Virtual Vacation: Viking in a Kilt, Day 12

(Note to readers: This post has a LOT of pictures. Let it load for a while and then come back to read it.)

Since I knew we were scheduled to go on an outing today—to the Nairn Highland Games—I gave this homework at the end of writing class this morning:

“Find out something specific about Scottish culture—how a tradition began, why people wear tartans, how Scots feel about their bagpipes, where kilts come from, what haggis is,” I told them. “Choose something you are personally curious about and talk to local people at the Games to find your answers. Take notes in your little notebook and we’ll work with your raw material in class this evening.”

Some people opted to do other things, but a group of us took the bus to Nairn before lunch, and had the whole afternoon to enjoy this traditional Scottish festival.

The Highland Games are a time when people who’ve moved away, whether to a different county or a different country, return to the Highlands to visit family and friends. School reunions are often scheduled for this weekend, and the term, “See you at the Games,” still rings out in these parts. The Games are always staged the first Saturday in August after the start of the grouse-hunting season. If you are wondering, as I was, what a grouse looks like, here you go:

As we piled out of the bus, none of us really knew what to expect—some pipe bands and competitions, but that was about it. The forecast called for rain so we were all equipped with windbreakers, raincoats and umbrellas. But except for one brief little drizzle, our outer gear was unnecessary. It ended up being a clear, warm sunny day, perfect for an outdoor celebration.

Robyn and Geoff led a group of us down a side alley where the different bagpipe groups were tuning their instruments, warming up, preparing for the parade through town to the fairgrounds, known locally as the Links. As soon as I turned the corner to catch up with them, the teacher in me leapt with joy. There was Asma with her little notebook, pen in hand, engrossed in an animated conversation with a group of young bagpipers:

Pretty soon, six of us were clustered around these young musicians dressed smartly in green, all of us with our notebooks or cameras out, taking pictures and firing questions at them about their lives, their music, and all the clothes they were wearing. We learned that tartans were created for Scottish army regiments during World War I and II, and that each regiment had its own pipe band.

I asked what the “man bag” was called—and I learned that it was a sporran—and it is indeed a “man bag.” Pipers, both male and female, use it in lieu of pockets (kilts don’t have any) and purses. It’s just the right size for a cell phone, some lip gloss, and a wallet. Some sporrans, I found out, are for everyday wear; others are ornamental, designed for dress wear. They can be made of leather, fur or the pelts of animals. And you can get a sporran flask to go with your sporran—for your whiskey.

The young men in the Huntly Pipe Band ranged from 13 into their early twenties. This one, the most talkative, told Asma he had to have a dram of his medicine before he played.

She, being a doctor, immediately assumed he was sick and asked if he needed medication, but he laughed and said he was referring to whiskey. He hardly looked older than 15, but he assured us he was 18. “We drink whiskey like it’s water around here,” he said.

The young men were more than happy to talk to us. What group of teenagers would be happy to talk to a group of middle-aged women back in the United States? None that I can think of. But these young men were polite, witty, and forthcoming. They welcomed our questions and seemed to enjoy the attention. 

Watching the conversation fly back and forth, fast and fearless, the teacher in me was ecstatic. My students were doing exactly what I’d asked them to do, and they were having a ball doing it. Robyn asked one young piper, “Do your sisters ever tease you about wearing a skirt?”

“No,” he answered back, looking at her as if she were crazy. “It’s a kilt, not a skirt.”

Robyn asked if he was proud to be Scottish. “Of course,” he said, as if there couldn’t possibly be any other answer, “If you speak to any Scottish person, they’re proud to be Scottish. We’re very passionate about it.”

After twenty minutes of lively conversation, the pipers told us they had to tune up and get ready for the march through town, so we said goodbye and moved on. Pipe bands were warming up on both sides of the alley.

One young player told us that what he loved most about the Highland Games is that it brings everyone—all the generations—together. That was certainly true of this band:

Eileene interviewed this young piper. He was only 13 and had been playing the bagpipes for two years.

We strolled down the alley, watching different bands get ready for the big event. I was happy to see that girls were playing as well as boys and men:

I found this over-the-shoulder-onto-the-back drum harness ingenious, but it sure looked uncomfortable:

This man, a drum major, told us he leads the band with his staff, called a mace:

As the bands got into formation, the performers made last-minute adjustments to their uniforms:

I found it odd that so many different tartans were all in one place:

I had been told that each band has its own tartan, depending on its region and history, so couldn’t understand why so many different tartans were all mixed up in the band queuing up in the street in front of us. One of the players explained that it was because they this wasn’t a bagpipe competition; it was a mass band—all the smaller bands coming together to form one large band just for this occasion.

Eileene observed that many of the pipers had orange or purple earplugs stuck in their ears. I’d asked my writers to keep a list of unusual, quirky details, perfect for vivid description. Colored earplugs definitely qualified, and on closer inspection, I noticed she was right.

