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Washington Voices

Games will celebrate Scottish sports, culture

Sat., July 30, 2011

Jon McKenzie throws the hammer during practice at Theyer Park in Rathdrum, July 20. The World Championships in Amateur Scottish Heavy Athletics will be held in Spokane on Aug. 6. (Kathy Plonka)
Jon McKenzie throws the hammer during practice at Theyer Park in Rathdrum, July 20. The World Championships in Amateur Scottish Heavy Athletics will be held in Spokane on Aug. 6. (Kathy Plonka)

Don’t be alarmed if you see dozens of miniature Mel Gibsons running around town on Aug. 6. Chances are the kids have just come from the 2011 Spokane Highland Games. Braveheart face-painting with accompanying balloon swords is just one of the many family-friendly activities offered at this year’s Games.

However, those who prefer real sword action won’t be disappointed. “We’re going to have a Claymore demonstration,” said Ruby Devine, co-chair of the Spokane Highland Games. A claymore is a Scottish broadsword. “It’s a very large sword,” Devine said. “Mike Winderman and Eric Slyter will offer sword-fighting instruction as well as a demonstration.”

This year the first International Highland Games Federation amateur world championships will be held in conjunction with the Spokane Highland Games. The “heavy athletics” competition features traditional events like the caber toss and hammer throw. Each event is scored like a decathlon, with points awarded on the results. “We’ll host athletes from seven countries,” said Devine. Organizers hope to have about 30 competitors in the local competition and 20 from around the world vying for the championship.

A rather non-traditional “athletic” event will be making a return this year – the tug of war between the Irish and the Scottish. The Pull for the Haggis is a grudge match to be sure. “The Irish lost gloriously, so we’ve been taunting them all year,” said Highland Games co-chair Steven Schneider.

But Devine admits the previous battle wasn’t exactly a fair fight. “Last year it was kind of rigged because we had the Scottish athletes,” said Devine. “This year we won’t let them compete.”

The winning team will receive the coveted Gilded Haggis trophy. “If the Irish win it, it will probably be placed at O’Doherty’s and the Scots will have to steal it back,” Devine said.

New to the Games this year are the Bonny Knees and Knobbly Knees contests. In the Knobbly Knee contest, brave-hearted men will bare their legs and allow blindfolded female judges to touch their knees for a maximum of 10 seconds. The knobbliest knees will be declared the winner.

For shyer fellows, the Bonny Knee contest might be a better option. Kilted men hide behind a sheet with their legs exposed from the knees down. Female judges will decide who has the bonniest knees.

Though the games offer plenty of light-hearted fun, organizers are serious about honoring and celebrating their Scottish heritage. Music plays an integral role in that heritage.

Each year, the Piping and Drumming competition and exhibition enthralls spectators. The majestic call of the bagpipes and the stirring sound of the drums have become the signature of the Highland Games.

And where the pipes play, the dancers are sure to follow. Highland dancers, clad in traditional tartan costumes will compete in the morning as well as the afternoon.

In addition to sporting and music events, the games offer myriad ways for folks to learn about Scottish culture. Aly Williams and Emily Pospisil co-chair the Heritage Tent. The exhibits and activities include Scottish storytelling, Gaelic language lessons, haggis tasting, and displays of historic technology and Victorian Scottish regimental dress, among others.

Williams was one of the 2,700 people who attended last year’s games. “It was my first time and I just fell in love with everything about it.”

So much so, that she quickly volunteered to help with this year’s event. Her own Scottish heritage piqued her interest. “There’s an immediate kinship among people who share the same background,” Williams said. “Everyone has a draw to where they came from. This is the closest I can get to being immersed in the culture that is my heritage. It feels like coming home.”

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