A hot time in the Heelands

How I could spend all day surrounded by kilts and other clan tartans and not come away with a single decent photo showing one is beyond me.

We’ve been looking forward to the 63rd Annual Scottish Highland Games and Gathering of the Clans at Enumclaw. I’ve a bit o’ the Celt in me on me mum’s side. Mom’s maiden name will here remain nameless, but it is a derivation of the storied appellation of Clan McDougall. If there was a broohaha my mom’s ancestors marched with the MacDougalls and fought under the MacDougall colors. In return the “Lords of Lorn” provided a measure of neighborly security.

If I was a better Celt this sign would have made me hungry. As it was, I imagined a rugby team.

If I was a better Celt this sign would have made me hungry. As it was, I imagined a rugby team.

My family drove down to see “the Games” a few years in a row when I was a teenager and I was captivated by all of it — the tartans, the pasties (pronounced with a short a as in “pasture”), the musicians and storytellers, the games themselves (caber toss, hammer toss, haggis toss, etc.), the girls dancing above the swords, the booths where you can pick up a kilt or a claymore with which to cleave the skull of thine enemies — the whole Celtic enchilada. I once bought a MacDougall tartan necktie, which is tomato red and goes best with a white shirt and a kilt, or maybe a black shirt and a kilt, or maybe even a dark green shirt and a kilt. I never owned a kilt (don’t have the knees f’rit), and so never wore the tie. I also talked to the MacDougall clan representatives and learned that, at the time, the clan was led by a chieftainess, and that the clan’s headquarters was in Oban, Scotland. I was told then that I would be welcome at any MacDougall gathering, and that if I was ever in Oban I should drop by. I never got there.

We thought Mara might be intrigued by girls just a little older than herself performing the traditional sword dances in colorful traditional garb, and so today we borrowed Lily, Mara’s friend from nextdoor (also four years old), and headed south. We’ve had a drought this year. It stopped raining in April, three months earlier than usual, and now we’re heading into a heat wave. The Games take place at the King County Fairgrounds, which I don’t think has a single tree on it. The dance and piping competitions take place in huge, open, fields of grass, the athletic games in a huge, open, field of dirt. By the time we got to Enumclaw the sun was swelteringly hot, and by the time we got from the car to the Avenue of the Clans, Mara and Lily looked as though they’d been marched across the Sahara.

We met up with my folks, who had driven down from their home in Issaquah. Dad was a sport to subject himself to so much walking in this heat, but he came with a shady hat and a good attitude. My mom was excited. She has wanted to get back to the Highland Games for many years, but it has always been the same weekend as the West Coast branch annual reunion (really just a potluck picnic) of my dad’s (English and German) side of the family. For various reasons, the gathering of THAT clan, which has taken place at Matthew’s Beach for the last 15 years or so, was not observed this year.

Not the photo I wanted, but these lads were stepping high, wide and handsome. And they're really girls.

Not the photo I wanted, but these lads were stepping high, wide and handsome.

We arrived just in time to see young girls competing in the sword dances. This is like ballet meets Celtic faerie kick-boxing. The leaping scissory kicks — all performed with arms raised wreathing their heads — seemed impossible in this temperature. I wish I had gotten a photo of it but we didn’t tarry there long. Mara and Lily watched interestedly for a few minutes, but the sun baked us on the bleachers and they began to fidget. And I didn’t get any shots of the marching pipe bands, either. The heat and the crowds, through which it seemed to require both of my hands to navigate even one of the four-year-olds, disinclined me to drag out the camera. I kept thinking I’d do it later, after we’d found shade, food, and the bathrooms. But the quest for these things seemed to take up the entire day as the heat just got worse and we seemed to be moving in slow motion. The crowd was a river of sweat and Royal Stewart plaid flowing by in all directions. It seemed that even the visitors all had their “plaidies” on.

The “Scottish Farm”, usually a shed full of kid-friendly animals, turned out, by dint of a compounded fiasco, to consist this year of a single cow. Fine. We turned to go look at the rabbits (shady, inside, cool less hot), but the rabbits turned out to be a red herring. There were no rabbits. The “RABBITS” sign I had espied was just a permanent sign for the fairgrounds that I had mistaken for something particular to this event. We moved on to something we were anticipating called “the Isle of the Wee Bairns”, which sounded promising but turned out to be just an opportunity for small children to toss the caber. The caber toss is where you pick up a telephone pole , run with it standing on end in the palms of your hands in front of you, then hurl it end over end. In 90 degree heat. I couldn’t see Mara and Lily raising the testosterone for this.

