Off the Clock: The Highland Games makes everyone Scottish

The 31st New Hampshire Highland Games, the largest gathering in the Northeast to celebrate Scottish culture and one of the largest in the world, takes place Sept. 22-24, returning to its old familiar stomping ground at Loon Mountain in Lincoln.

The event’s athletic competitions involve some archaic equipment and brute strength. In the stone put weight-for-distance contest, square blocks of cement of varying weights (multiples of 14 pounds, or one stone, hence the name “stone weight”) are attached to a metal ring handle by a short chain and lobbed through the air. He or she who throws the farthest, wins. The weigh-for-height contest follows similar rules, throwing the stone weight over a horizontal bar.

The hammer toss involves just that — hurling a 16-pound sledge hammer across the fields.

The sheaf has its origins in seeing who could toss a sheaf of wheat the highest. Today, a 20-pound ball is tossed with pitchfork (thankfully for onlookers it’s not the other way around).

Arguably the most famous is the caber toss, which involves an athlete “tossing” a telephone pole. I am not kidding. The goal here is accuracy, not distance, as the 26-foot stick (their word, not mine) must land at a vertical 12 o’clock position.

There’s not just games, but fun as well. Some of the best solo pipers and bands from the region and around the world are present at the Highland Games. The highlight of the festivities is the Gathering of the Clans and Massed Bands, at which the standards of clan tartans are presented and hundreds of bagpipers and drummers play and march in tight coordination. This is a must-see. It’s also a must-claim-your-spot-early — the parade grounds fill up very quickly.

Throughout the Highland Games, there are many other competitions, including the sheep dog trials, another favorite. Border collies, bred as shepherds for centuries, attempt to herd sheep through an obstacle course.

The Highland Games also hosts regional and national dance competitions. The furious footwork we associate with lithe young girls today was once performed by men in celebration of a battle victory. Only since the 20th century has Highland dancing been performed by females.

And everywhere is music. Whether it is critically acclaimed traditional performers or contemporary groups, pipe and drum bands, fiddlers, harpists, Celtic-inspired songs fill the fairgrounds.

One of the more poignant events of the Highland Games is the Scottish worship service, Kirkin o’ the Tartan, on Sunday.

When Scotland was first occupied by England, the colorful tartans representing the clans, and more often than not a martial standard were outlawed. The women of the day saved scraps of their tartans. Once a year, they smuggled the colorful fabric out of their homes to be blessed by the village cleric. To be discovered back then meant a death sentence.

And speaking of tartans, the official New Hampshire tartan is available for purchase at the Scottish Shopping Mall. Vivid purple, representing lilacs, the state flower, green for our forests, and blue for our lakes, the New Hampshire tartan was designed by weaver Ralf Hartwell of Newton and commemorated in 1993. Proceeds from sale of the New Hampshire Tartan will go to fund scholarships of the St. Andrew’s Society of New Hampshire and the New Hampshire Gathering of the Scottish Clans Inc., not-for-profit organizations that support Scottish arts and culture in New Hampshire and the Northeast.

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