Deep in the woods outside of Ithaca, bagpipe players, dancers and athletes will gather to compete in the First Annual Ithaca Scottish Games and Celtic Festival, to be held Saturday, July 12, at the Pinecreek Campground in Newfield. Roughly 500 people are expected to participate in the event, which is expected to draw a crowd of about 5,000 spectators.
The games will offer visitors a taste of all things Scottish (and a few things Irish), but you don’t have to be a Scot to attend. There will be plenty of entertainment and food to appeal to folks of any nationality. But if you have even a speck of Scottish blood in your veins, you’ll enjoy exploring this aspect of your heritage.
Bringing Scots together
The festival is the brainchild of event planner Mary Bishop, founder of Bishop Events, a full-service event production and design company. Mary grew up near Ithaca in a family that was greatly influenced by their Scottish heritage. Her mother makes kilts and plays the Celtic harp, while her stepfather makes various types of bagpipes at his Ithaca-based business, Cushing Bagpipe Company. Mary says that when she was a child, her family would make the hour-long drive to Syracuse and back twice a week so they could rehearse and perform with the Syracuse Scottish Pipe Band. “We couldn’t miss a rehearsal. If we weren’t there, it meant four people were missing from the band!” she explained.
The annual Central New York Scottish Games and Celtic Festival in Syracuse, a major gathering for the area’s Scottish community, is not far from Ithaca, but Mary always wanted an event held closer to the heart of the Finger Lakes. “There are bagpipe players in Ithaca who don’t know each other. It’s the same with Scottish dancers,” she said. “There are also pipe bands in the Southern Tier and northern Pennsylvania that would like to have a gathering closer to home.” Mary hopes that the Ithaca Scottish Games and Celtic Festival will help connect local members of the Scottish community who are currently strangers. It will certainly help introduce Finger Lakes residents to this largely underground Scottish subculture.
Are there really games?
Insofar as individuals and groups compete against each other, yes. Scottish, or highland, games have been around for centuries. They began as a celebration among clans after a successful, cooperative hunt. Held rain or shine, the original “games” were athletic competitions, including running, jumping, tug of war, wrestling and weight putting with stones. Music and dance merely served as sideline entertainment to the sports.
Today, the priorities have switched. While some Scottish athletes contend that physical contests are still the purpose of highland games, the real focus now is on music and dance competitions. Athletic events are an added bonus. At the Ithaca games, there will be a $500 purse for the winning band, but no cash prize for athletes.
Pipers, drummers and dancers
The Ithaca Scottish Games and Celtic Festival begins at 9 a.m. on Saturday with solo competitions in music and dance. Bagpipe players (“pipers”), drummers and dancers will perform individually in front of judges at several designated venues located throughout Pinecreek Campground. Because bagpipes are very loud and their sound carries outdoors, the judging spots must be spaced far apart from each other.
When the solo competitions are over between 11 a.m. and noon, the bagpipe bands will kick off their group competitions by performing en masse at the opening ceremony. Mary expects 10 bands to participate in the Ithaca games, including the Syracuse Scottish Pipe Band, The Mohawk Valley Fraser Pipe Band and Feadan Or Pipe Band from Rochester. Each band features 10 to 40 pipers and drummers who will all come together to play and march through the grounds.
Will they all have rehearsed the same songs ahead of time? “There are some standards that every self-respecting pipe-and-drum group will know,” said Mary. “One common piece is ‘Scotland the Brave,’ a patriotic song that is often played by pipers.”
Afterwards, each pipe band will go to a separate corner of the woods to make final preparations for the pipe band competition. Each band plays at a certain grade level, which indicates its level of proficiency. Pipe bands are graded from one to five, with grade one being the best. (There are only four grade-one bands in the United States.) Only bands within the same grade level will compete against each other, and only grade fours and grade fives will compete at this year’s festival.
The judges look at several factors, including sound quality, technique, overall musicality and segues beween songs. They will watch and listen to make sure that all members of a band are playing exactly together and performing the various embellishments perfectly.
