Modern Highland Games are staged authenticity, since they are reconstructed in the memory of a Scottish Highland past.
I actually addressed staged authenticity back in August of 2008. At that time I was referring to large-scale multi-cultural events. This time I am focussing my thoughts on the Scottish Highland Games as put on by various communities in Alberta, Canada. I am writing as a participant-observer because I attended two Highland Games events this past weekend and had a child competing in the Highland Dance competition at both. (FYI, she did very well, winning 6 out of 8 medals).
Throughout the summer the province of Alberta produces several highland games. The two major cities in Alberta, Calgary and Edmonton produce their own games as does; High Level, Canmore, Red Deer, Grand Prairie, and Fort McMurray. Edmonton actually hosts two highland games. The first is a Modern rendition of the games and the second is a historical re-enactment put on at Fort Edmonton Park.
The games themselves consist of Heavy Events, Bands with bagpipes and drums, Highland Dancing, Scottish and Irish-ware vendors, Clan tents, a "Chieftain of the Day", Opening ceremonies held around midday, Historical re-enactments and food.
The heavy events are the athletic games involving the use of large pieces of timber, heavy stones, large hammers, and staged farming skills.
Caber Toss: This is a crowd pleaser as men heft poles about 26 feet long in such a manner as to turn them end over end and have them land at the 12:00 position.
Putting the Stone: Much like shotput, it involves hefting a stone between the weights of 16 to 26 pounds for distance.
Hammer Throw: Again, this is much like the modern day hammer throw except that the hammer is a metal ball attached to a stick and is whirled around the head before being released. The hammer weighs in at the same as the stone.
Weight for Distance: A large iron block with a round handle attached is tossed for distance. The weight can be between 28 to 56 pounds.
Weight for Height: Contestants try to put a 56 pound weight over a bar, which is slowly raised until there is only one contestant left.
Sheaf Toss: This farm skill event involves tossing a 20 pound sheaf wrapped in burlap, over a height. The height is gradually raised until there is only one contestant left.
The Alberta Scottish Athletic Association (ASAA) in Alberta represents the heavy game athletes for the province. In addition to training, the members socialize and network.
Another feature of the Highland games is the Dancing. Highland dancing has been around for hundreds of years and is very military based. It was the men who danced these rigorous dances but now that has changed as women now tend to dominate the field. Dancers start training as young as three and continue well into their 80s and 90s. It is typical in Alberta for dancers to stop dancing in competition in their early twenties, but there are a handful that compete much later in life. Highland dancing is regulated by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD) and dances are strictly regulated. A dancer from anywhere in the world can compete anywhere else in the world so long as they are registered with their local dance board. Dances are preserved in their original form with only slight variations taking place over time from the governing board.
Dances are divided into Highland and National. Each requires its own costume. The Highland dances are performed in a kilt, vest, white blouse, knee socks and ghillies (dancing slippers). These dances include the Fling, Sword, Strathspey (and Reel or Tulloch), and Seann Triubhas (pronounced shawn trews - though most Scots shudder at this pronounciation). The National dances are performed in a white dress with a plaid shawl affixed over the right shoulder or an Aboyen which is a plaid full skirt, white blouse, vest and plaid shawl. These dances include the Flora MacDonald's Fancy, Scottish Lilt, Earl of Erroll, Highland Laddie, Blue Bonnets and Village Maid. Two other dances in neither of these categories are the Sailors Hornpipe performed in a blue or white sailor suit and hat and the Irish Jig performed in a dress that is white, green, or red, with green or red shoes and a white apron. This last dance is actually a satire of Irish dancing and the story goes its performed by a housewife angry at Leprechauns for stealing her laundry, or a husband home too late. Men dance with a Shillelagh (club with a strap) and they are only angry at the Leprechauns.
Dancers pass through a variety of levels, primary, beginner, novice, intermediate and premier. Once at the premier level they can compete for cash as well as trophies and medals. Dancers are tested throughout their school year and are awarded medals from Scotland that commemorate their skill levels.
The music portion of the event involves the bagpipe and drum competitions where individuals compete against each other in skills. The bands also compete against each other. The bands wear kilts with jackets, hats, socks and shoes. Some bands include putties. Audiences love to hear the massed bands as they all play in unison typical songs such as Amazing Grace, Scotland the Brave and other traditional songs.
The Clan Tents are tents that are operated by individual clans. At these locations they help people determine which clan they belong to or connect with other members of their clans. Clan membership fees are nominal and are only for connecting the members. They create a sense of belonging and knowing they are members of a larger Diaspora. Clan information includes current Chiefs, national and international gatherings, location of clan lands in Scotland and clan activities within Alberta.
Because of the large contingent of Scots in Alberta, they are able to create their own stores where individuals can buy objects that would tie them to Scotland. They can buy samples of music, candy, plaid, ornaments and statuary. These stores are able to go to the various Highland games and set up tents where they can sell their products and network within the province or Canada. Other specialty vendors like dance wear suppliers and pipe and drum outfitters also have tents where they can sell to competitors. Other specialty tents include armories, folk art and art.
The food tents usually include typical North American fare as hamburgers, hot dogs, and french fries but also include haggis, meat pies and to drink, Irn Bru (a soda). There is also usually a beer garden set up which may include samples of Scotch Whisky.
Another feature of some of the Highland games is a Ceilidh (Kay-lee) or party. It involves folk music, beer, and dancing. Much of the music played is from Eastern Canada where the Scottish influence is most acutely felt. These gatherings are ideal for families and chance for transplanted Scottish parents to pass on the spirit of their culture to their children.
Sometimes there are other events put on at the games that include Sheep herding trials where border collies get to strut their stuff, Cow displays (In Alberta there are farms that raise Highland Cattle) and Highland country dancing (a more social type of dancing).
Chhabra, Healy and Sills (2003) found that attendees do feel there is a certain level of authenticity present at these events. They determined "The study revealed that high perception of authenticity can be achieved even when the event is staged in a place far away from the original source of the cultural tradition. Important differences in perceived authenticity were observed among various groups of visitors."
For me, as a person so Scottish heritage, I do feel a sense of connection to the Scots through this type of gathering. My next challenge is to actually go to Scotland and make a comparison between what they offer there and here.
1 Chhabra,Deepak, Healy, Robert and Sills, Erin. "Staged authenticity and heritage tourism".