If ye’ve e’en a wee drappie o’ Celtic blood running thrae yere veins, ye’ll feel it leap at the sound o’ the distant piper warming to the mournful melody of “Amazing Grace.”
I spotted the lone musician through the early morning mist, bagpipe clutched to his chest. His bright red tartan stood out in striking contrast to the brooding mountains behind, their peaks cut off at half-mast by the fog.
It was the second weekend in September and the high, rugged Colorado Rockies suggested Scotland’s haunting Highlands, even down to the cool damp air and squishy wet grass. It made me wish for Wellies (British slang for waterproof Wellington boots) and mittens.
A short distance away were taut, white, square tents with brightly colored flags fluttering in the timid breeze. It could have been the prelude to a medieval joust, or a time-capsule view of makeshift solders’ quarters on the eve of the Battle of Culloden.
In fact, it was the annual Long’s Peak Scottish-Irish Festival in Estes Park--a small tourist-friendly town on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, 65 miles northwest of Denver.
The festival, to be held this year Sept. 8-9 at historic Stanley Park Field, attracts visitors from all over the country--15,000 in 1989, according to James A. Durward, an Estes Park dentist of impeccable Scottish lineage who’s festival president.
“We draw fans from coast to coast, including Hawaii and Canada,” Durward said.
And there are plenty of beguiling sights. Perhaps the most visible are the tartans and all things Scotch-Irish worn by participants and visitors alike.
Pipers are arrayed in the particular tartan of their band, but you’ll also see spectators in costume, many in full dress, including a kilt, a plaid (a blanket-like coat, rhymes with shade ), a sporran (the pouch worn on a belt in front of the kilt), topped off with a busby (a tall military fur headdress).
Arriving in denim for last year’s early September festival, I decided the first order of business was to buy a bit of finery so that I, too, could be part of the crowd.
Tam or bonnet? Choosing a $40 tam that included the pewter boar-head insignia, I then found a wonderful kiltmaker under a bright blue and white striped tent. Yes, some of the tents house merchants--not knights in shining armour--offering a vast selection of tartan fabrics.
Once a fabric is chosen, you are measured and the measurements sent to Edinburgh, Scotland, where a kilt will be custom-made for you. Prices on an average are $250 for a gentleman’s kilt, $150 for a lady’s. Orders are promised within 60 to 90 days.
Possessing more than a little of the Scot in my heritage, I selected a Campbell tartan, Black Watch pattern with a fine yellow stripe. (Although I was later informed that the bit of yellow was a modern day invention, I’m not sure I believe that.)
If you have no trace of Scotch-Irish ancestry, you won’t feel morally obligated to choose your clan’s tartan. If the red and green of clan Stewart’s( royal tartan appeals to you, go for it. Or how about Macpherson’s gray, black and red hunting tartan?
If you’ve succumbed to the enticement of the plaid, but only want a token, consider buying a tie woven in one of more than 100 patterns. Or a Harris Tweed jacket. Or a thick, off-white genuine Irish fisherman’s sweater.
A wide assortment of Celtic merchandise is offered for sale--dulcimers, weapons of Scotland, paperweights, mugs and plates with clan crests, thimbles, jewelry, books and military prints, to name a few.
But the reason we’ve come is the music.
The star of the show is the bagpipe. One of history’s oldest musical instruments, it is found in Babylonian carvings from before 1000 BC, and mentioned in the Old Testament. Its eerie whine, produced by Scottish regiments as far back as the l6th Century, has been credited with frightening many an enemy.
On this grand day of festivity, the pipe bands will be in competition, not combat. The glory of the costumes, the precision of the marchers and the fervor of the crowd contribute to the pageantry, but it’s the sounds--the awesome, fearful bagpipe sounds--that stir the soul.
For maximum excitement, don’t miss the Gathering of the Clans. At approximately noon on both days, more than a dozen world-class pipe bands assemble before the grandstand for a brief welcoming ceremony, after which the pipers, joined by a few non-pipe bands, march out in review.
Later, to settle the spirit and soothe the soul, look for the tent of Scottish recording artist Alex Beaton, who will also be at this year’s festival. He will bring a tear drap tae yere e’e if ye’ve that wee drappie o’ Scots blood when he sings songs of ancient balladry (some a bit bawdy).
The Celts are a hardy breed and would never have a festival without stick-to-the-rib fare. The all-Celtic menu choices traditionally include include Scotch broth, British bangers, Cornish pasties (meat pies), new potatoes with sour cream and dill, roasted corn, Scotch eggs (boiled eggs wrapped with sausage and deep-fried) and currant scones with jam.
Regarding the latter, a noble soul munching last year on the somewhat dried-out biscuit was heard to remark, “You’ve got to love things Scot, to love scones.”
After your meal, stroll the perimeter of the field.
Colleens of all ages participate in Irish dancing competitions. Perhaps the grace of the performance grows out of its distinctive stylization: The Irish dancer moves from the hips down only. The remainder of the body is held rigid, with the arms kept at the sides.
Moseying on you’ll come upon braw (big) Scottish lads, dressed in kilts, engaging in events known as Highland Games. Probably the most famous is the caber toss, which dates from the l6th Century, when contests of stamina and strength were one way to choose soldiers.
Resembling an uprooted telephone pole, an average caber is 19 feet long and weighs 120 pounds. The tosser lifts the pole up, balances it in a vertical position and attempts to toss it end over end so that it lands straight ahead and exactly verticle to the thrower’s body, for a perfect score.
The Textile Arts tent presents demonstrations of the daily work Scottish and Irish women have performed through the ages. Here you can see fleece being spun into yarn, fleece and yarn being dyed and cloth being woven.
In the final process, called “waulking the wool,” a long bolt of contiguous cloth is kneaded, much the way bread dough is, by women sitting at a round table, to produce a thicker, denser fabric.
A friendly spinner at last year’s festival explained that in olden times an Irishman would be given a “waulked wool” and would not only expect to have it all his life, but to be buried in it as well.
Dog fanciers will want to visit the exhibit featuring breeds recognized as having their origins in the British Isles. Last year, 61 breeds were represented.
For amusement, catch the Herding Instinct Test. Although herding dogs were developed to help with farm livestock, most of them have never seen a sheep. To test their instincts, dogs are put into a pen with sheep to see how long it takes them to get the idea and start organizing the sheep. Comical moments almost always occur.
If your surname is not a typical clan one, you may want to check with the clan-sponsored exhibit tents anyway. For example, did you know that Allan, Bartlett, Brice, Leaper, Miller, Robb and Smith are recognized septs, or branches, of clan MacFarlane? Ye may ha’e that wee drappie after all.
As the sun’s rays grew shorter and the shadows longer, a bit of melancholy crept over me. I had been mesmerized, transported back to another age. A simple age. A fierce age. A loyal age.
Shaking off my wistfulness, I set off for one of the grandest sound-and-sight shows ever: the military Tattoo held every year at the Stanley Park Fairgrounds Arena in conjunction with the festival. It involves pipe and brass bands, fife and drum, cannon, drill teams and fireworks.
Performed by torchlight, it envelopes you in rhythm and sound. (A hint: If the weather is chilly, take a blanket. Heaters hanging from above help, but are not enough.)
Now if I yearn for a bit o’ the Scots, I can always take out my tam and put it on. Or listen to my Alex Beaton tape. Or wait till next year.