One of the drum majors, wearing one of those giant furry hats, who must have been grand poobah of the whole parade, started calling out commands from the front, and suddenly, the whole giant band was on the move, marching in unison.

The music of the pipes, which just a week ago had sounded unfamiliar and discordant to my naïve, untrained ears, suddenly moved me to tears. Hearing this band play was different than being a distant spectator at the Tattoo. Now I was standing just inches away from these musicians. I’d laughed and joked with them, seen them up close. I knew why they were dressed like that and how much they felt about their native land. I was swept up in the emotions of a community held together by a deep love of their culture and traditions. These people believed in tradition. This was the 136th annual Nairn Highland Games!

I could feel the passion of the musicians. As I followed them down the street, I was moved by the music and the pageantry, seeing people of every age marching and celebrating their heritage together. It didn’t feel hokey; it felt grounded and real. This was a tradition to be treasured. And they did treasure it. That was clear. Young people here were not disaffected; they were involved, proudly so.

Four of us followed the mass pipe bands toward the Links until the street became clogged with people. Then, almost in unison, we peeled away, suddenly hungry for lunch. As we searched for the restaurant Robyn had recommended, we came upon this sign, which seemed a odd considering all the beer and whisky that was being consumed all around us:

We walked along a beach pathway until we reached The Golf View Hotel and got the best table in house. This was the view outside our window:

The waitress brought us a single plastic menu, with tiny print, for all four of us to share (this is not the first time this has happened in Scotland). And then she handed us a separate menu just for whiskey. There were dozens on the menu, each with its own capsule description. I wondered who got paid to write the copy:

“Isle of Jura Superstition

Bearing the historical Egyptian Ankh cross this is a blend of finest aged Jura single malts creating a unique style with tastes of spice, honey, pine, and peat.”

“Ardbeg 10YO

Bursting with intense smoky fruit. Peat infused with zesty lemon and lime. A creamy and smoky lingering palate ending with espresso, liquorice root, and tarry smoke, with soft barley and pear.”

I hesitated before ordering a whiskey with my lunch, stressing to my students that I hardly ever drink at home at all, and certainly never at lunchtime. Julie from Seattle looked across the table at me and said. “Don’t worry. It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

This is the one I ordered:

“Bowmore 12YO

A lemon and honey bouquet with the distinctive Bowmore smokiness. Warm and delicious on the palate with subtle dark chocolate flavours.”

Well, I don’t know about chocolate, but it sure tasted good.

After a delicious lunch that took way too long to come to our table, the four of us split up and went our separate ways. On the way back to the Links, someone remarked that the color of the Firth had changed. And it was true—in an hour, the water had gone from grey to turquoise to green. I’d never seen anything like it before; the ocean was as variable as the sky above it.

Following the sound of bagpipes, I worked my way back to the Links. People were everywhere: sitting on hillsides, some on lawn chairs, pushing strollers, standing and gossiping. Families of all ages were out for a good time together. In the sprawling green, there were dozens of carnival rides. This traveling fair, known as the showies, arrives a fortnight before the Games, and are enjoyed nightly by the local community. The Links were filled with a variety of booths, ice cream trucks, a bungee jumping machine, a huge enclosed beer stand, booths representing organizations from Hospice to the Rotary, and a long row of craft booths. As I walked past them, this display caught my eye:

I had promised myself I wasn’t going to buy anything else for the remainder of my stay, but my son Bryan, and daughter-in-law Brinn are expecting a baby, and it’s due tomorrow. I found myself rubbing my cheeks against these blankets, the softest thing I’ve ever felt (well, next to the cashmere back in Elgin). But these blankets could go right in the washing machine. I stood there for twenty minutes trying to decide which pattern to choose for my new grandbaby.

We don’t know if they’re having a boy or a girl, so I chose a soft green color with polka dots. And then I headed back to check out the Games. This was the first gentleman I ran into, raising money to support the Games:

Photo by Talin Vartanian

At first it seemed like not much was really going on; that most of the interesting action was in watching the crowd, not the field. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a few runners sprinting by. Nothing I couldn’t see at any high school track and field event.

But then I continued to make a wide circle around the track, no set destination in mind. I sat down on a steep grassy hillside and started to pay closer attention. And I noticed a special little stage where a Highland dance competition was going on. The girls danced in twos or threes, always accompanied by a single piper.

Some dressed as Irish washer women, with white petticoats underneath, to dance the Irish jig. These dancers wore traditional Highland costumes:

Photo by Talin Vartanian

For other dances, they wore sailor outfits and did the sailor’s jig:

Their dancing was precise, synchronized and athletic. There was lots of flashing of their very muscular legs.

As I watched them, I saw Talin sitting nearby and I got up to join her. She had spent her day getting to know the family of one of the top dancers, Laura, who had won many awards. Laura’s Highland dancing has taken her all over the world. As we watched her compete, Talin leaned over to tell me that a pair of their very special dancing shoes cost 1000 pounds—that’s $1500 dollars.

