Since I finally have a chance to catch my breath, I’m also catching up on a few blog posts. A couple of weekends ago I had the opportunity to attend the Skagit Valley Highland Games, sponsored by the Mount Vernon Celtic Arts Foundation. I almost didn’t go. We were busy packing and I’d been to the Greenville games so many times. I’m glad I did, and I wound up participating much more than I thought I would.
What finally changed my mind? I saw that there were several music workshops at the games that I thought might be of interest. Plus, I was getting freaked out by everything that needed to be done and I needed a break from the house.
I headed over to Edgewater Park early, actually before the games were scheduled to open. After a misstep or two I found VERY close parking. Sometimes it pays to be early. The gates were open and folks were already wandering about, so I headed on in.
My first stop was the Ceilidh Tent. My friends Patty Dunn and Margaret Driscoll were busy setting up for the day’s activities. I’d be spending most of my time here.
From there I wander over the rest of the rounds, checking out the food vendors, Celtic Crap™ vendors, games grounds, and clan tents. For good measure I wandered down to the Skagit River boat launch. Looking out over the water my thoughts were that I had yet to put a boat on this river. I guess that will have to wait until another visit.
Back in the park things were slowly coming to life. I headed back to the Ceilidh Tent where they had an “instrument petting zoo” underway. There were drums, pipes, whistles, fiddles, and banjos available. I picked up the banjo and started jamming with a cellist I’d met up at the Bellingham Folk Festival. I switched to low D whistle, then high D and we kept playing several tunes. I even picked up a fiddle and made a passing attempt at a melody. I was having fun, but I soon relinquished my spot to the younger kids.
At 10:00 am Margaret Driscoll led a bodhran workshop. I’d brought mine, but left it in the car. I was planning to retrieve it in time for the workshop, but when I saw what Margaret had in mind, I decided to leave my drum and use her method. She had gotten a stack of Dominos Pizza boxes to use as drums. Large pencils would be the tippers. Very clever, and a heck of a lot cheaper than providing everyone with drums.
I got my bodhran for my birthday back in December, but I hadn’t quite gotten the hang of it. Margaret’s workshop was great and somehow it just clicked with me. Even if it was just a pizza box, I was playing much better. A fiddler from Bellingham joined us so that we could practice playing patterns for jigs, reels, strathspeys, and marches.
I even gained enough confidence that later in the day between sessions we did a few tunes with Margaret on fiddle, Patty on mandolin, and me on bodhran.
Margaret was leading a fiddle workshop right after the drumming. I stuck around for a couple of minutes, then wandered out to see what else was happening.
Just out from the Ceilidh tent there was a Scottish Heritage tent where folks could ask genealogy researchers from the Skagit County Historical Society about tracing their Scottish roots. My friend Susan was assisting with that tent. I said hello and chatted with her and her husband, then moved on to the next tent.
Next up was the Harp Tent. Susan is a harpist in our Scottish sessions, so she was actually running back and forth between the Heritage and Harp tents. There were performances and demonstrations schedule for this venue. Between times you could try out a harp. I really wanted to play one, but there was quite a line and I still had lots to see.
First up were the vendor tents. There were Clark Tin Whistles, tartans, utilikilts, and all manor of other Celtic merchandise. Some of it was good quality, some not so much, all of it pricey.
What struck me was the number of edged weapons vendors. My first thought was, “So THIS is where all the weapons from Forged in Fire wind up!” There were broad swords, Claymores, dirks, daggers, and anything in between. Damascus steel seemed to be really big with the smaller knives. They even had Katana swords and a Klingon bat’leth. I’m still trying to figure out how those fit into Scottish heritage.
From there I wandered over to the clan tents. There were quite a few, some more elaborate than others. I found the Cameron Clan tent and checked in with them. It didn’t look like too many of them had come for these games. The Camerons have been missing from the Greenville games for a couple of years now.
On the far side of the clan tents the piping and Scottish dancing competitions were underway. Various piping groups had their tents set up. The dance competition was full blown “dance mom” hell.
It was still early for lunch, but I wanted to avoid lines. There were lots of options, most of them having nothing to do with Scottish fare.
Yes, there was haggis. However, I opted for a meat pie with steak and mushrooms.
I took my lunch, found a spot of shade under a tent, then settled in to watch the opening ceremonies. Skye Richtnfr is a man who makes up for his lack of vowels with a tremendous knowledge about piping and Scottish heritage. I’ve gotten to know Skye through the Scottish sessions and have enjoyed playing in sessions with him. Skye had been mayor of Mount Vernon and now serves as director of the Celtic Arts Foundation and the Littlefield Celtic Center. In that capacity he served as master of ceremonies for the opening of the games.
Rather than a mass pipe band as there is in the Greenville Games, they had one host pipe band lead the parade of clans. As they marched I recognized the tunes as ones that I’d played from the Tartan Top 20. There’s much more to piping than just “Scotland the Brave” and “Amazing Grace.”
Clans marched by with their banners and Skye called each one as it passed. I noticed that there were only three marching with the Camerons and I almost jumped up and joined them.
The pipers and clans assembled in front of the main stage. Anthems for both the Canada and the US were sung, as is tradition in this region. This was followed by “The Lament.” A lone piper played while Skye read the makes of those from clans who had died during the year.
There were a few more formalities, then Skye declared the games open. The groups marched back out.
I watched a bit of the games, watched some of the sheep herding dogs, then headed back to the Ceilidh tent. After cooling down a bit I decided I’d had enough and headed on back to the car. I’d be back the next day.