Players in a pipe band are required to wear kilts, usually made of a tartan cloth, and other traditional Scottish garb. Each clan, or family, has its own tartan, and traditionally, only those who belong to that family are allowed to wear it. While some bands allow its members to dress in their own clan or district tartans, most bands dress uniformly. In some cases, band members must get special permission to wear another clan’s tartan, or a band might choose the tartan associated with either their common area of origin or an organization.
The athletic events will be going strong while the pipe bands compete. The caber toss, the most famous of all Scottish athletic games, will be the main athletic event. In the caber toss, the athlete holds a tall post that is 16 to 20 feet long and weighs 80 to 130 pounds. The object of the game is to flip the caber (or pole) so that it falls end over end and lands away from the thrower. The throw is not judged according to distance, but rather by accuracy; a caber that lands in a straight line directly in front of the thrower is the ideal. The tosses are scored as though the caber were a hand on a clock, with 12:00 being a perfect score.
Other athletic events include the sheaf toss. Players must use a pitchfork to hurl a 16-pound burlap bag over a horizontal bar. After each round the bar is raised until there is only one player left.
Everyone is welcome to participate in the athletic events, but contenders must sign up before the games start at noon in order to get their names added to the roster.
A fun, family event
There will be lots of fun things for kids to do, too, including racing events and a mini caber toss. There will also be herding demonstrations with Border collies and sheep, an exhibit of Highland cattle, and a spinning demonstration where wool is turned into yarn.
Several booths will offer various Scottish wares. The British Shop, from Buffalo, will be selling bagpipes, kilts and highland wear, as well as bagpipe music, books, CDs, videos and even clan crests. The Cushing Bagpipe Company booth will feature instruments made by Mary’s stepfather, Mark Cushing, as well as kilts sewn by her mother, Kate. Other booths will offer jewelry and clothing for sale.
Traditional refreshments and all-day entertainment
No highland games would be complete without Scottish food and drink. Cameron’s Market of Kearny will travel from New Jersey to sell their famous meat pies and bridies. Meat pies are ground beef and spices in a pastry shell, while bridies are made of beef sausage and onions in a light puff pastry turnover.
As Life in the Finger Lakes went to press, plans were underway for a barbecue pit and vegan vendors. Ithaca Beer Company will be providing beer and soda, and may even put together a special brew for the event. Mary is also planning Glenfiddich Scotch tastings.
In the air-conditioned Pinecreek Lodge, performers are scheduled throughout the day. The lodge will feature a local Irish band, Irish and Scottish dancers, an Irish step band and a Celtic harpist.
The festival will close with a ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee), a traditional Gaelic party. In laymen’s terms, it means there’s going to be a dance at the end of the festival. Mary is hoping to book a local Irish fiddle band and a Scottish rock band to entertain the participants and visitors as they wind down from the day.
Plans for the future
The fact that it’s called The First Annual Ithaca Scottish Games and Celtic Festival indicates that Mary is committed to continuing this event in the future. However, there’s more on her wish list than highland games – she also wants to open a nonprofit Celtic school of the arts in the Ithaca area. “This will be a place where people of all ages can take lessons in dancing, drumming or piping,” she said.
Eventually she’d like to open a Celtic museum in the Finger Lakes, and perhaps start an Ithaca-based Scottish pipe band. All of these things are spinning in her mind for the future. But first she’s concentrating on bringing the highland games to the heart of the Finger Lakes.
Finger Lakes Pipe Bands
If it’s bagpipes you love, check out the websites of these Finger Lakes pipe bands to find out where they’ll be playing in the coming months.
Faedan Or Pipe Band
The Gates Keystone Club Police Pipes and Drums
Mohawk Valley Fraser Pipe Band
Rochester Scottish Pipes and Drums
Syracuse Kiltie Pipe Band
Syracuse Scottish Pipe Band
by Kari Anderson
Kari Anderson is a Celtic harpist and mother of a former bagpipe student. She is part Scottish and recently discovered her clan’s tartan (shown here), crest (an oak tree), and motto (“Stand Sure”).