The entire world can easily be divided into two distinct groups. The first is populated by those who recognize the clarion call of bagpipes as the most stirring, majestic sound ever heard by human ears. In the second are those who consider the Scottish national instrument notable only for its capacity to send sensitive listeners running for the nearest bottle of Bufferin.
The latter sect of tone-deaf cynics was blissfully absent from Seminole Greyhound Park last Saturday, as the anthemic blare of the tartaned squeeze box pervaded every second of the Central Florida Scottish Highland Games. Like a Brigadoon that rises out of the mist every year instead of every 100, the games were back to treat us all to a daylong clan-bake of food, folks and fun.
As the morning fog rolled across the dog track's outer environs, dyed-in-the-wool Scotsmen and MacWannabes alike strolled through a fairground overflowing with crafts booths, concession stands and cultural exhibits. It was obvious that a unique mixture of national pride and wry humor drives these kinsmen onward to new heights of boozy camaraderie. For every organization that had dedicated its space to the tracing of centuries-old bloodlines, there was another pushing merchandise that broadcast the brash nature of the checkered experience. "If it isn't Scottish, it's crap," declared one T-shirt.
As we sampled the goods, some of the more committed participants passed among us in full period garb, plumage flying proudly and velvet threads rustling against each other. At first, they reminded me too much of those goons from the Society for Creative Anachronism, who stage medieval fairs to compensate for their inability to cope with the smallest details of modern life. But I remembered that the highland gamesters had a genetic imprimatur behind their immersion in historic trappings, and so I felt all right again.
In one corner of the field, kilted he-men staged shows of physical prowess. My favorite was the "sheet toss," in which competitors stabbed sacks of hay with pitchforks and hefted them over their heads. As far as I could tell, the point of the game was neither distance nor accuracy, but to emit the loudest grunt when you let go. The audience loved it.
Another contest took place in front of the grandstand, where armored athletes met in a jousting tournament that degenerated into a takeoff of World Championship Wrestling as soon as the combatants had been knocked from their steeds to the dirty ground. The morning's event pitted a supposed Scottish knight against his allegedly British counterpart. Guess who won.
The morning welcome and opening festivities had curiously been scheduled for noon sharp, a choice whose wisdom became clearer as I watched several attendees tripping up the cement stairs to their seats. The idea, it seemed, was to put the day's meatiest program in front of the viewers after they had a few hours of drinking under their belts, but before they were too wrecked to be counted on to face in the appropriate direction.
A golf cart deposited the first guest of honor on the viewing stand. This was Ian Hamilton, "Repatriator of the Stone of Destiny" (imagine how impressive that must look on a business card). A glowing introduction from the emcee informed us that Hamilton was a major contender to assume the title of speaker when the first Scottish parliament in 300 years is elected this May.
In a booming brogue, Hamilton revved up the crowd with his assessment that the Highland Games were all about "keeping old traditions alive and inventing new traditions." But he soon turned confrontational, asserting that his homeland had "too long been politically attached to England." The wrong would be righted, he promised, when the new parliament voted to secede from the British Isles. From somewhere in the stands, a sheepdog barked its assent.
Just as I was checking under my seat for a hidden bomb, the second guest of honor was introduced to a much greater round of applause. The day's biggest cheers had been reserved for actor James Doohan, whose major contribution to Scottish culture was the portrayal of Scotty on TV's "Star Trek." The emcee seemed duly awed that Doohan had convinced series creator Gene Roddenberry to make the chief engineer of the U.S.S. Enterprise a Scot, but I was less than moved. I made a silent prayer that Nichelle Nichols would never be asked to give the keynote address at the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities.
That wish was doubled when poor Doohan proved utterly incapable of delivering any coherent remarks. After two aborted sentences, he mumbled that he'd be signing autographs until 3 p.m., then ambled off. I guess the old codger really has gone where no man has gone before. I had initially planned on cornering him later in the day for some wacky banter ("So, do they have Shatner doing bar mitzvahs now?" "How did you manage to wear a red crew shirt through three seasons of "Trek" and make it out alive?"). Instead, I elected to leave him alone. I could tell he just didna' have enough power, Captain.
A procession of the clans followed, turning the field into a sea of plaid that rivaled the best Catholic-school pageant. As the names of the participating families were read, I misheard the call of "Clan Campbell" as "Glen Campbell" (after James Doohan, anything's possible). Just as I had stifled my laughter, the call went up for "Clan Davidson." Thinking of John Davidson, I got the giggles all over again.
The afternoon events were less entertaining, including a "Birds of the Gauntlet" falconry exhibition that was too much information and not enough action. Despite the frequent warnings that these were dangerous animals ("They are trained killers -- just kidding!"), the only real threat was death by boredom as we sat through some interminable birding lectures while waiting for the hawks to wing their way down from the upper bleachers. We were told to keep our food concealed from the taloned monsters, as they would go for it like there was no tomorrow. I wasn't frightened; I've seen some of my own relatives do the same thing.
A final jousting tournament was actually a carbon copy of the earlier bout, giving me the irresistible opportunity to tease Orlando Weekly Juice squeezer Liz Langley, who had shown up to survey the horsebound heroics from the second row.
"It's a fix," I joked.
"Hey, I won money on it last year," she cheerily shot back. I wonder where she found someone stupid enough to bet on the Englishman.
As the festival wound down into a haze of lyre music and beer-fueled bellowing, I had to admit that these Scots do their gatherings right. I'm no big fan of ethnic unity; too often, the simple desire to bask in a shared heritage leads to sillier activities -- like annexing Poland. But for all of Hamilton's revolutionary hectoring, it was clear that the Highland Games are basically an excuse for good-natured people to put on skirts, get drunk and throw heavy objects around. It's like an entire nation of New York Dolls imitators, but with greater forearm strength. God save the queens, I say -- whoever they may be.