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Celtic Festival of Highland Games

Haggis, hurling and history


There's something about a thick Scottish brogue that make me want to drink dark beer and throw some livestock. Maybe it's the inaccurate historical films I've seen (Braveheart, though I loved it, is one of them), maybe it's Mike Meyers' killer accent, or maybe it's the age-old cultural cliché of the ale-soaked Scotsman who's tougher than nails and into heavy lifting. Regardless, John McDade's "hello" conjured all such images. He is the head of the Scottish American Society of Idaho (SAS), bandmaster of the Sleekit Beasties Pipe Band and a self-proclaimed "wee hairy Scotsman."

McDade ended up in Idaho after volunteering in Africa where he met his future wife, a Boise-born member of the Peace Corps. He has lived here for almost a decade now, but the importance of his heritage has only grown with distance. This explains why he and other members of SAS are putting together the seventh annual Treasure Valley Celtic Festival and Highland Games, a rich celebration of Scottish history and culture that aims to show everyone a good time while educating them about an ancient way of life.

"It is a great celebration, but it's also a lot of information," McDade said (applauding my pronunciation of Edinburgh).

The informational aspects of the festival will include a band of wandering Scots in full costume (yes, kilts) available for question and answer sessions.

"You can walk up to guys in period costume and ask 'what the hell are you wearing?' And there will be men wandering everywhere grunting and groaning and piping--it will be very educational," McDade chuckled. He explained that 18 separate clans will be represented and that a professional name tracer will be on hand to track any curious attendee's family as far back as it will go (just in case there's a hint of Scot). The Daughters of the British Empire, another local cultural interest group, will provide hot tea and dainties in the "Tea Tent," and Table Rock Brewery will be serving up some custom beer and a specialty dish as yet to be revealed. And what Celtic festival would be complete without the signature Scottish dish--haggis. For those of you who don't know, haggis is a sheep's stomach stuffed with oatmeal and the heart, liver and lungs of the sheep chopped fine and seasoned. This lovely package is then sewn shut and boiled for at least four hours to "make sure it's dead," according to McDade, who admitted it's something most often eaten on a dare. For the softer stomachs, there will be stews, meat pies and other traditional dishes to sample between watching the main event, a series of "heavy athletics."

Heavy athletics is exactly what it sounds like--sporting events involving heavy objects. Throwing heavy objects to be exact. The first will be the caber toss. Cabers look and weigh something like telephone poles, and the object is to lift one up in your interlaced fingers and "toss" it as far as you can. The second toss involves something called a "sheaf," which is basically a bag full of straw that is picked up with a pitchfork and "tossed" over a barn (should one be handy). There will also be hammer tossing and something called the Braemar Stone Throw that resembles the modern shot put, but the piece de resistance will be "tossing the weight." McDade explained that in this game, a competitor stands with his legs apart with a giant piece of metal dangling between them. This up to 56-pound weight is then swung back and forth to gather momentum before being hurled over the hurler's own head and over a bar, hopefully traveling at least 17 feet.

"Then you run like hell," said McDade.

While the events are sure to be entertaining and challenging to those hearty, gutsy or foolish enough to try them, their origins are in ancient Celtic combat training.

"The men used to do such things to train for battle. The soldiers couldn't have weapons depending on the severity of English rule at the time, so they used logs, rocks and other things. And the local Chieftans would get together and have competitions to spot their strongest warriors. They showed some of that in Braveheart. Most of the film was garbage, but they got a few bits right," McDade said. He will be too busy playing the pipes to participate, but apparently there are some real contenders set to sweep the contest. "The only rules are that you have to be at least 16 and must participate in all of the events. Otherwise we'd have a problem with people having a few too many drinks and then wandering into something," he said.

Throughout the day's schedule of eating, drinking and throwing things, there will be a bagpipe competition, a Highland dance competition, women's and children's field events (including a frying pan and wee caber toss), a classic British car show, live music from local bands and a return performance by The Wicked Tinkers, who will jam on bagpipes, digeridoo, drums and even a Bronze Age Irish horn. All will be spread over the gorgeous landscape of the Idaho Botanical Garden, a fitting backdrop for so much cultural and community richness.

"There are quite a few Scots living in the area who will be there, and we're expecting a couple thousand people," McDade said. "The festival has grown--there are more events, more quality, and every year there will be something new."

The Celtic Festival and Highland Games, Saturday, September 18, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Idaho Botanical Garden, Old Penitentiary Road. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for 12 and under and seniors and FREE for kids under 5. For tickets, call John McDade at Wee Bit O' Scotland, 331-5676.