WESTERLY — In what could be a stanza from a Robert Burns poem, the Rhode Island Scottish Highland Festival, which has brought thousands of bagpipers, fiddlers and kilt-clad lads and lassies of every plaid to the Washington County Fairgrounds to celebrate their shared Scottish heritage for decades, will be no more.
Essentially, said Daniel Hyland of Pawcatuck, one of the founders of the event, which attracted thousands of visitors to the state each year, it comes down to one thing — the lack of volunteers.
"The big thing is the volunteers," said Hyland, who first came up with the idea for the festival in 1998 at the Bean Counter, a since-shuttered coffee shop in downtown Westerly while talking about Scotland with a group of friends.
"It has become increasingly difficult to get volunteers," he said. "Then there's the rising costs, expenses, and declining interest."
"The expenses were really getting out of hand," Hyland said.
Joel Fuller of Preston, Conn., agreed. "Nobody wants to give their time or make a commitment any more," he said. Fuller and his wife, Janice, has served on the festival committee since the first festival, which took place on the grounds of Westerly High School.
"We're all getting old," said Fuller, who is 80. "And there are some members older than me."
Fuller said it took roughly 30 people to volunteer on the day of the festival, but volunteers were always needed before, during and after the event.
Fuller said Hyland traditionally took care of the press, while other volunteers arranged for the grounds, the music, the games, the vendors, the dancers, the musicians and the makers of the meat pies and haggis.
The festival, which had grown to become one of the premier Scottish festivals in the Northeast, typically featured demonstrations and dancing lessons, pipe-band competitions, the "Bonnie Knees" competition, highland dancers, drumming, and heavy athletics, where athletes tossed the caber, threw the stone and tossed bales of hay; an ancestry booth at the "Clan Village," a variety of Scottish foods and booths full of Scottish and Celtic merchandise.
"It's basically a year-round job," said Hyland, who praised the Town of Richmond, and "all the past volunteers and sponsors who have participated in the festival and made it possible for the last 20 years."
There is some good news in the sad announcement, Hyland said.
"The scholarship program is not closing down," he stressed, noting that the Scottish Heritage Society will continue to oversee the scholarship process.
The heritage society was incorporated in Rhode Island in 1998 to "foster, encourage, and assist our community and state in furthering their appreciation of the dance, music, athletics, and customs of the Scottish people and to the continuance of the Gaelic culture," according to its website.
"I still remember the first band we had," said Hyland with a hint of melancholy. "They were called 'The Wicked Tinkers,' and were made up of firefighters and EMTs from California."
"They went on to become huge," he said.