The end-of-summer spectacle that is the Long Island Scottish Festival and Highland Games returns to its longtime home at Old Westbury Gardens on Saturday, Aug. 23. Scots and non-Scots alike welcome the yearly day of fun and games as the lush grounds of this landmark estate fill with the sounds of piping and related activities, co-hosted by the Long Island Scottish Clan MacDuff.
With those bagpipes, the caber tossing and highland dancing — along with a myriad of other entertainment and assorted revelry for lads and lasses — the festival stands out as one of the highlights of the season at Old Westbury Gardens. There’s plenty
to delight all ages, along with Scottish treats to enjoy.
It is believed that the games were begun by the ancient highland chieftains to help them select the strongest men for their armies. Those age-old traditions continue today in the form of caber tossing, Putting the Stone, Tossing the Sheaf, piping and drumming.
“It’s a cliché, and typically an exaggeration, to suggest that an event features ‘something for everyone’,” says Old Westbury Gardens spokesman Vince Kish. “But in the case of the Scottish Festival and Highland Games, it’s actually an understatement. The concerts, competitions, kids’ events, antique auto display, pirate show, the vendors selling all things Scottish — virtually everywhere you turn, all day long, there is something — and more often than not a number of things going on. I’ve been to this festival at least 25 times, and I never get tired of it.”
“The Clan MacDuff knew they had found a home when they first came here in 1977.And they’ve been back every since.”
The festival is one of many similar events that continues to uphold Scots culture and history throughout the nation and internationally, but is the only one of its kind in the metropolitan area, according to Clan MacDuff.
“We consider this to be like a gathering of the clans,” says Andrew McInnes, chief of the Long Island Clan MacDuff. “This is what they used to do in Scotland all those years ago. Groups of families would gather for games such as Tossing the Sheaf, Putting the Stone and other various competitions and share food and companionship. We’re replicating that on Long Island. Families come here from all over, bring a picnic and stay for the day.”
Of course, it’s been modernized over the years, but the traditional events, some of which go back to the 12th century, remain the highlight.
The festival has evolved into a broad-based family fair, with birds of prey, a pirate show and even dog agility demonstrations, however it’s still the games themselves that continue to be the main attraction, with the caber toss the most popular element.
“While the games mean many things to many people, this is the essence of the games,” Kish says. “The biggest draw by far is the caber toss. It’s so different from any other sport or event you see in the U.S. It looks and is extremely difficult. It’s quite something to see these guys trying toss the caber and then watch the real action as the day goes on and you see the big guys in kilts get going who really know what they are doing. As the pole gets heavier and heavier, that’s when it gets interesting.” Visitors who think they have what it takes to toss that caber are welcome to participate (after signing a safety waiver).
The caber is a long, tapered pine pole or log (think 16-foot long, 160 pound telephone pole). The “tosser” balances it vertically by holding the smaller end and then runs forward and tosses it so that it turns in the air with the larger end striking the ground first. Ideally, the pole strikes in a strictly vertical position, and the athletes are scored based on how closely the throw lands at a 12 o’clock position.
Another popular event, Putting The Stone, is similar to the traditional Olympic-style shot put, but uses a large stone in which the weight varies. There are also different styles permitted, one of which requires the 20-26 pound stone (13 to 18 pounds for women) to be “putted” from a standing position. The other technique allows a run up to a toe board, using a 16 to 22 pound stone (eight to 12 pounds for women).
Tossing The Sheaf, the third element, involves flinging a bale of hay over a horizontal pole with a large pitchfork. This traditional Scottish agricultural sport was originally contested at country fairs. Three chances are given to each competitor to cleanly go over the bar, without touching it. After all challengers have made their attempts, the bar is raised and all successful competitors move on to the new height. This continues until all but one athlete is eliminated.
These games predate recorded history. According to those familiar with its origins, the first modern games were held in 1819 at the Perthshire estate of Lord Gwydir in Scotland, and the games featured very similar events to what takes place today.
While the games are going on, a lively line-up of bands and dance ensembles, including assorted bagpipers, provide a musical background throughout the day’s events. This year’s performers include East Meadow’s acclaimed Meadowgrass Band, with their bluegrass tunes; Maidens IV, the popular all-sister ensemble of Celtic folk-rockers, with a repertoire of Irish-Scottish traditional and original contemporary Celtic music; Scottish folksinger Carl Peterson; Scotch and Celtic dancers, performing varied interpretations traditional highland dance; and the Cameron Scottish Music Ensemble, among others.
The kids can try their skill at their own version of a caber toss, using plastic tube caber; with a petting zoo, interactive storytelling and a pirate show, among the activities to entertain the younger set. There is also that roving band of “pirates,” who will wander among the visitors, ready with a ‘yo ho” or two. “The pirates are as exuberant and as colorful as ever,” Kish says.
And, of course, Scotland’s fascinating culture is showcased at the Scottish Heritage tent where visitors can get an up-close and personal look at bagpipes and learn about the country’s clans or search for that long-lost relative and or get inspired to plan that trip to Scotland.
“There’s much to keep everyone there for the whole day, from eight to five,” says McInnes. “And just in case you get bored, which is unlikely, you can always explore Old Westbury Gardens.”
When those hunger pangs strike, there are plenty of Scottish foods available: fish and chips, Scottish pies, sausages, and haggis, among other tasty treats. You’ll also a wide selection of Scottish gift items available for purchase. “It’s a good place to shop if you’re looking for that special bottle of malt vinegar, and if you are really into things Scottish you can also buy a kilt,” Kish says.
As always, the opening ceremony sets the tone for the day, at 12:30 p.m.,with a grand march of bagpipers, clans, and the Scottish Regiment marching down the North Lawn to open the games.
“This is a great opportunity for us to share our heritage, through the games, music and food,” says McInnes. “We like to make everyone who comes an honorary Scotsman for the day.”
Long Island Scottish Festival & Highland Games
When: Saturday, Aug. 23, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. $17, $15 seniors, $8 children 7-17.
Where: Old Westbury Gardens, 71 Old Westbury Rd., Old Westbury. (516) 333-0048 or www.oldwestburygardens.