The Celtic/Scottish Festival - A Primer

What Happens at a Celtic/Scottish Festival?

This section describes some of the activities and terminology used in conjunction with a Scottish Highland Game or Festival.

  • Clan Related Events
  • Athletic Events
  • Dancing Events
  • Musical Events
  • Other Events
  • Further Information
  • For a listing of Scottish and Celtic events, see the Scottish and Celtic Festivals pages.


    Clan Related Events

    While the athletic and dancing competitions emphasize stamina, grace, style and physical ability, the Clan Related events are designed to provide non-competitors the opportunity to become part of the function. They celebrate our Scottish heritage and pride in our ancestors.

    Clan Tents. The clan tents are places where the public can learn more about their Scottish ancestors, heritage and history. The tent also provides a convenient base where refreshments, stories, shade and shelter are shared.

    Kirkin of the Tartan. The Kirkin of the Tartan is a religious service where the tartan and its heritage are blessed. The first record of such a service is from 1941 in Washington, DC. Tartan banners for all Clans, Families and Districts present are piped into the service site and blessed. The blessing praises the faith and fortitude of our Scottish ancestors and honors the traditions being celebrated.

    Tartan Parade. The Tartan Parade is typically integrated in one of the official ceremonies associated with the festival. In the parade, representatives from all clan and family associations march showing their tartan, banners and standards.

    Clan War Cry Rally The war cry rally is typically associated with the Tartan Parade. In the rally, the parade participants yell the war cry associated with their clan to the audience. Some clans will improvize by yelling humorous anecdotes.

    BridiesClan Rivalries. Scotland is famous for the rivalries between the different Clans. In celebration of this rich and bloodied history, many clans re-enact these rivalries through participation in shenanigans such as (stuffed) Sheep stealing, Campbell bashing, Whiskey-Napping and general hazing. It's all in fun - with the participants typically sharing food and drink afterwards such as the meat bridies shown in this photo.


    Athletic Events

    Celtic athletic competitions comprise the following categories: the Scottish Highland Athletic Competitions (or Heavy Events), team sports and traditional Celtic sporting events.

    The Heavy Events test the athletes strength, skill and endurance. Events containing the word Toss generally refer to competitions for height whereas events containing the word Throw are for distance.

    Turning The Caber. The caber is a 90 to 120 pound log, 16' to 20' in length, that is tossed end-over-end. Once the narrow end of the caber is vertivally balanced in the arms of the athlete, the athlete runs forward, stops and heaves the caber upward. The caber must spin in such a way that the large end hits the ground. The caber will then fall over with the narrow end falling away from the athlete. A perfect throw will land at the 12 o'clock position, straight away from the athelete that released it.

    Sheaf Toss. The sheaf toss involves hurling a bag of hay straight up into the air over an adjustable crossbar with a three-tyned pitchfork. The bag of hay weighs 16 to 20 pounds for men and 10 to 12 pounds for women. The winner is the athlete who tosses the sheaf the highest.

    Weight Throws. Men throw 28 and 56 pound weights for distance in this event. For women, the weights are 14 and 28 pounds. The athlete grasps the weight in one hand and begins swinging the weight from side to side. Once a bit of momentum is achieved, the athlete spins the weight around, usually twice, to impart additional momentum and releases the weight. The winner is the athlete who throws the weight the farthest.

    Weight Toss. Men will use a 56 pound weight, which is thrown for height, in this event. Women will use a 28 point weight. The athlete stands beneath an adjustable height crossbar, grasps the weight with one hand and swings the weight back and forth between the legs. On the final swing, the athlete brings the weight up in a smooth arc and releases the weight so that it will pass over the crossbar. The winner is the athlete who tosses the weight the highest.

    Stone Throw. A rounded stone, called a clachneart, weighing between 16 and 32 pounds for men and 8 to 12 pounds for women is thrown for distance in this event. Some athletes spin to gain momentum before releasing the stone, in much the same way a shot put is tossed, while others impart momentum via a forward glide. The winner is the athlete who throws the stone the farthest. As the weight of the actual stones used is so variable, distances achieved vary from festival to festival.

    Braemar Stone. This is similar to the Stone Throw except that the heavier stone must be "tossed" without the glide or spin.

