A wee bit of Scotland will be in southwestern Pennsylvania on Saturday, when the 54th annual Ligonier Highland Games come to Idlewild Park.
Those who attend will be able to watch Scottish athletic competitions such as the caber, or log, toss; sample Scottish food; shop for Celtic wares; hear Scottish music; listen to stories told by Barra the Bard; observe Scottish dancing, piping and drumming competitions; walk through the Scottish-breed dog exhibit and competition; and visit clan tents to explore Scottish family genealogy.
"The games started as a Scottish picnic at Kennywood in 1959, where it remained for seven years," said Rick Wonderly, executive director of the games. "By 1966, organizers wanted to add athletic events and felt that Kennywood was a little too small. John MacDonald, then owner of Idlewild Park and himself a Scot, suggested the use of the park for the event."
For the first three years at Idlewild in Ligonier, attendance lagged until Dave Peet took over as executive director. Mr. Peet was able to get more sponsors and bring in the Eastern U.S. Pipe Band Association, which governs the competition and grading of the pipers from amateur to professional.
"By 1977, we got so big we took up the entire main field while the park remained open to the public for its regular season," Mr. Wonderly said. "After that, we had the use of the entire park on a weekend Idlewild was closed.
"Over the years, we've held the national championships for individual piping, for pipe bands and for the athletic games."
This year, the games will host the Scottish Harp Society National Competition, which will start at 9 a.m. in Pavilion C-7 and continue until 3 or 4 p.m.
"Scottish harpists will come in from all over the country for the competition," said Mr. Wonderly, who describes the Scottish harp as "smaller and higher pitched than a standard harp."
The welcoming ceremonies with massed bands and the parade of clans starts at noon.
The heart of the games are the athletic competitions, which, in addition to the caber toss, include the stone toss, hammer toss and weight throws.
Dave Strunk, athletic director since 2005, said professionals and amateurs come to the games from all over the world.
Strenuous tests of skill and strength, the competitions will run from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and end with a tug-of-war on the main field that is open to everyone.
The caber toss starts with the competitor holding the lighter end of a log that weighs 95 to 100 pounds and is at least 19 feet long between his feet. Other men "walk" the log up to him until it attains a vertical position. The tosser then runs with it and, at a certain point, plants his feet and tosses the log forward.
"The perfect toss is when the heavy end plants nearest him and the lighter end points in the 12 o'clock position directly in front of him," Mr. Strunk said.
Other competitions include throwing a 17-pound fieldstone, heaving a steel weight on the end of a chain, and throwing a 16- to 22-pound Scottish hammer. The last event of the competitions, ominously called "the widow maker," involves swinging a weight between the legs to build momentum, then tossing it with one hand over a bar 10 feet high. For each subsequent toss, the bar is raised an additional foot.
"The competitions are based on Scottish military necessity, as a way to pick the best men to lead the troops in time of war," Mr. Strunk said.
Two years ago, the Lord Lyon of Scotland attended the games as Queen Elizabeth II's representative. The visit marked the first time Lord Lyon, in charge of the court that decides all heraldic matters for Scotland, attended games outside the United Kingdom.
"Scottish clan membership is matriarchal, meaning a husband joins his wife's clan at the time of his marriage," Mr. Wonderly said. "The Lord Lyon and his court decides such things as who inherits the title of clan chief, makes official new clans and resurrects inactive clans."
Following the games, a Ceilidh, or social gathering, will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Ramada Inn in Greensburg. The Ceilidh will include a Scottish buffet and live music by a Pittsburgh-based Celtic quintet called Callan and guitarist and folk singer Ed Miller.
Cost of the Ceilidh is $40 for adults, $15 for children. Seating is limited. Reservations required: 1-814-931-4714.
Tickets for the Ligonier Highland Games are $20 for adults, $18 for age 55 and older, $10 for ages 9-15, and free to those age 8 and younger. Two dollars of every ticket will go to the Clan Donald Educational and Charitable Trust, used for scholarships for Scottish dancing, piping and drumming and for an American student to pursue studies in Scotland.
For information and a schedule of events: ligonierhighlandgames.org.
Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: email@example.com