The Highlands Come to Dundee
Are all the inhabitants of Dundee, New York, of Scottish descent? No, not really. Has anyone in Dundee ever been to Dundee, Scotland? Um, no, actually. So, it is the perfect place for a Scottish festival!
Logic such as this did nothing to dissuade the people of the New York Dundee from honoring their namesake across the pond with a big festival that celebrates all things Scottish. Well, at least it did not deter Fran Willis who, ten years ago, managed to talk some folks into helping launch a one-day event.
“Even our school sports teams are known as the ‘Scots’,” Fran reasons. “How could we not explore the culture?
“Besides,” she goes on, “we were trying to think of something we could do to attract visitors. We don’t have a lake or anything like that. And the first year went pretty well.”
Pretty well is an understatement for a first-time event with all-volunteer coordination that attracted more than 600 people. Now, a decade later, with the attendance well over 2,000 and Fran still in charge, folks who mention their hometown when they travel often hear, “Dundee? You have that big Scottish Festival, right?”
Who needs a lake?
The Dundee Scottish Festival is a kinetic happening with the whole family in mind. Music, dancers, vendors, food, kids’ activities, piping, drumming, and lessons on Bonnie Scotland’s history all blend in a joyous cacophony of sight and sound. But the absolute crowd favorite is the Highland Games.
“The games add so much energy to the festival. We would never think of not having them,” says Fran.
What are Highland Games? They are a bit more strenuous that your average bowling league. For instance, there is the Scottish Hammer toss. No, put down the Stanley from the garage. The Scottish Hammer consists of a heavy ball and shaft. Unlike Olympic Hammer, where the thrower is allowed to spin, Scottish Hammer is a stationary event during which the athlete whips the hammer around his head, then lets it fly. Some athletes will wear custom boots with spikes on the end to keep themselves anchored to the ground.
The caber toss is the most unique and the most identifiable event in the Games. It is based on accuracy and not by distance or height. The caber is cut from straight trees varying in length and weight, typically eighteen to twenty-one feet long and ranging from ninety to 200 pounds. The athlete throws from six o’clock and he tries to flip the end he is holding to land at twelve o’clock, which is a perfect throw. (Yes, this is tree-flipping. They are flipping the entire flipping tree trunk.)
Still not hearing anything your Pilates regimen has prepared you for? How about the Weight for Distance contest? These are weights thrown with one hand for distance. Most athletes use two spins to build momentum to heave the weights. It is thrown out of a nine- by four-foot box. The weights are measured in “stones.” One stone is equal to fourteen pounds. Very Game of Thrones.
There is even a version of the Highland Games for the wee folk, ages eight to twelve years old, and a slighter bigger version for the thirteen- to seventeen-year-olds. The kids can unleash their inner Celtic warrior with an axe throw and archery contest.
If you are more of a sedentary Scot, hang out for the music. “We have fiddlers and pipe bands that come from Jamestown, Niagara Falls, Rochester, all over,” says Fran, recalling the year the festival caught the end of Super Storm Sandy. “It poured. And, God love them, the bands just played on!”
But, hey, it rains in Scotland. A lot.
Scottish and Irish dancers strut their stuff, coming from as far away as Ottawa, Canada. The festival also offers sheepherding demonstrations with Highland cattle. There is a display of medieval weaponry, a favorite of the boys, Fran says. “And the men, come to think of it.” While kilts are not mandatory, they are celebrated with a “Best Celtic Dressed” contest that invites everyone from youth to baby to participate. Even the dogs get in on the act.
Vendors are ready with Scottish pies when hunger strikes. And yes, there is haggis. If you don’t know what that is, it might be better to not find out until after you’ve tasted it.
It takes hundreds of volunteers to make the Dundee Scottish Festival happen. The funds raised support a six-week after-school education program that teaches kids about Scottish culture, art, and heritage.
That team of volunteers, which includes just about everyone in Dundee, has become a family of sorts through working together. “In 2017, one of our biggest supporters passed away, the week of the festival,” Fran relates. “So the pipe bands went into town and played at her funeral service.”
Because, here in Dundee, it takes a village for all matters of life, death, and Scotland.
A move from the crowded July calendar to slightly calmer September seemed to work well for bringing in visitors. The 2019 Dundee Scottish Festival takes place on Saturday, September 7, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The location is the VFW Post 8649, 125 Seneca Street Extension. Tickets are ten dollars each and can be purchased online and at the gate. Kids up to seventeen years old get in free. For tickets and a complete rundown of events, visit dundeescottishfestival.com.