By Andrew Alexander
The shrill of bagpipes filled the air as the procession of plaid kilted pipers and drummers marched alongside several clan banners as part of the opening ceremonies of the 10th Anniversary Highland Games of Louisiana.
Founded in 1999 by Leroy Harvey, the Highland Games of Louisiana were held for nearly a decade in rural Jackson, La. After a lengthy hiatus, the Caledonian and St. Andrew Societies of Baton Rouge revived the Highland Games of Louisiana and found a new home and a fresh partnership with the LSU Rural Life Museum.
“Unfortunately, after nine years, it just didn’t have the financial backing to continue,” Highland Games Chief Joe McD. Campbell said. “We tried for several years with the Celtic Society, St. Andrew Society, and Caledonian Society of Baton Rouge to get the games going, and it just didn’t go until this year when everything seemed to click.”
LSU Rural Life Museum director David Floyd said the event was a natural fit given the museum’s mission to partner with local cultural organizations and the overall space of the sprawling 19th century outdoors complex.
“It’s a celebration of our past in history,” Floyd said. “This is a unique program for Baton Rouge. Most of the rest of the South have [highland games] all over. We saw there was a need for it and an interest.”
“Athletic competitions are what actually gives the name ‘games’ to the highland games.”
– Highland Games Chief Joe McD. Campbell
– Highland Games Chief Joe McD. Campbell
A stroll through the festival’s Heritage Booths provided the sights of Celtic Dogs, Celtic music, Scottish Whisky, and several local clan tartans. Walk a little further past the pioneer’s cabin and corncrib to the Dogtrot House and festival goers were greeted by a variety of pipe band concerts along with several Scottish Country and Highland dance exhibitions.
“We’re really thrilled about what we were able to do our first year,” Campbell said. “It’s been quite a leap. When we first started we were actually thinking this was going to be a small Scottish heritage festival, and it has grown into a full Scottish games.”
The cornerstone of the Highland Games of Louisiana is the Highland Athletics Games competition. Initially created as a means to improve the abilities of military for the medieval kings and chiefs of Scotland, the modern Highland Games athlete combines strength, skill, and endurance to compete in a variety of “heavy events.” This year’s Highland Games featured both former world champion and amateur competitors from the region.
“Athletic competitions are what actually gives the name ‘games’ to the highland games,” Campbell said. “There are all sorts of strongman-type competitions. It’s a great event for people who like to show off their strength and athletic prowess.”
Former LSU student Seth Richard, a relative newcomer to the highland games, was on hand to compete last weekend in his third games.
“Most of the events aren’t too bad,” Richard said. “It’s that dang caber toss. It’s the one everybody crowds around to see.”
Sporting a predominantly purple kilt in homage to the Tigers, Richard got his start when he competed in a highland games competition while visiting a friend in Virginia.
Each Highland Games athletic competition typically features at least five heavy events that involve flinging an object for distance. The Highland Games’ most recognizable event is the caber toss in which competitors toss a large tapered pole (also known as a tree) end over end away from the thrower.
Other events include the Clachneart or “stone throw,” the hammer throw, steelyard weight throw, and the sheaf toss. The sheaf toss calls for athletes to wield a three-tined pitchfork and hurl a 16-pound burlap bag stuffed with straw over a horizontal bar raised between two standards. The bar continues to rise throughout the competition until all but one athlete is eliminated.
The Games are part athletic competition and part spectacle, livened up by a pair of entertaining emcees: Scottish Games League president Mike Dickens and Texas Celtic Athletic Association president Mike Beech.
“You cannot underestimate the value of an announcer and a PA system,” Dickens explained. “It allows you engage the audience and explain what’s going on. There’s a lot of dead time between throws, and it’s nice to have someone who can fill the void and engage the crowd and give context for what’s happening.
“People who are doing this and wearing a kilt out in front of a crowd aren’t wallflowers, and sometimes we ham it up,” Dickens laughed.
On the surface, it’s easy to see how the field portion from modern day track and field is partially derived from the ancient Scottish contests of strength. But for the athletes, the camaraderie between competitors is just as important as the outcome of the events.
“I’ve never been in any sport where while you’re competing the competitors will give you advice that will help you beat them and be happy that you beat them,” Scottish Games League vice president Eric White explained. “It’s a brotherhood. We all want each other to do better.”
White explained the top goals of each Highland Games are that no one sustains injury and for everyone to throw well and obtain a personal best distance.
“We want to entertain the crowd and bring a little bit of a very old culture to as many people as we can,” White said.
According to White most athletes train for the Highland Games with a regimen consisting of predominately Olympic lifts.
“You’re trying to be explosive,” White explained. “If you watch an Olympic lifter when they pull a clean they explode up. Ninety percent of this sport is technique. Most of the power and all of the throws involve moving an object from Point A to Point B as fast and fluid as you can. All that power comes from your legs and your hips, very little upper body.”
This year’s Highland Games was a scoring event in the Scottish Games League South region.
The SGL is a nonprofit organization whose mission is “promoting the Scottish Heavy Events while preserving the heritage of the sport, building partnerships to enhance the spectators experience, advancing athletes’ opportunities and contributing to the growth of the Scottish Highland Games Festivals.”
Dickens, a two-time Masters World Champion, helped found the SGL in an effort to promote the sport into the mainstream in hopes of attracting national sponsors to increase the overall purses of the events.
A few cultural events were missing from this year’s Highland Games. Absent were piping and highland dance competition, but Campbell said he expects that to return in the future. Nonetheless, Campbell said he considered the weekend an overall success.
“If people have learned about their heritage, learned about where they came from and learned about what it is to be what they are today based upon all of these traditions and the culture they viewed at the games, that’s what I’m looking for.”
Fans of kilts, bagpipes and caber tossing can rest assured knowing that the Highland Games are here to stay in Baton Rouge for quite some time.
“As far as we’re concerned the Rural Life Museum is going to have a highland games here,” Floyd said. “The official name of these highland games is the Highland Games of Louisiana, and that’s a copyrighted name. If they decided not to do it, the museum is dedicated to continuing on with the highland games.”