I took a break from Scottish/Celtic activities to enjoy an evening jamming with my friends from BYOI at Jeremiah and Joy’s house. It was a great evening of friends and music. Here’s a video of us playing our traditional final song, “Wagon Wheel:”
…but back to the Scottish stuff…
Day two of the games I didn’t get there quite as early and had to park across the street. I didn’t have my bodhran, but I did have my tin whistle with me. This morning I would be attending a workshop with Finlay MacDonald on the whistle.
I wandered over to the Ceilidh tent and found several of my friends from the Littlefield sessions already there. Sisters Sarah and Christina, Barry the autoharp player, Margaret, Patty, Cayley Schmidt, and a teenage fiddler named Johann were all there. Skye dropped by to say hello as well.
Margaret demonstrated what she called “fiddle sticks,” which, in this case, meant chop sticks As one person fiddles on a specially tuned instrument, another tops a rhythm on the neck of the instrument producing a sound similar to a hammered dulcimer.
Soon it was time for the next workshop. Finlay MacDonald is the director of the National Piping Center in Glasgow. He would be giving performances during the games, but this morning he was leading the whistle workshop.
Finlay played a low D whistle, and most of the folks had similar instruments. Some, like me, had high D whistles. The workshop was excellent. Finlay led us through some basic techniques and taught a tune or two.
This video isn’t a demonstration of his playing skills, but rather a recording of the tune he taught us so that I can try to remember it. He first plays the tune straight through, then with ornamentations.
I’d be spending much more time with Finlay later on in the week. For now, though, it was time for something different. I grabbed a non-Scottish gyro for lunch and looked for a spot of shade. The alcohol area seemed the perfect place. I even purchased a ticket for the whisky tasting a bit later. As I sat under the tent my BYOI friends Scott and Staci joined me. I hung out there enjoying lunch and their company until time of the tasting.
The tasting was conducted by Ari Shapiro, aka “The Whisky Guy.” Those of us with tickets were ushered in and assigned seats in front of the tiniest samplings of whisky.
Starting with a smooth Aberlough, Ari showed us how to look for “legs” along the edge of the glass, how to smell, then taste.
As with wine tastings I’ve attended, this one moved from the smooth and relatively simple Aberlough to more complex flavors. I could taste the smokiness of a couple and thought that these would be good when we have the occasional cigar.
Our tasting was interrupted by the Gathering of the Clans. It was an exact repeat of yesterday’s march. The clans marched in led by a pipe band, anthems were sung, then the lament was held. I was just as happy to enjoy the coolness of the whisky tent.
The session was quite educational and worth the price of the ticket, even though we didn’t get to drink much whisky. That’s probably a good thing. I might not have been able to drive home with five glasses of whisky under my belt. I could have purchased a larger quantity from the drinks vendor, but I had other places to go.
I headed back to the Ceilidh tent to find a music circle in full swing. I still had my whistle with them, so I joined in.
At 1:00 Cayley Schmidt, former director of the Bellingham Folk School, did a session on tunes for fiddles. She taught several tunes, and while mostly fiddles were in attendance, there were a few of us with other instruments.
There would be a Scottish music session starting at 3:00 and running until the close of the show. However, Laura was panicking that I had already spent this much time away from packing. I needed to get back home.
However, I wasn’t done with Scottish music. I had signed up for a longer workshop on whistles with Finlay MacDonald on Tuesday afternoon. This was held at the Littlefield Center. Finlay repeated some of the things he covered in Sunday’s session but went into more depth. He also taught us several tunes.
I appreciated Finlay’s relaxed attitude toward playing. He seemed like he was just enjoying the music. I learned quite a bit, even though I did get a headache from the out-of-tune whistle sitting next to me.
It was a great week of Scottish music and I’m glad I took some time off from packing duties to attend these events. I’d have one more Scottish practice session before our departure.
A few final thoughts about the games themselves…
I can’t help but draw comparisons between the Skagit Games and the Greenville Games. However, it’s like comparing apples and oranges. The competition events are about the same – the caber toss, sheep herding, dancing, piping, etc. The number of clans and vendor tents seem about the same. The Skagit Games don’t have the awe and spectacle of the mass pipe bands of the Greenville Games (though Duff assures me that they have in the past.) Since the Greenville Games are always on Memorial Day Weekend there are more military overtones than I’d like. Unless you’re doing one of the competitions, there isn’t much participatory activity in the Greenville Games. In the Skagit Games the sessions were what made it worthwhile.
In both the Skagit and Greenville Games I’ve seen all sorts of people in attendance. You get those that just want to come watch the games and events. You get those, like me, with some passing Scottish heritage that check in with the clan tents and enjoy the games, but aren’t ready to go full-kilt. Then you get those like my young friend Johan and his father, who proudly wear their clan tartans all weekend.
Then you get those that just see this as an excuse for cosplay. There are the Braveheart wannabees, but that seems to be dying out a bit. There seems to be more influence from Game of Thrones – not Scottish, per se, but a longing for an olden time when people swung large edged weapons at each other. You could even buy Steampunk leather and clothing at the Scottish games. I even saw a few pirates wandering about. Heck, if they’re having fun, who cares? I laugh at their silliness and historical inaccuracies, but I’m not going to be the one to tell them that they are having fun the wrong way. Even those in the traditional kilts of their clans are engaging in cosplay to some degree.
I had a blast at the games and I’m glad I went. My compliments to Skye, Patty, Margaret, Susan, and the rest of the crew from the Celtic Arts Foundation for putting on such a great weekend. I’ve gotten much more involved in Scottish music than I ever thought I would, but I’m still not ready to pick up a set of pipes and don a utili-kilt…not yet, at least.