    Hammer Throw. For this event, a metal ball is attached to a wooden handle, usually rattan, to create a hammer. The total length of the hammer must not exceed 4' 2" (50"). For men, the "light" hammer weighs 16 pounds and the "heavy" hammer weighs 22 pounds. For women, the "light" hammer weighs 12 pounds and the "heavy" hammer weighs 16 pounds. The athlete spins the hammer in a circular motion building up momentum. When ready, the hammer is released. The winner is the athlete who throws the hammer the farthest.

    Farmer's Walk. In the farmer's walk, the athlete picks up two weights, each weighing up to 150 pounds, and walks around series of pylons. The winner is the athlete who walks the farthest.

    Team events.

    Tug-of-war. The traditional tug-of-war with a Scottish flavor. All participants are kilted. Some games have teams from the various clans and families compete against one another. Others permit anyone to compete. the winner is the team that pulls the opposition past the center line.

    Seven-a-Side Rugby / Rugby 7's. Seven-a-Side Rugby, invented in the lowland Borders area of Scotland, is a streamlined version of the normal fifteen-a-side rugby played by the rugby football unions. Since the field is of normal size, and the playing rules remain the same, players must be in excellent shape to cover the field with half a regulation team.

    Traditional Celtic Sports are those sporting events that orginated centuries ago that are considered part of the "heavy" events.

    Battle Axe Throw. The battle axes used in the modern competition are frequently replicas of the type issued to the 78th Frasers Highlanders, a military regiment from the Highlands of Scotland. The axe is light enough to be used with one hand and heavy enough to dent or puncture armour. In the competition, axes are thrown at increasing distances towards a target. The winner is the individual who's ax, thrown from the greatest distance, strikes blade first in target center.

    Kilted Mile. The kilted mile is a scottish version of a traditional track event. In this race, the runner runs the entire race while wearing a kilt. The weight of the kilt adds an additional degree of challenge to this foot race. The winner is the individual crossing the finish line first.

    The Fell Race. The Fell race derives its name from the hills of Northern England where it was originally contested. It is a non-traditional endourance test of both running and cross-country skills over rough terrain. This cross country race typically features several natural and man-made barriers. These barriers can range from hurdling obstacles 18" in height to clinmbing mountain peaks.

    Kilted Golf. The Kilted Golf Tournament is a one day golf outing with participants wearing a kilt. Standard golf rules apply.

    Fly Casting. Since fly fishing is traditionally considered to have originated in Scotland, some events are now sponsoring Fly Casting competitions. The contestant casts towards a target with the winner being the individual who can cast into the target area from the greatest distance.

    Children's Games. Some events have competitions that mock Scottish athletic events. Others include special events like sack races, egg-and-spoon races, pillow fights and lawn bowling.

    Dancing Events

    Scottish dancing takes three basic forms. The first, folk dancing, involves both men and women and are frequently performed for recreation.. The other two, the Highland dances and the National dances, are traditionally individual events involving competitions.

    In judging the competition dances, the judges look for are the precision and timing of the steps in conjunction with the required arm and leg movements. The dance should appear relaxed and in control of all movemnts.

    The Folk Dances.

    Scottish Country Dancing. Scottish Country Dancing developed in the Lowlands of Scotland and was first accompanied by the fiddle. It is performed in rows with sets of partners facing each other and requires very intricate and precise footwork. It is typically a demonstration and audience participation event.

    Gaelic Step. The Gaelic Step resembles Appalachian Clog Dancing. A dancers arms are held at the side with heavy rhythmic stamping of the feet. The traditional Irish Step Dancing is somewhat similar.

    The Highland Dances. Highland Dancing s thought to have orginiated in the Highlands of Scotland around the 11th Century. The dances were originally performed by men and require a great deal of stamina. There are only four dances recognized by the Scottish Dance Teachers Alliance: the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, the Seann Truibhas. and the Reel.

    In judging the competition dances, the judges look for are the precision and timing of the steps in conjunction with the required arm and leg movements. The dance should appear relaxed and in control of all movemnts.

    Highland Fling. According to tradition, the Highland Fling was originally performed by the Highland warrier on his targe after battle. Accordingly, it is danced in one spot without travelling steps. The steps are simple but must be executed precisely with positions being strongly held. This dance is often considered to be the greatest test for the Highland Dance.