Colin Grant-Adams, balladeer and right regular Scot

Colin Grant-Adams, balladeer and right regular Scot

By then we needed food, so my folks and I got pasties and the girls got hot dogs. While waiting for balladeer Colin Grant-Adams to sing and play guitar, I found the MacDougall clan booth and talked for a few minutes to Martin “Mac” MacDougall, the Northwest Commissioner for the clan, and learned that the clan at large is chiefed now by the niece of Caroline (I think he meant Coline), who was the chieftainess when I used to come to the Games. The niece now presiding lives in London, of all places, but goes up to Oban for special celebrations and ceremonies. She has a son and a daughter. According to a time-honored tradition, the son will accede to the position when his mother passes, but Mac says there is a debate of some heat raging on the East Coast (of the U.S.) because some folks think that the son, a computer enthusiast, isn’t really chieftain material. Mac doesn’t think that it’s really any of our (statesiders’) business. Mac told me also that when he visited Oban, he was fortunate to lay his eyes upon the Brooch of Lorn, which some MacDougall of yore tore from the cloak of Robert the Bruce in a skirmish from which the Bruce barely escaped alive and his assailant did not. The brooch has been a clan treasure for centuries. I found all this interesting and wished I could have chatted longer with him.

We didn’t even get to see the games. We listened to Mr. Grant-Adams for a while, who had the decency to play in a large shady tent. Mara and Lily twirled around to his guitar and lilting vocals and did the hand motions to “Sam the Skull”. Both girls fell and scratched themselves up on the pavement, and after getting Lily’s wound dressed in the First Aid Hut (!) we headed for the parking lot, stopping only long enough to look at some dancing laddies in sailor suits, who Angela later informed me were not lads at all but in fact lassies. All in all, one of the most disappointing outings I’ve ever been on, considering what fun I’d had there in the past. I’m sure the kids loved it, though, and I’m sure my mom was happy to attend this event again, despite the heat. She bought the girls each a flowered hairband with trailing ribbons.

Sadly, my best shot of the day was inside the First Aid Hut. Lily gets a bandaid.

Sadly, my best shot of the day was inside the First Aid Hut. Lily gets a bandaid.


6 Responses to “A hot time in the Heelands”

  1. 1 Kip July 26, 2009 at 16:27

    I have heard of the heat in Seattle this year! It must be something else, what with the humidity! Here in Boise, we have a similar event, held in September, when the weather can either be nice and hot, or nice and rainy! Two years ago we went during a cold day with a little drizzle (I love being from Seattle…it takes quite a lot of rain to get me down, and folks from around these parts can get a little testy with wet weather!), last year was hot and Ami was QUITE pregnant so we skipped it. I must say, I’ll go anywhere for a good Pipe and Drum corp….love the bagpipes I do!

    • 2 jstwndrng July 26, 2009 at 19:39

      Yes, we’re a dessicated lot this year, we Seattlites. I haven’t complained much, because the winter was absolutely besotted, and it’s been kind of nice for once not to be shivering and wet in May and June. It hasn’t been unbearably hot or humid up until now (at least that’s my impression, but then, what do I know; I sit in climate controlled cubicle most days sucking recycled air).

  2. 3 Louis July 27, 2009 at 10:36

    Aye, twas a bonnie posting despite ye heat, MacDougall!

    I had a girlfriend who was of the Campbell clan. I once went to a family function where there was a couple in attendance of the MacDonald clan. I learned that evening about the long bitter rivalry between these two families. And while there was a lot of good natured ribbing going on, I detected the slightest underlying tension.

    I’m with Kip. I love a good pipe and drum corp..my alma mater in B.C., Simon Fraser University, had a world champion bagpipe band. Did either of you ever see the Royal Canadian Military Tattoo that used to pass through Seattle in the 60’s/70’s? It was this huge military pageant with pipes and drums and marching and all sorts of other pomp and circumstance…

    • 4 jstwndrng July 27, 2009 at 16:52

      I don’t recall any tattoos moving about by themselves, and I confess that I’m flummoxed trying to imagine what that would look like. I might have to look up the word and see what I’m missing.

      I heard on the radio a few years back that the decendants of the Hatfield and McCoy disputants put on a joint hootenanny back in the Tug River Valley and spitted a pig for auld lange syne. Also I read a book recently about the whole H/M feud business (well researched but drably written, alack!) and was amazed at how different the real story is from the version that I’ve had in my head all these years, which I think I got from watching Bugs Bunny. Still, with the Campbells and McDonalds, you’re lucky the claymores didn’t come out at that soiree you mentioned.

  3. 5 Louis July 27, 2009 at 20:14

    The Tattoo first appeared at the Seattle World’s Fair performing at Memorial Stadium. After the fair, they would come to town and perform in the Coliseum every year or so up until the early 70’s. My father would always take us to see the Tattoo, even driving up to Vancouver one time to see them perform at Empire Stadium.

    The Tattoo is still around but on a much smaller scale. Their website explains their use of the word “tattoo”:


    And just for fun: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hei9vPFVDJs

    • 6 jstwndrng July 28, 2009 at 03:22

      Oh, so it comes from “tap to”. As in “make the tap shut”. Thing number seven today that I never knew before. German has a similar usage, where you “make the door to” to shut it. Loved the BB cartoon. That clip starts midway through the episode, but I think it’s definitely the Hatfield/McCoy episode I was thinking of. I’m surprised I didn’t turn out violent with that kind of stuff going on in front of me when I was four.

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