Scottish Highland Festival celebrates heritage — and haggis

Scottish Highland Festival celebrates heritage — and haggis


RICHMOND — Kilts of all sizes and colors were the dress code of choice on Saturday as entertainers, vendors and residents flocked to the Washington County Fairgrounds for the 16th annual Rhode Island Scottish Highland Festival.

The celebration of Scottish Highland heritage and culture featured an assortment of traditional events, from pipe-and-drum-band competitions to athletic events such as the log toss and stone throws, as well as harp demonstrations and of course, haggis. No matter man or woman, from professional bagpipers to small children, plaid skirts — often accompanied by beribboned, white knee socks — abounded. With the sun shining overhead, many kilt-wearers said their fashion choice was not only appropriate, but it provided welcome relief from the heat.

“It’s a little heavy, but the breeze you get when you’re wearing a kilt is actually pretty nice,” said Robert Sims, a resident of Northbridge, Mass., who competed in the heavy athletic events. While Sims chose sneakers (turning gray from the caked-on mud), black biking shorts and a black t-shirt to complete his outfit, he also donned the traditional kilt as he participated in the hammer throw and caber (long, skinny tree trunk) toss, among other events.

While Sims’ garment was polyester, bagpiper Tom O’Mara’s brown-and-red plaid ensemble represented the County Curran tartan from Ireland. O’Mara and the other members of Claddagh Mhor, an Irish pipe-and-drum band, traveled from Portland, Maine, this year to play in the festival for the third time.

“It’s terrific, and it gets bigger every year,” O’Mara said.

The band travels to Celtic festivals throughout the region to play and to compete in their pipe-and-drum competitions, and it also performs at weddings, parades and even funerals, O’Mara explained. He said the tune “The Minstrel Boy” is his favorite, because it was played at his father’s funeral. With more than 10 performances each year, O’Mara said the band members spend a large amount of time on the road, or practicing for their performances.

“It’s a big commitment, but the music, that makes it all worth it.”

For fellow member John Henkel, the authentic outfit provides an added benefit.

“It’s very comfortable,” he said of the kilt, though he added that the black tuxedo vest was uncomfortably warm. “I wear it to weddings all the time.”

For sisters Anne Kenyon and Helen Baker, both of Hopkinton, the festival brought back memories of their late mother, who was from Scotland.

“We’ve always wanted to go to do this, but this is the first year we’ve had the same free time,” said Baker, who said the demonstration and explanation of ancient Scottish weapons was her favorite part of the festival.

The sisters, who once visited Scotland with their mother, recalled several memorable “growing up with a Scottish mom” moments from their childhood.

“Whenever we would see old women all dressed up, she would say, ‘mutton dressed up as lamb,’ ” Baker said.

“They did that a lot, tried to sell mutton as lamb,” Kenyon added.

Both said they tried to pass on their heritage and traditions to their children, though it proved more difficult with their mother gone.

“We’ve lost the accent,” Baker said. “But it’s still music to my ears.”

Scotland native Kirsten Baxter, who now lives in New Jersey, attested to the authenticity of the festival as well.

“It’s pretty well done,” she said.

“Except much warmer and less rainy,” chimed in her daughter, Eiliah Kawne. Eiliah, 13, and her 10-year-old sister, Skye, came with their Celtic dance school to perform at the festival. Their upbringing, however, was the true source of their Scottish traditions. And yes, it included eating haggis, the dish that is much-maligned by those who haven’t tried it and is defined by as “a large spherical sausage made of the liver, heart and lungs of a sheep ... packed into a sheep’s stomach and boiled.”

“I love it,” Eiliah said. “I had some earlier, and I just inhaled it.”

While the sisters, who will be visiting their grandparents in Scotland next week, were well-acquainted with Scottish cuisine, Niantic residents Jack and Darlene Dwire were less familiar.

“What’s that again?” Darlene Dwire said when asked if she had tried the haggis. “We’re not that adventurous,” she clarified upon learning the ingredients.

Despite his attire, Sims was also still learning about the culture, having only begun competing in the Scottish athletic events last year after learning about his own Scottish roots.

“I wanted to see if I could still bring the hurt,” he said of his motivation to become involved. Since last October, Sims has competed in three festival events, the Braemar stone throw being his best, he said.

A civil engineer at architectural and engineering firm CDR Maguire, Sims said he spends his lunch breaks training for the competitions in his office stairwell with stair runs, push-ups, sit-ups and box jumps.

“It’s mostly about mid-core strength,” he said of the events, adding that he has lost 40 pounds since he began training.

The event also featured a wide variety of merchandise from local vendors, including tartan scarves, flags and other Celtic memorabilia, as well as educational posters and signs about historical Scottish clans. For the less adventurous palettes, more traditional food included fries and chicken, as well as chowder and clam cakes. Live entertainment from Runa, The America Rogues and soloist Charlie Zahm was also provided.

The annual festival is sponsored by the Scottish Heritage Society, a nonprofit foundation.

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