The Highland Games and Festival has been taking place in New Hampshire for 42 years. We’ve been in New Hampshire for 24 years … and this was our first visit. Why we haven’t made it a point to attend before I’m really not quite sure. Could have been the fact that I was working most weekends. But, we finally made it. And, it was fantastic!
One of the countries largest Scottish festivals, this three-day event, held at the base of Loon Mountain in New Hampshire, attracted visitors from, not only all over the country, but from all over the world (well, the U.K. mostly). From the sheep dog trials, the whisky tastings, Ceilidh (pronounced ‘kay-lee’) dancing, caber tossing and hammer throws, to the fiddle contests, traditional foods, crafts and music, it did not disappoint.
The highlights for us were the ‘heavy lifting’ games. These ‘games’ … caber tossing, hammer throws, dead lifts, shot put … are, after all, the reason for the festival. And Hafthor* was there to participate and break world records. Who is Hafthor* you are asking? Honestly, I had no idea either, but he was impressive … not only throwing cabers and tossing hammers, but lifting a car – with four men in it! This event gave new meaning to the image of “men in skirts”.
The Highland Games and Festival has been held in New Hampshire for 42 years, but the oldest of the Highland Games are believed to be the Ceres Games of Fife which began in Scotland in 1314. Although competitive games can be traced back to Greece more than 1,000 years B.C., Scottish games are very specific. They focus solely on strength and stamina, designed to test the endurance of Scottish warriors. Clan leaders needed to keep their men sharp and ready for battle. They would build their strength using simple, easily found objects. A tree trunk would be made into a pole or wooden beam called a “caber”, to be thrown end over end as far as possible. Heavy, smooth rocks would be gathered from river beds and would be used to lift and throw. Lead weights would be tossed underhand over a bar more than twice as high as the athlete. Each event would be assigned points and the competitor who accumulated the most points would, of course, be the Champion.
I don’t think anything captures the spirit of the Scottish culture more than Highland dancing though. Dancing was not only enjoyed by men and women at celebrations and feasts, it was also a form of practice for battle. Warriors needed to be fast and light on their feet. Imagine the wailing cry of the bagpipes in the background on a cold, damp battlefield as the warriors quickly and silently pounced on their enemy. Let’s also imagine that same cold, damp battlefield at night … dancing must have been a great way to keep warm around the fire.
As the men focused on competing in games of strength, women began participating in pipe and fiddling contests and the Highland dance competitions. These ritualistic solo dances have, for so many Scottish migrants around the world, become an obsession. Of the most famous of these competitive dances, such as the Highland Fling, the Sailors Hornpipe and the Reel of Tulloch, I believe, is the Highland Sword Dance, which depicts the defeat of the enemy with one sword crossed over the other. If a dancer touches the sword, they are disqualified.
Today, however, women can and do participate in the heavy lifting events. Shannon Hartnett broke the gender barrier by convincing organizers to allow women to compete in the heavy lifting events, although only against other women. Hartnett won every competition she entered.
As are shortbread,”Auld Lang Syne”, Scottish bagpipes, kilts and whisky, the Highland Games are a Scottish icon. The event was great fun, but more than that, it showcased the strength, dignity and pride of a culture that celebrates traditions which transcends time. You may never get the opportunity to visit Scotland (and I hope you do), but if possible, make the time to visit New Hampshire next September.
The Highland Games and Festival has been held at Loon Mountain for 42 years and you can be sure we won’t miss another one! It was fantastic!
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References: Wikipedia, Caber, Highland Sword Dance, Scotland Traditions, Historic UK
* Hafthor … Hafþór Júlíus “Thor” Björnsson is an Icelandic professional strongman, actor, and former professional basketball player. He plays Ser Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane in the HBO series Game of Thrones.