    Sword Dance. This dance was traditionally performed by the Highland warrior on the eve of the battle using the warrior's sword and scabbard. The sword and scabbard are crossed on the ground to define the dancing spot. According to legend, the warriors that were able to dance the Sword Dance without touching the sword with his feet would be successful in the approaching battle.

    Seann Truibhas. Seann triubhas, pronounced sheen trews, are the Gaelic words for "old trousers". This dance celebrates the lifting of the Act of Proscription, the law that forbade the wearing of the kilt by the common highlander. The dance symbolizes the kicking off of the hated trousers.

    Strathspey. The Strathspey dance begins at the slow tempo of the strathspey. The basic step is the same step used in Scottish Country Dancing combined with figure eight movements. Dancers are judged individually in this group dance.

    Highland Reel. The Highland Reel dances to the the fast tempo of the traditional Reel. Dancers are judged individually in this group dance.

    Half Tulloch or Full Tulloch. The Half Tulloch and Full Tulloch, which is also known as the Hullachan, is another format of the Reel. It is attributed to the movements of cold parishioners used to stay warm. The parishioners were waiting waiting outside the Church one cold morning for a rather tardy preacher. Dancers are judged individually in this group dance.

    The National Dances. Many of the National Dances were originally choreographed for women. The focus is more on grace than brute strength and stamina.

    Sailor's Hornpipe. Of Celtic origin, the Sailor's Hornpipe is a traditional solo dance known throughout to the British Isles. The name is derived from and English wind instrument made from an ox horn with a costume based on the historical British seaman. The dance depicts shipboard activities such as rope hauling, climbing, looking to the sea and being a bit tipsy.

    Irish Jig. The Irish Jig, while not a traditional Irish jig, is danced with controlled abandon. If it's danced by a female, the dance is supposed to represent an angry Irish washerwoman who's husband has been delayed at the local pub. If it's danced by males, it's the story of Paddy's Leather Breeches, which have shrunk because of a careless Irish washerwoman.

    Scottish National Dances. The National Dances are sedate with elegant movements. Traditionally, they were created solely to be danced by women. Many steps are taken from from classical ballet. The Scottish Lilt is a dance that is performed in a shortened version of the traditional 17th century women's attire (the arisaid over a white dress). Flora Macdonald's Fancy honors the national heroine who helped hide Charles Edward Stuart after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. The Scotch Measure is a graceful variation of the Fling. It can be danced solo or in pairs. The Earl of Erroll uses ballet steps to create a flowing movement with complicatd footwork.

    Musical Events

    Piping. Piping competition is a solo event with pipers competing at six skill levels. The judging is based on tuning, timing (including tempo and breaks between tunes), execution and expression. Competitions fall into two categories: the MSR (marches, strathspeys and reels) events and the piobaireachd (classical music for the pipes). Some functions also offer competition in the jig and hornpipe categories.

    Drumming. Drumming competition is a solo event with drummers competing at five skill levels. The judging is based on roll, tone, tempo, execution, rhythm/expansion, quality/variety and blend.

    Drum Major. A Drum Major competition is a solo event for the Drum Major. Since the drum major sets the tempo for band through swinging of mace (staff), this competition is used to help create consistency between drum majors. The drum major must compete in full dress and is judged on that dress, their deportment or general conduct and their flourish (manipulation of the mace).

    Pipe Band. A Pipe Band competition is a band event where a specified minimum number of pipers and drummers are required. Each band must play a medley of tunes where the types of tunes required will depend on the caliber or grade of the pipe band. In addition, the higher the level of competition, the longer the band will play. Three judges will determine each bands standing within the competition. The judges evaluate a number of areas including how well the tunes selected were played versus how difficult the tunes are to play, the quality of tuning for the pipes at the beginning and end of the set, and the musical nature of the selected tunes (eg do the selected tunes flow easily from one to the next).

    Massed Band. The Massed Band ceremony is when all particpating pipe bands parade together playing a common medley of pipe tunes. Traditionally, the massed band will perform simple maneuvers on the parade field. The medley consists of popular bagpipe tunes.

