A family picnic gone wild. What else could explain how a simple gathering of the Murrays, who invited a pipe band to their first official reunion at Loon Mountain back in 1975, could turn into a three-day festival drawing 35,000 people each year in what has become the largest celebration of Scottish culture in North America.
“They said, ‘This is so much fun we need to do it next year.’ And they invited new bands,” explained Terri Wiltse, executive director of the New Hampshire Highland Games & Festival, which was held for the 44th time Sept. 20-22 at Loon. “It’s a fun time for everyone. I think everyone is Scottish for the weekend.”
Andrew Noyse, vice president of guest services at Loon, was first introduced to the Highland Games when he started working at the resort in 1985. “I remember seeing a bunch of people in kilts and a lot of activity going on with bagpipes, athletic events and music,” Noyse recalled of his indoctrination 34 years ago. “It’s what I would call a happy event. Everyone was having a good time. And that’s what I like about it today, too.”
For most employees at Loon in the fall, it’s all hands on deck when the festival is in town. The resort operates some 50 shuttles during the weekend, as most event parking is off-site. Loon also runs a couple of lifts for guests, including its gondola, as well as operating food tents and providing other support throughout the weekend. The workload makes it difficult for Loon employees to experience the festival as most of the visitors do, but Noyse says it pays dividends in so many ways.
“Over the years the Highland Games have introduced thousands and thousands of people not just to Loon Mountain but to the whole White Mountains National Forest area,” Noyse said. “One of the reasons why it’s so successful is that visitors come up to Loon for the festival and stay a few days longer to try other activities in the area. It introduces a lot of people who may not otherwise come to Loon.”
If you haven’t witnessed this celebration of traditional games, foods, music and vendors, it’s about time you did. Organizers and participants are waiting for you with open arms. Here are some of the attractions:
Sheep dog trials
Friday mornings on festival weekend are unique in that Friday is the day of the sheep dogs. The trials take place on the mountainside course, giving spectators close-up, unobstructed views of what sometimes turns into a little mayhem.
Dog handlers direct their dogs to guide a packet of sheep through a group of obstacles in the fastest time possible to win the right to have their names added to the Campbell Cup trophy. The competition is open to any breed, though Border Collies are the most common. The trials date back centuries when farmers living in the Scottish hills bred their dogs to perform this important task of keeping sheep within their boundaries.
Spectators at the games should remain alert, as some sheep have been known to get loose. In each of the past couple of years, sheep have busted out of their corrals and joined in with the audience.
The clan village, which features more than 65 named clans, serves as the heartbeat of the weekend, where members and visitors celebrate and discover their known and/or unknown Scottish roots.
Historically, the Scottish clan was made up of everyone who lived on the chief’s territory or who were allegiant to the chief. As a result of constantly changing borders or leadership, clans would be made up of large numbers of members who were unrelated. Today, anyone who has the chief’s surname or anyone who can trace back to a particular chief’s geographic region are considered to be a member of that clan.
At this year’s games, Clan Buchanan has been named the 2019 Honored Clan, and John Michael Baillie-Hamilton Buchanan will serve as chieftain of the games.
Traditional Scottish field games are among the most popular attractions each year at the games. Athletes participating in separate classes for professional, masters and amateur events are by invitation of the NHSCOT Scottish Heavy Athletic Committee. These top athletes represent the United States, Canada, Iceland, Scotland and Europe as they show off their pure physical strength and skill in unique events, such as:
CABER TOSS: Known commonly as “that telephone pole throwing thing,” this event has competitors tossing a large tapered pole called a “caber,” which is traditionally made from a Larch tree and measures 19 feet, 6 inches in height and weighs 12.5 stone (175 pounds). The tosser, or thrower, is rewarded for accomplishing full turns, the straighter the better. Partial turns get points in degrees.
HAMMER THROW: Reminiscent but different from the hammer throw in track and field, the Scottish version features a round metal ball (weighing 16 or 22 pounds for men and 12 or 16 pounds for women) attached to the end of a wooden or plastic shaft about 4 feet in length. The hammer is whirled is circles above the competitor’s head and thrown for distance over the shoulder.
WEIGHT OVER BAR: Not rocket science, competitors pick up a 56-pound weight and try to hoist it up and over the bar above them. Highest toss wins.
STONE CARRY: Competitors each pick up a pair of very heavy stones equipped with iron handles and carry the paired stones as far down the field as they can. It is similar to the stone lift, which traces back to Scottish tradition where a young man would be welcomed into manhood when he was able to lift his clan’s testing stone to waist height.
Many festival-goers will attend for the sole purpose of sampling the traditional foods offered by scores of vendors. Many also will advise that you ignore the ingredients and just start eating. To give you an idea of what you’ll find:
HAGGIS: Pudding that contains sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt, and cooked while traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach.
SCOTCH EGG: Hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, coated in bread crumbs and deep fried with gravy.
BRIDIE: Scottish meat pastry similar to pasties but made without potatoes to give it a lighter texture.
SCOTCH PIE: The traditional Scottish version of the meat pie is a double-crust pie filled with minced mutton or other meat. The mutton is often highly spiced with pepper and other ingredients.
The hills come alive throughout the weekend with traditional music from five different festival venues. Daytime performances are staged at the Octagon and Governor’s lodges, and the main concert tent will have music Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Piper’s Pub, open Saturday and Sunday, will host additional performances.
Evening shows are presented at The Tartan Dinner and the Kitchen Ceilidh at the Governor’s Lodge on Friday. Saturday night performances are staged at the main concert tent and the Cape Breton Dinner & Concert at Indian Head Resort.
Some of the featured performers include Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Albannach, The Brigadoons, Charlie Zahm, John Carmichael, Syr, Rebel Collective, Soulsha, Paul Creighton and the Strathspey & Reel Society of New Hampshire.
Sharing, promoting and preserving Scottish culture represents the core mission of the Highland Games, and a robust competition schedule serves that very purpose. Each year, the festival attracts hundreds of competitors to show off their skills in traditional musical performance and dance.
Piping and drumming is one such tradition, originating as an important art of Scottish military regiments and life. Performances and competitions feature solo pipers and drummers, pipe bands and drum majors. The festival also features massed bands on Saturday, with more than 30 pipe bands marching onto the parade grounds for a performance.
Highland dancing is another featured competition, attracting more than 200 dancers who combine strength, agility and movement in performing traditional Scottish dances like the Highland Fling, a battle victory dance. Other competitions include the Scottish fiddle and harp.
Visitors interested in learning more about a traditional Scottish activity are invited to sign up for one of many “try-it” classes offered on all three days. Instructors offer hands-on lessons in several musical instruments such as bagpipes, drums, fiddle and harp. Instruction in Scottish country dance and stone lifting is available. Another favorite is Mas-wrestling, or “Swingle Tree,” in which two competitors grasping the same stick are seated on the ground facing each other with their feet against a board as they try to pull it over to their side.
Bring your favorite running shoes and your favorite kilt to the starting line of Sunday’s Kilted Race. The 1-mile race begins at the parade grounds and winds through the lower slopes of Loon Mountain. The race is open to runners and walkers of all ages and abilities, and kilts of all colors. Registration is available at the starting line.