Photo by Talin Vartanian

The shoes are laced onto the dancer’s feet in a very specific way, around the ankle two or three times, then down under the arch of the foot, right under the sole of the shoe—it helps them stay up on their toes, Laura said.

Photo by Talin Vartanian

As the dancing continued on a small stage in front of us, half-marathon runners ran into the Links by way of the track that separated the spectators from the larger field. Two-hundred yard runs and other sprints raced in front of us. And every hour or so, the pipe band assembled once again at the far end of the field to make another musical journey around the perimeter.

After they passed, we could see a group of men in kilts setting up for a new contest, one unlike any track and field event I’d ever seen before. It was called “weight over the bar,” the bar being a horizontal top bar balanced on two vertical posts. Each man in turn, stood, wearing a kilt, in front of this goalpost-like structure, facing the crowd, his back to the bar immediately behind him. Then the man reached down and grabbed a huge weight—either 28 or 56 pounds (used to weigh oats on a balance scale), and swung it under his legs to gain momentum. Then he threw the giant weight backwards over his head—one-handed—trying to get it to clear the bar that he could not see. Each contestant had three chances at each height, and the one who cleared the bar most often won the competition.

Just like in high jumping, as long as at least one man cleared the bar, the posts were raised and the bar placed higher. Then the next round of the competition would begin, until only one man successfully threw the weight over the bar.

This is what these men were throwing:

Photo by Talin Vartanian

Watching, it seemed unbelievable that these men could do what they were doing. Especially this guy, who was no spring chicken:

I couldn’t take my eyes off this huge hulking guy—this human giant. Just looking at him scared me and excited me. Viking was written all over him; it looked to me like he could throw that big weight over the moon.

He hitched up his kilt so the weight wouldn’t get tangled on the seven yards of Tartan fabric that made up his kilt.

He picked up the weight like it was a carton of milk and tossed it backwards over the bar. It cleared with inches to spare.

He strode away as if it was no big deal, waiting for his next turn.

One by the one, the other men knocked over the bar. I cringed as I watched each competitor in turn, imaging how horribly their skulls would be crushed if the weights fell back down onto their heads. From my vantage point, it looked like an accident that could easily happen. But it didn’t. The only injury any of the contestants received was to their pride. My Viking crushed the competition.

The next event, the Caber Toss, took strength contests to a whole new level. This same group of strong men picked up a pole the size, length and weight of a telephone pole, held it upright in their hands, then ran and attempted to throw it so it landed end over end. If it just fell flat, they were eliminated.

Here’s my favorite giant grabbing his pole:

And running with it:

And sure enough when he released the log, it was the only one to flip end over end. A huge cheer went up from the crowd.

It was time for the mass pipe band to make their next pass around the track. I was standing so close to take pictures that I had to scurry out of the way:

One of the final events of the afternoon was the tug of war.

Photo by Talin Vartanian

It was amazing to watch teams of men pulling and grunting and groaning, bracing themselves into the earth and pulling with all their strength. I couldn’t tell by watching which team was going to win:

It was a quarter to five, and the Nairn Highland Games of 2013 were drawing to a close. I wanted to stay until the very end, but we had to meet our bus, so Talin and I had to drag ourselves away. As we made our way along the Links back to our meeting point, I heard a siren and an ambulance roar past. I sent loving kindness to the person it was intended for and also laughed, because in Scotland, the ambulances have green and yellow plaid on the sides.

When we reached our pick-up point, all of us who’d spread out and had our own adventures sat on the grass and swapped stories from our day. After dinner, when our writing group reconvened, I told everyone that we were going to have a work session. I gave them an hour and a half to write up one vivid memory from the day. As I began to compose this post, I loved the quiet intense stillness in the room. When everyone around you is writing, you have no excuses, no distractions, nothing to get in your way. I loved the buzzing hive of creativity that enveloped us.

We were entering the heart of the retreat. I could feel the warmth, strength and safety of the group taking hold. People were feeling safe and connected, writers were breaking new ground, and everyone was taking risks in life and on the page. The teacher in me was very pleased. I loved this group, this place, this sanctuary.

Gratitude filled me. I felt grateful to Robyn and Geoff for planting the seed for this trip, for working so hard and so invisibly behind the scenes to smooth our way, choose the perfect outings, and create the conditions where magic could flower. I was grateful to the Newbold staff for creating this healing space and for being so responsive to our needs. I loved that we had a home base from which to adventure and to which we could return. I was grateful to my family for letting me pursue this dream. And thankful to each of the writers who had trusted me enough to take the leap to say, “Yes, I will go to Scotland.” Each of them, in their diverse splendor, is an essential member of our living, working community. I held each of them for a moment in my mind’s eye as I got ready for bed, and then, happy and fulfilled, drifted to sleep.

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