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Highland Games awash in muscles, bagpipes and Scots

Emma Louise Moller, 12, performs the sword dance for judge Peggy Askew [background]. - Justin Burnett / The Record
Emma Louise Moller, 12, performs the sword dance for judge Peggy Askew [background].
— image credit: Justin Burnett / The Record

The 16th annual Whidbey Island Highland Games at Greenbank Farm on Saturday began just as it should, under a blanket of fog and in a sea of plaid. Justin Burnett / The Record | Garth Safford of Graham lobs a rock in the open stone competition at the 16th annual Whidbey Island Highland Games on Saturday at Greenbank Farm.

Red, brown, green, even pink — it seemed just about every shade of the rainbow was represented at this year’s games, especially among competitors who lobbed rocks or danced away the hours in the famous garb of their countrymen, the kilt.

Indeed, pants were as rare as shirt sleeves in the field events where men and women heaved heavy objects for height and distance in awesome displays of strength and power. The traditional contests included tossing stones, the Scottish Hammer, cabers (roughly hewn tree trunks) and weights attached to chains.

Victories and personal bests were celebrated, loudly, as was demonstrated by the war cry let out by Vashina Donnell, a Joyce resident, when she cleared 14 feet in the weight-over-bar event.

“I’ve been trying to fight that all season,” said Donnell, while wearing an ear-to-ear grin.

The games also included more dainty contests, judged for grace rather than brawn. Scottish dancers in ruffles and lace flitted their way across a small stage, demonstrating impressive footwork and pleasing choreography. But like the rougher competitions being waged nearby, the dancing contests were steeped in tradition. The sword dance, for example, was once performed right before battle. Lying sheathed on the floor, the dance would be done over the top of them. If they were nudged by even one toe, it was considered a bad omen, according to Evelyn Hall, a former Whidbey resident and volunteer. There to support her daughter Elizabeth, a 15-year-old competitor, Hall said the games are simply a nice event that’s open to all.

“We’re not even Scottish,” she laughed.

Another highlight of the event is the official opening of the games, which actually occurs several hours after competition begins. It included a marching band of bagpipers through the parking lot, a dance performance, a prayer and the singing of several national anthems.

For many, the bagpipes are particularly moving.

“You either want to cry or go to war,” said Rick Karjalainen, chaplain for the Island County Sheriff’s Office.

According to Jessica Larson, president of the Whidbey Island Celtic Society, this year’s event saw a healthy turnout of about 1,400 people. That compares to about 1,100 in 2013.

“We also had over 100 competitors, which is more than we’ve had in a long time,” Larson added.

The increase is likely the result of better advertising and getting the word out to associated clubs and organizations, said Larson, though it probably didn’t hurt that the fog burned off quickly, making for a sunny and warm Saturday event. In the end, however, the real credit goes to the community­—the families who spent the day at the highland games. Their participation is what makes events like this special, she said.

“That’s what really makes the event fun,” Larson said.

 

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