The Quechee Scottish Games and Festival we all know and love have been entertaining attendees for 45 years here in Vermont, but their history goes back much farther than that – over 700 years ago!
The Scottish Games themselves date back to 1314 when they were called Ceres Highland Games, held every year in the Scottish town of Ceres. These games were possibly founded by Scotland’s first king, Robert the Bruce, to reward the Ceres village men who fought with him in the battle for independence from England. Except for during the COVID-19 lockdown, these games have continued in Ceres without interruption since 1314.
Here in Quechee, the one-day event is held every August at the Quechee Polo Field and features piping, pipe/drum bands, Highland dancing, sheepdog trials, Scottish food and family clan booths, and Highland athletics. At the opening ceremony each year, the piper band leads the clans onto the field for the ancient “Calling of the Clans.” This August 26th, the Games will host 30 Scottish clans including familiar names such as Chattan, Cumming, and MacDuffee. The bands, the opening ceremonies, and the calling of the clans are St. Andrew’s Society of Vermont member Cedric Farrow’s favorite part of the Games, “The clans all have representatives, and they march in and the master of ceremonies calls all the clans by name and they answer.” Sometimes, Farrow adds, the clans have a motto that they will shout in response. The motto of Farrow’s clan, Mackay: “Manu forti, or Strong hand!”
The St. Andrew’s Society of Vermont, founded by a group that met at the first Quechee Scottish Games in the 1973, is dedicated to enhancing Scottish culture in Vermont and sponsored the Quechee Scottish Games & Festival for many years. According to Bruce Shields, the society’s historian, the event was originally called the Quechee Scottish Festival, and it was the idea of Don Ransom, then owner of the Scotland by the Yard store formerly located on Route 4 near Quechee. The first festival, recounts Shields, was held in 1973 on the 5-acre hillside grounds of Scotland by the Yard. Ransom was hoping to promote his store and create more public appreciation for “Importers of Everything Scottish” as stated on his store’s roadside sign. “Dan Ransom provided the financial backing,” Cedric Farrow states, “and the St. Andrew’s Society provided the manpower.”
After several years of managing the festival, Ransom sold his store’s property and retired. The festival was then renamed the Quechee Scottish Games & Festival and moved to the Quechee Polo Field where it is held today.
Today, Lezlie Webster is now the organizer of the Quechee Scottish Games & Festival and the founder of Scottish Arts, a New England-based organization dedicated to education in Scottish arts and culture. She reports that except for the interruption by the pandemic and a few challenges from Mother Nature, the Quechee Scottish Games have been going strong for many years with over 3,000 attendees passing through the gates each year. Lezlie initiated the piper competition in 2000 where solo bagpipers play before judges who rate each competitor.
While the piper competition is a more recent edition, pipers and musicians have been a large part of the Games for as long as they’ve been around. Newspaper articles from the 1980s featured interviews with Quechee Scottish Games and Festival musicians, who shared their love of drumming, piping, and all things musically Scottish. A fellow from Westmoreland, NH admitted that although he was Irish, he came anyways, such was his love of pipe music. The festival has seen some notable pipers over the years; Tom Kirkpatrick, the former Pipe Major for the bagpipe band of St. Andrew’s Society of Vermont, was a piper in the US Air Force and played for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration and funeral and many parties in the Rose Garden. Kirkpatrick led the procession of four Scottish bands in the opening ceremonies in the mid-1980s.
“Over the years I have observed that attendees are drawn to the Games for a variety of reasons,” Lezlie notes, “Some for the appreciation of the bagpipes and others for the athletic competition.”
The athletic competitions at the Quechee Scottish Games and Festival are – and long have been – a popular draw. Newspaper articles covering past festivals in the 1980s were always certain to mention the “well-muscles athletes in kilts” and “kilt-clad men heaving heavy objects around in a demonstration of traditional Scottish athletics.”
Nowadays, the competitions are open to both men and women, and, as ever, the competitors are required to wear kilts. While past festivals also included team sports such as rugby and a footrace referred to as “The Kilted Mile,” the games this year will feature traditional Scottish weight-throwing sports such as braemar & open stone, light-weight for distance, heavy hammer, sheaf toss, weight over bar, and the visually striking caber toss.
In the braemar & open stone competition, the braemar stone must weigh between 20 and 26 lbs. and is thrown from a standing position, while the open stone weighs between 16 and 22 lbs. and is cradled in the competitor’s neck and then thrown with one hand. If this sounds familiar to you, you are correct! These Scottish weight-throwing competitions are considered one of the likely predecessors to our modern shot put.
Light-weight for distance, heavy hammer, sheaf toss, and weight over bar all similarly include tossing a heavy item, with distance or height defining the winner. In light-weight, the item is a ball and chain, while heavy hammer is – you guessed it – a metal hammer that is whirled around the contestant’s head before being thrown. Sheaf toss varies slightly as the competitors use a pitchfork to toss a 20 lb. bag stuffed with hay, mulch, or rope!
The caber toss is considered the centerpiece of the athletic competition and has been a star of the festival since the 1970s. Tossing the caber is a traditional Scottish athletic event dating back to the earliest Scottish games. The word caber comes from the Gaelic for wooden beam; the caber is a long pine log the size of a tree that can weigh from 100 to 180 pounds. Balanced vertically in the competitor’s hands, it is then thrown end-over-end through the air.
In addition to the popular piping and athletics, the sheepdog competition is another longtime crowd-pleaser. Spectators have for many years loved to watch a working sheepdog herd a group of sheep into a pen, following verbal commands or whistles from their handler. The sheep are rented from a local farm for the competition each year, and, according to Shields, one year presented a challenge to locate sheep for the event. He recalls that only five sheep were available for participation but the herding dogs entered that year numbered about 18! Bruce recalls, “The competition began at 9:00 am and by 2:00 pm that afternoon the sheep were exhausted from being run by the intense and energetic herding dogs.” For the 2023 Games, well-rested abundant sheep will be rented from Liz Shaw’s Morse Brook Farm in Westminster, VT.
Mark your calendar for August 26th to enjoy the timeless Scottish traditions playing once again on the stage of the Quechee Polo Field.
As Lezlie notes, the Polo Field with its’ grassy grounds and border of tall trees provides a natural stage for the performance of the Scottish arts, athletic game
competitions, and the kilted clans circling the field. Come out on August 26th and see for yourself!
Perhaps you may even connect with your own Scottish roots at one of the many clan booths or enter a musical or athletic competition yourself – it’s almost time to toss the caber! n
To learn more about the upcoming Quechee Scottish Games, visit their site at quecheegames.org. You may purchase an admissions ticket in advance, become a sponsor, or register for piping/drumming, dance, or athletics if you wish to participate in the day! Readers can find out more about the St. Andrew’s Society of Vermont and their yearly events, at sasvt.org, and can visit Scottish Arts site at nhssa.org