Monday morning, I woke up with a desire to hear bagpipes. Typically, I’m not the biggest fan of bagpipe music, but I spent Saturday at the Stone Mountain Highland Games, where the playing of the pipes is as much a part of the atmosphere as men wearing kilts and tams. Even after we left the Games, the piping continued at the clan banquet Saturday night and again at the Kirkin’ of the Tartan on Sunday morning. Sunday afternoon, as we drove homeward on the curving mountain roads and gasped at each new display of red, orange, or gold leaves around the bend, my daughter and I listened to an album of bagpipe music. No wonder I’m missing the sound of bagpipes today.
At any given moment of the Highland Games, at least one person seems to be blowing the pipes: between piping competitions, clan events, and official announcements, the bagpipe’s distinctive voice becomes part of the background noise. Bagpipe music is an acquired taste, and, for the sake of my hearing, I try not to stand too close. But when I hear songs like “Scotland the Brave,” “Highland Cathedral,” or “Amazing Grace” played on the bagpipes, my heart inexplicably rejoices. On Saturday I found myself falling into step and videoing a random band as they marched along the path that weaves through the village of clan tents.On another occasion, as we munched on fish-and-chips and Scotch eggs while watching the caber toss and sheaf throw, I heard a band starting “Scotland the Brave” in the adjoining field. I jumped up, pressed “video” on my phone, and, recording as I went, ran to the field, where a crowd of spectators several people deep blocked my view of the band. It didn’t matter: it was the sound of those pipes and drums that I wanted, and I captured it, even though the video itself is crazily disorienting. My daughter and I were attending the Highland Games at Stone Mountain for the second time. Last year, my mother and my nephew came with us. We checked out the clan tents and tried to work out if we were related to anyone, tasted the uniquely Scottish food options (haggis or Irn-Bru, anyone?), and explored the vendor booths. Planning to participate in a Scottish fiddling workshop, my daughter had brought her violin, which she and my nephew took turns playing at the Scottish Fiddling Tent. On Sunday, she impulsively ran the kilted race—it was such a spur-of-the-moment decision that she had to borrow my Nikes—and came in second in the Women’s division. This year, she skipped the kilted race (she needs to acquire a sport kilt for that event; yes, they make such things!), but she brought her violin for the Scottish fiddling competition—the first one held at the Stone Mountain Games in several years. Long story short: she won first place in the novice category! Her prize was only a small pin—at the Scottish fiddling competition at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, the first-place winner receives a large plate—but she also gets the bragging rights, which are well deserved. The competition requirements were fairly rigorous: each competitor had to open with an air and, after a pause, play a march, a strathspey, and a reel without a break between the pieces (to hear what she played, click on the links). She could have used sheet music, but memorization was preferred, as was Scottish attire; she owns a kilt in the Munro tartan, so she was in good shape there. While another competitor’s performance might have been more polished, he couldn’t touch her for technique, difficulty, or expression—not that I’m biased! She picked up a few things at the Scottish fiddling camp she attended this summer (on a scholarship from Clan Lindsay). Just before the judging, a lovely couple from Clan Munro showed up to cheer her on. Whether you have Scottish ancestry or not, the Highland Games are an entertaining way to spend a lovely October day. As the Stone Mountain Highland Games website urges, “Don your tartans if you have them and come join us. No tartan? That’s OK too! EVERYONE can be Scottish for this special weekend celebration.” There is so much to see and hear: musical groups like Raven and Red who sing ballads or bands like Rathkeltair or Stonewall who rock the Celtic vibe; highland dancing, piping, and drumming competitions; demonstrations of Scottish weaponry; traditional Scottish athletic competitions such as foot races, hammer throws, and weight tosses. Exhibits on Scottish falconry, spinning and weaving, sheepdogs, and tartans add an educational aspect to the Games. The children’s activities and games always look appealing, and it’s such fun to see pint-sized people decked out in kilts (no pictures, unfortunately, but kilts and clan members come in all shapes and sizes).
This year, I went to my first whisky tasting. Confession: I’d never tried whisky before, so the distinctions between the different ages were lost on me, but I did like the 18-year variety best. Wandering through the craft and vendor booths is always enjoyable, even if I did succumb to the urge to buy a Robert Burns tea towel and a couple of tartan-related items. Later, we enjoyed a well-brewed cup of tea and a lemon bar as we sat at the Scottish harp tent (unfortunately, the harpists were taking a break then, but you can’t have everything).Strolling through the large display of clan tartans is also a highlight of the games. The Tartan Forest backs up to the Scottish Country Dancing exhibit, so I was listening to the caller’s cheerful instructions to dancers as I examined the colorful plaids associated with different clans. Last year, I was surprised to learn how many names were Scottish that hadn’t sounded particularly Scottish to my ignorant ears: Bell, Carmichael, Grant, Young. It seems likely that I have Scottish ancestry, since people have Scottish surnames on both sides of my family tree.
My daughter is the first in our family to truly embrace her Scottish heritage, which comes from her father’s side as well as mine. When she and two friends visited the Grandfather Mountain games a few years ago, they were warmly welcomed by one of the clans, regardless of whether she could prove her pedigree. After wearing clan ribbons and marching with the friendly clan in the Parade of Tartans at Grandfather Mountain, she was hooked on the Highland Games. Now, after a second year of experiencing the highlands of Scotland in the heart of Georgia, I may be hooked, too.