Old Westbury Gardens will fill its lush grounds with the sounds of bagpipers and Scottish revelry as it welcomes the latest edition of the Scottish Festival and Highland Games. The annual spectacle on Saturday, Aug. 26, brings plenty of Scottish flair to the storied estate, presented by the Long Island Clan MacDuff.
With those bagpipes, traditional strength competitions and highland dancing — along with plenty of entertainment and assorted activities for lads and lasses — there’s plenty end-of-summer revelry for all ages. According to Scottish lore, the games were begun by the ancient highland chieftains to help them select the strongest men for their armies. Those ancient traditions continue today in the form of caber tossing, Putting the Stone, Putting the Sheaf, and arm wrestling competitions, piping and drumming.
“When the Clan MacDuff first came here in 1977, they knew they had found a home,” says Paul Hunchak, director of visitor services and public programs at Old Westbury Gardens.
And they’ve been back every year since — except those two years during the pandemic.
Long Island had once been home to five Scottish clans. Today only Clan MacDuff remains.
“We consider this to be like a gathering of the clans,” says Clan MacDuff’s Peter Burnside Sr. “This is what they used to do in Scotland all those years ago. Groups of families would come together for games and food and companionship. We’re replicating that. People come from all over to meet their families here. It’s the end of summer, a good time for everyone to gather.”
Now in its 61st year, it has evolved into a family festival as much as a cultural event. “There really is something for everyone,” Hunchak says. “You can explore the gardens, and then there’s this whole other dimension. Many folks settle in for the day. They camp out on the lawn with their picnic and connect with family and friends. It’s almost like a reunion. This is something people put on their radar year after year. And we enjoy hosting it.”
While it has become a broad-based family affair — with birds of prey, falconry, vintage car show, Scottish dog parade, vendors offering Scottish wares, and so much more — those traditional elements continue to be a main attraction, especially the caber toss and pipe bands.
The caber is a long, tapered pine pole or log. 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.
“The caber toss is always popular,” Burnside says. “People love to watch the strong men — and strong women.”
While athletes are generally the ones up to the challenge, the public is invited to participate. Keep in mind that pole is 150 pounds and 25 feet long,
Competitors also can try their skills with Tossing the Sheaf, and Putting the Stone. Tossing the Sheaf involves flinging a bale of hay over a horizontal pole with a large pitchfork. Putting the Stone is similar to the traditional Olympic-style shot put, but uses a large stone in which the weight varies.
While the games are going on, a lively lineup of bands and dance ensembles — including those assorted bagpipers — provide a musical backdrop throughout the day. The opening ceremony at 12:30 is quite special, with a grand march down the North Lawn, and not to be missed.
This year’s entertainment roster also includes the high-energy Scottish Band, Albannach, with its heavily percussive sound. There’s also the Celtic rock band Bangers and Mash, with their blend of Celtic rock, southern Rock and folk. And, of course, dancers doing varied interpretations of traditional highland dance and step dancing, among others.
Kids can find many activities just for them. They can try their skill at their own version of a caber toss, with light cabers (actually tubes), participate in sack races, and an old-fashioned tug of war.
When it’s time for a break, check out the Scottish products available for purchase and sample such Scottish delights as meat pies and haggis.