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Scottish festival serves up fun and tradition

Haggis tasting joins docket for 51st Spokane Highland Games

Buttery shortbread. Colorful tartans. Stirring bagpipes. And the distinctive scent of haggis. All this and more awaits visitors to the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center this Saturday, as the Spokane Highland Games marks its 51st year.

The daylong festival, celebrating the rich culture and traditions of Scotland, is a popular annual event. “It’s growing every year,” said Highland Games chairman Peter Guthrie. “Last year we had 1,800 through the gate.”

From the first sounds of the piping and drumming competition at 9 a.m. till the closing strains of Auld Lang Syne at 8 p.m., there will be plenty to see and experience.

Animal lovers can enjoy an exhibition of sheep dogs at work, or stroll through the Hielan’ Coos (Highland Cattle) exhibit. This ancient Scottish breed of cattle with long horns, and thick, wavy pelts usually draws a crowd.

Gourmands are in for a rare treat. Haggis tasting is the newest addition to the festivities. Guthrie described the unique dish this way: “It’s like a round sausage, but bigger. You break open the casing and scoop it out.” And the flavor? “If you like liver you’re going to be OK.”

As to the origin of this Scottish delicacy, Guthrie deferred questions to the local expert on “all things haggis,” Jason Gordon.

With a thick Scottish brogue, Gordon said, “I could go on and on about the lore of the haggis. There’s a lot of misconception about what kind of meat it is.” A quick search of the Internet reveals that haggis is made primarily from sheep organs, but Gordon told a different story.

He wove a tale of the rare and mystical haggis beasts that roam the highlands of Scotland. According to Gordon, the beasts are hunted by specially bred haggis hounds.

“Haggis hunting season is from New Year’s Day to Robert Burns’ birthday on January 25,” he said. “It’s a very short season.” Gordon’s haggis legend is one example of why the Scots are renowned for their storytelling abilities.

Gordon admitted his haggis tales “may or may not be true,” but he did offer one more piece of haggis lore: “A lot of people think if they strap the haggis to both feet, they can walk across Loch Ness and the monster won’t eat them,” he laughed. “But that’s just ridiculous.”

While foodies sample haggis, sports fans can watch the “heavy athletics,” which draw competitors from across the Northwest.

“We’ve got a huge field of novices this year, including 14 fellows from Missoula,” said Guthrie.

The caber toss, which is the tossing of a large wooden pole, the hammer throw, and competitions that involve throwing heavy weights as far and high as possible, are among the featured events.

“Technique is as important as strength in all the games,” Guthrie said. Tradition holds the games originated when warriors tested their strength and fitness against each other in hopes of impressing the clan chieftain.

This year’s chieftain of the games is Bobby Dodd.

“My parents were both from Scotland,” he said. His parents took him to a few Highland games, but Dodd’s participation as an athlete began in the late 1960s.

“I had a list of things I wanted to do when I got out of the Navy,” he recalled.

One of his goals was tossing the caber. At 21, he made his first attempt. “I picked it up, but I didn’t get very far and I wasn’t able to turn it.”

Dodd’s first try at the caber toss certainly wasn’t his last. For 40 years he’s participated in Highland Games as a judge and an athlete.

“Every vacation revolved around Highland Games, but none of my five children have gotten involved.” He paused, and then chuckled. “I always wonder if I took them to too many games, but occasionally, I look up in the crowd, and they’ll be there. That’s a good feeling.”

Music aficionados will have a wealth of opportunities to enjoy the good feelings generated by Celtic music and dance, which are the heart and soul of the Highland Games. Pipe bands will be competing at scheduled intervals, but those who prefer a gentler sound can listen to the soft strains of harpists in the harpers’ tent.

Performances by groups including Floating Crowbar, Crooked Kilt and the San Francisco Fiddlers are scheduled. And no Scottish celebration would be complete without dancing.

“Highland dance was originally done by men,” Guthrie said. “That’s why the emphasis is on strength and agility.”

A country dance demonstration will be held in the morning, and Highland dance competitions are planned throughout the day. The Highland Games will conclude with a Ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee), a traditional celebration featuring music and dance. Guthrie said, “The dance steps will be introduced to the crowd, and all are welcome.”