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.

Tossing the Caber

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.

Highland Sword Dance

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.

Photo credit to Pam Sullivan

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!


~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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.

A Burns Night Celebration

“Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face
Great chieftain o the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye worthy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.”

Which translates to …
“Fair and full is your honest, jolly face,
Great chieftain of the sausage race!
Above them all you take your place,
Stomach, tripe, or intestines:
Well are you worthy of a grace
As long as my arm.”

Yes, that is the beginning of Robert Burns’ famous ADDRESS TO A HAGGIS.  If you’ve ever visited Scotland, hopefully, you’ve put aside your squeemishness and ‘tucked in’ to Scotland’s most famous dish,  “Haggis”.*

January 25th all of Scotland will be celebrating their national poet laureate, Robert Burns. Unless you are of Scottish decent, or have visited Scotland, you’re probably unaware of what a national celebrity Robert Burns was.  Rabbie, as he was called, was born in 1759 (on January 25th, of course) to a poor family.  As any young  lad is expected to do, he began his working with his father on the farm.  But, Rabbie’s father recognized that the young Burns was quite talented and decided to invest in hiring a teacher for him.  Young Burns loved listening to stories, especially those of the supernatural, and when he was older he began turning the stories he heard as a child into poems and songs.

Robert BurnsRabbie’s father died when Rabbie was 25.  He was now responsible for the family and the farm. Unfortunately, young Burns was not very successful at either. Two years later, not only was the farm in receivership, he made two young women pregnant (the first of many).  Burns’ hopes were to leave the country and go to Jamaica.  In order to do so, he had to raise money which he did by selling his first collection of poems,  ‘Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’.

His poems were an immediate success and he was persuaded to not leave the country after all. A year later Burns married, Jean Armour (who was also pregnant at the time).  Jean was a very forgiving woman because Robert was not a faithful husband.  When his eldest child was born to Jean, Robert already had three illegitimate daughters.  In celebration of this birth, Burns wrote a poem entitled “Welcome to a Bastard Wean.”

Robert Burns was not only an amazingly talented writer, he was a romantic, he held strong political views, and he loved his whiskey and his women.  Although Burns life was cut short at the young age of 37, he had managed to write over 500 songs and poems.  I’m certain everyone knows Robert Burns’ most famous song of all, sung all over the world on New Year’s Eve . . .  Auld Lang Syne.

A few years after Burns’ death his friends began celebrating his life.  That same celebration continues to this very day, each year on the day of his birth, January 25, now known as Burns Night.  If you are in Scotland on January 25, please join in the celebration.  You will find everything from very formal affairs to just laughter and toasting at the local pub.  It’s great fun!!

To  hold your own Burns Night, you will need the following:

Scottish bagpipe music – for the ceremonial processional of the Haggis.
Master of Ceremonies – for the Selkirk Grace, “Addressing” the Haggis,
and the “Toast to the Lassies”
“Haggis” – and plenty of it, presented on a silver platter
A Ceremonial Knife – to plunge into the Haggis
Neeps and Tatties – to accompany the Haggis (potatoes and turnips)
Genuine Scotch whiskey – a wee dram for toasting and enjoying
Traditional Scottish Music – for dancing, toasting and cheering
A Quiz – could be fun to find out who actually knows Robert Burns
And, of course, everyone must wear a bit of tartan!

* And what is “Haggis”?
Haggis is a traditional Scottish dish, much like a sausage, made from the organ meats of a sheep, chopped up and mixed with oatmeal, suet and spices.  The mixture is then stuffed into the casing of a sheep’s stomach, tied with twine and cooked for several hours.  Delicious!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
References:  The Complete Works of Robert Burns, Historic U.K., Robert Burns Night,