April 6 is an important day if you claim Scottish heritage. It’s the day the Declaration of Arbroath was signed in 1320—Sort of Scotland’s Declaration of Independence which served as a model for the U.S. Declaration of Independence. But the date hasn’t always been celebrated—we just picked up the idea here in the U.S. in the late 1990s when The Scottish Coalition USA successfully petitioned the US Senate to adopt a resolution establishing April 6 as National Tartan Day. Since then, events have sprung up all around the country with one of the latest in the little town of Sainte Genevieve, MO.
Now I’ve been to a number of Scottish festivals and Highland Games and a couple of things become obvious right away.
One: April 6 can be damn cold
Two: Scots like to throw stuff
Tartan Days often involve an exhibition of Highland Games. We take our games seriously and competition gets pretty intense during the spring-fall season. Most of the events involve tossing one thing or another and probably have their roots in a wager and a pot of ale.
Highland Game Events that involve tossing things
The Stone Put involves what’s called a Braemer Stone—20-26 lbs for men and 13-18 lbs for women. The object is to toss the stone as far as you can from a standing start. The Open Stone Put uses a slightly smaller stone and allows any kind of throwing style with a few additional rules. Basically, the point is to muscle the rock as far as you can.
Hammer Throw and Weight Throw and Weight over the Bar use different metal objects—a round ball on a 4 foot shaft and a round metal ball with either a handle or a chain, respectively. The object here is to either toss the round metal ball as far as you can or to toss it over a suspended bar as high as you can.
Sheaf toss involves a bundle of straw (the sheaf) which will weigh 20 pounds for men and 10 pounds for women. It’s wrapped in a burlap bag. Contestants use a pitchfork to toss the sheaf over a raised bar.
Caber Toss is the granddaddy of them all. Cabers—wooden logs—vary greatly in size but can be as large as 19 ½ feet long weighing around 175 pounds. The object of this exercise is to toss the caber in such a way that it flips completely over and stands straight up before falling directly away from the tosser. Here is a video of a world championship caber toss. The Caber Toss is always something to see.
Other Events You may Find at a Tartan Days Celebration
- Craft demonstrations from spinning sheep wool into yarn, iron mongery, cooking, candle making, and others too numerous to mention. Sometimes, you can even pat the sheep who supplied the wool for your new scarf.
- Weapon displays and reenactments of sword fighting with claymores and battle axes. Often the rattle of muskets and the boom of canon punctuate the proceedings. Personally, I think the canon ought to go off every hour on the hour. At one event, the canoneers were intent on getting a ball across the river where the event was held which resulted in much discussion about the best way to do that as well as the advisability of attempting it at all.
- Music—not just bagpipes but a mixture of traditional songs and instruments as well as a healthy dose of bag-rock. Pipers wander around playing random airs. If you’ve never heard the sound of bagpipes on a cold morning accompanied by the smell of wood smoke and the taste of an early morning nip, you have not truly lived. Look for a post about Scottish music soon.
- Drinking—from a fully stocked beer tent to whisky tastings to the abundance of flasks smuggled in under coats and capes, Scottish drinks abound, including the non-alcoholic Irn Bru—a sweet orange soda that is supposed to be the best hangover cure in the world. But in all the events I’ve attended, I’ve never seen anyone disgustingly drunk or in any way inappropriate. We are a happy people.
- Food—haggis, yes, but also pasties, tatties and mince, Highland beef rib sandwiches, shortbread and nearly any kind of food you can imagine. At the Ste. Gen. affair, an incredibly able German cook grilled homemade brats and supplied a vat of German potato salad.
- Clan row—an avenue of clan tents where you can connect with your clan and often share a wee nip with the clan representative as well as learn more about your clan. Each tent proudly displays the clan tartan and the rep. will bend your ear as long as you are willing to listen with stories and history.
- Vendors—all things Celtic. Jewelry, photos and art, t-shirts, tartans, whisky-drinking paraphernalia, kilt pins, sporrans, knives, and kilts are often among the wares on display.
I love these festivals and attend whenever time and finances allow. If you ever get the opportunity to check one out, I highly recommend the experience. Ste. Genevieve is already planning their next event. If you are interested in attending, here’s the link to their event page.
What about you—Have you ever been to a Scottish festival? Or maybe another cultural event? Share your stories in Comments.