came from the Isle of Bute.  He said, “You’re the photographer my folks met at the B&B in Crieff!”  

We had a nice, brief chat, took more pictures, dropped some coins in his box, and now I can put a name to my photo:  “Craig, the Piper.” 
Craig is not the only piper we’ve seen in Edinburgh.  St Giles Cathedral, Waverly Station, and even the Royal Mile Starbucks have had pipers busking.  The very first piper we saw in Scotland was at Urquhart Castle on the western shore of Loch Ness. The haunting solo pipes set an appropriate mood as you strain to find Nessie in black waters of the loch.  

Buskers, whether a piper in Blair Castle, a violinist in Vienna, a flutist in Dublin, a juggler in Oxford, or a spoons player in Atlanta, add to the ambiance and entertain us all.  Stop and listen or watch, and be sure drop a few sheckles into the box, especially if you are taking pictures.  
A couple of years ago Anne and I were watching the Golf Channel, as always, when a particular commercial caught our attention.  The commercial for ??? (who remembers what commercials advertise) showed a golfer traveling in Scotland from course to course looking for the perfect place to play on a rainy day.  Finally, he stops at one clubhouse, grabs his clubs, and the next scene shows him teeing off over the sea to a distant green.  Having played now more than 225 courses in Scotland we were intrigued to see if we could recognize the course he chose.  The green and surroundings looked familiar, but something wasn’t quite right.  With the help of Anne’s photographic memory for every golf hole she’s ever played, we finally figured it out.  The green is the 13th at The Glen in North Berwick in East Lothian.  The 136-yard par three actually has a blind tee shot over a cliff edge down to a green backed by the North Sea.  

[Looking at the 13th green from the edge of the cliff in front of the tee box. The commercial was shot from 14th fairway upper left back toward the green at 13.] 

What the commercial showed was a golfer teeing off from the fairway of the 14th hole back across the sea to the 13th green.  It makes an interesting hole the way the commercial did it, but we think the real hole is more unique.  We’ve seen lots of over-the-sea shots--Machrihanish, Durness, Cruit Island, Connemara Isles, St Andrews Castle--but very few blind drives with the sea behind.  Thank you commercial producer for giving us an interesting puzzle.
The Glen is a lovely North Berwick course with great views of Bass Rock.