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Articles added: July 1, 2009

Central New York Scottish Games

By Devon Ellington



August 11 marked the 66 th Annual Scottish Games and Celtic Festival, held in Liverpool , NY just outside of Syracuse . Prior to World War II, the games, held since 1935, were located in Auburn . It was a beautiful sunny day, and the clear night's wonders included the Perseid Meteor Shower. It was also headed by the first woman president of the Central New York Scottish Games, Jennifer D. Lennox.

Don't mix this up with the many Renaissance Faire events that take place throughout the country - this wasn't about girls dressing up in bustiers and tiered skirts pretending to be wenches or men in tights flashing swords, all sporting fake British accents. There were carefully orchestrated historical recreations, but this was a genuine celebration of ancestral heritage, complete with games handed down through the ages. Games included stone throw (light and heavy weight for distance), caber toss, sheaf toss, heavy weight for height, and rolling pin toss.

Turning the Caber is probably the event most intriguing to outsiders. The short, American explanation is: tossing a telephone pole. Of course, it's more complicated than that - a pole about the length of a telephone pole must be hoisted by one man, balanced, and, with precise timing in relation to its tipping, released. The point is not to get a distance, but to get the pole to fall perfectly 180 degrees, so that the top of the pole lands directly in front of the tosser, and the end of the pole completely straight away from the tosser. A perfect throw is considered a "12:00". The origin of this sport is unknown, although dozens of amusing tall tales float about at games. Nod and smile, but take them all with a grain of salt, noting how much liquor was consumed during the telling of the tale. Two of the legends that make the most sense are that the poles were tossed in order to allow soldiers to cross rivers in when chasing rivals, and during clearing/logging, to allow the poles to float downstream. Especially in the former case, it would make sense for accuracy to be more important than distance. A third tale is that soldiers turned these poles against castle walls so other soldiers could climb up and over in battle. The first recorded toss was in 1574, so whenever it began, it's been around for a long time.

All of the events at the games developed from materials used in daily life. For instance, the sheaf toss, a burlap bag of hay tossed via pitchfork over a rod suspended on two poles. At harvest time, bales of hay were tossed around. Some legends claim this was also training to toss grappling hooks over walls in battle. Throwing of the Smiddy (hammer toss) is similar to the Olympic hammer, and was something done in sport during long days hammering fence posts into the ground. Cabers are large, long logs. Archery is included in some of the games (although, to my disappointment, not this one). Chiefs wanted the best, strongest, most agile men fighting for them, and the competitions were a way to find them or honor those already in their retinues.

Yes, the competitors wore kilts, in their clan tartans. Some wore the dress brogues, but most, at least while competing, wore the appropriate athletic shoes (running shoes, cross trainers, etc.) We were in a field. There was dirt and grass. And if you need to ask what's worn under a kilt, you've obviously never attended a genuinely Scottish event.

The competition between pipe bands is just as fierce as anything marked as an athletic competition. I admit that, during the first two hours of attendance, listening to the pipers warming up began to grate. However, after a handful of Excedrin and a pint of Tennant's (poured from a tap fastened to the side of a truck), it was all much better. And the actual massing of the bands and the band competition was marvelous. The precision and the artistry involved in both the music and the formations were astonishing.

There were also dancers and harpists and vendors and plenty of food and drink. Mactalla Mor and The Flyin' Column performed (and were enchanting). Clan Row had booths set up with information on the clans, their permutations, and people to help interested wanderers research their heritage. There were also dogs. This is one of the few events were dogs are encouraged, and they were all beautifully behaved. In fact, when I booked my hotel, the reservationist wanted to know how many hounds I planned to bring. Most of the dogs were West Highland Terriers. The only competition they were in was to see how many of them could convince me to rub their tummies (answer: all of them). I grew up with a Westie, and am partial to the breed. There was also a very young German Shepard puppy with enormous paws who climbed into my lap and fell asleep, sucking my thumb; the Cairn whose legs were too short for long walks and had to be carried up the hill; the pair of shelties who felt we should all remain in the band viewing area; and a woman who works in Scottie rescue with several of her charges.

Something else that must be mentioned, in praise of both the organizers of these games and the attendees - there was no litter. Although no uniformed personnel ran around picking up garbage, the site was litter-free. People cleaned up after themselves. There were plenty of trash bins and many recycling bins, and people used them. No careless, thoughtless pigs at this event. And how often do you attend an event with hundreds of people where everyone is nice and no one annoys you? At all? All day?

I didn't want the day to end; I didn't want to leave; and I will definitely return.

CNY Scottish Games 07003
003:  Warmup for Weight Toss
CNY Scottish Games, Aug. 11, 2007
© 2007 Devon Ellington 


CNY Scottish Games 07022 
022:  Turning the Caber
CNY Scottish Games, Aug. 11, 2007
©  2007 Devon Ellington 


CNY Scottish Games 07013
013:  Massed Bands
CNY Scottish Games, Aug. 11, 2007
© 2007 Devon Ellington

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