    Celtic Harp (Clarsach). In the Highlands, the harp, or clarsach, accompanied the clan chiefs into battle until the bagpipes took over this roll in the 16th century. The clan harper would perform for both happy and sad occasions. TBS

    Scottish Fiddle. A Scottish fidle competition consists of the following pieces: Air, March, Strathspey and Reel. TBS

    Scottish Folk Music. TBS

    Other Events

    Over the years, many uniquely Scottish events have evolved and become regular features at Games and Festivals across North America. Some involve actual competitions while others offer a variety style show with an in-house audience.

    Sheep Dog Trials. Sheep Dog Trials are really a competition examining a dog's working ability as each dog works sheep or other livestock in a prescribed course. The dogs must be controlled only by the whistle tones from its master. The winner is the dog with the best time in in successfully driving the sheep through the course.

    Scottish/Celtic Canine and Feline Breeds. These dog and cat shows feature competitions between Scottish/Celtic breeds, not just the commonly seen border collies. Some of the canine competitions feature exhibitions where dogs are competing in AKC sanctioned events.

    Scottish Animals. Some functions make arrangements with nearby ranchers and farmers to bring Scottish breed livestock for exhibition. This includes cattle (the Scottish Highland Steer or Red Angus, the Belted Galloway), horses (the Clydesdales) and sheep (Jacobs Sheep). Often, these animals are part of a petting zoo for children.

    Spinning and Weaving. Many of the larger functions now feature a spinning and weaving demonstration where wool is turned into yarn and then woven into cloth. Often, a lecture is given to the audience as part of the demonstration.

    Ceilidh. The Ceilidh is a variety show that features examples of traditional music and dance. Typically, it features folk music, pipe music, fiddling, country dancing and highland dancing. Some are structured and feature professional entertainers. There is usually a supplimentary charge for admisison to this event.

    Tattoo. The Tattoo is very similar to the Ceilidh except that the performers are typically part of a military regiment. In addition to the music and dancing, athletic ability and endurance are featured. There is usually a supplimentary charge for admisison to this event.

    Story Telling. Story Telling is a relatively new activity for most events. Story tellers relay the almost-lost oral history of the Celtic lands and its peoples. Typically, this activity is associated with an entertainment program for children.

    Tartan Ball. The Tartan Ball is a formal event where formal Highland Dress is often required. Scottish Country Dancing is featured to the accompaniment of live Scottish music.

    Whiskey Tasting. Whiskey Tasting is just as the name implies - adult patrons are able to sample different Scotch Whiskeys. This often includes both the single malts and the more common blends. There may be a supplimentary charge for participation in this event.

    Celtic Art. Some events provide space to Celtic artists to show their work. This can include items paintings, photography, jewelry, and sculpture. Often, these works are for sale.

    Living History. The Living History exhibition is a re-enactment of life from a specific period of Celtic history. The group builds an encampment based on available materials for the specified period and demonstates this lifestyle to the event visitor. Re-enactment ranges from a simple camp through orchestrated manuevers.

    Tossing The Wellie. According to non-verifiable tradition, this competition arose as the result of men coming home tracking mud into the house. In retaliation, women threw boots at the men. The modern competition is one for distance where a "Wellington" (boot) is thrown.

    The Haggis Hurl. Another non-verifiable tradistion is associated with the haggis hurl. This tradition tells of women tossing lunch (a haggis) across a stream to their husbands. In the moden version, a "haggis" (a soft two pound bag that may, or may not, be real) is tossed for distance and accuracy from atop a barrel or platform. At some festivals, this typically women only event features competitions between teams from the various clans and families.

    Bonnie Knees Contest. Judges, typically female and blindfolded at some events, are asked to rate the portion of the male leg that is exposed between the hose and the bottom edge of the kilt. Some functions have specialized awards for "Boniest" and "Most Dimpled" knees.

    Further Information

    For more detail on many of these activities, see The Scottish Highland Games in America by Emily Ann Donaldson, Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, Louisiana, 1986, ISBN 0-88289-474-9.

    This site is maintained by the Clan MacLachlan Association of North America, Inc.
    This page was last updated on June 17, 2011.

    © 1996-2011 Clan MacLachlan Association of North America, Inc.