My First Visit to the Ligonier Highland Games

Larry Pearce

Honored in 1999 as “One of the Top 100 Events in North America,” the Ligonier Highland Games have been held, rain or shine, for each of the past 46 years the Saturday after Labor Day. Seems like there was always something else for me to do more important in getting ready for winter weather around my farm, but I knew about the Games and always wanted to attend. The venue is less than 30-minutes away along U.S. Rt. 30 on the other side of the Laurel Mountain at Idlewild Park. The nearby town of Ligonier is named after the 18th century French and Indian War fort, now beautifully restored, which was built to house the Scottish 42nd Highland “Black Watch” troops who were on their way to take Ft. Duquesne, now Pittsburgh. So, this was the year I would go to the Games, no matter what! My wife, Susan, decided not to accompany me as she was to perform a Christian music program that evening and wanted to save her energy. I knew that I would be meeting several friends there, fellow Scottish Americans, so I knew I wouldn’t be lonely.

Checking out the day’s schedule was as easy as going to, but the admission price at first seemed a little steep, $15. Maybe it’s my Scottish heritage that balked. At least the parking was free and seniors and kids always get a discount. Although the amusements at Idlewild are closed after Labor Day, one still has to wind his way around them to get where he is going on the massive grounds, and that can be quite a walk. Many of the food booths are open, some with traditional Scottish food and drink.

The weekend had actually started the day before with a six-hour seminar on learning Gaelic. Friday evening was filled with a four-hour free piping competition and pricey, by reservation only Scottish dinner-dance. I’m especially glad I hadn’t taken part in the post-dinner whiskey tasting when I had to navigate the mountain the next morning in the thick fog, so typical of the highlands on either side of the Atlantic. When I arrived at the Games the next morning, the sun was shining brightly. It was to be a perfect day in every way.

I began my adventure with three quick stops at separate pavilions inside the park: the highland dancing competition, the vocal contest, and the Scottish breed dog exhibition. The young lasses were so cute in their traditional dresses and the Lassies were fun to watch as they ran the racecourse. I would have been content to stay there at the north end of the park, not to mention that I never did find the living history, blacksmithing, fiddling tents, but the sound of music drew me to the Hillside Theater where continuous musical performances kept me spellbound. I was especially attracted to the pan-Celtic group Iona from Washington, DC, who played all the traditional songs and instruments and whose beautiful blonde lead singer wore a bright red dress.

Knowing that the annual Parade of Clans and Welcoming Ceremonies were to begin on the athletic field at noon, I left the theater and hurried past the corrals of sheep and long horned steers. Idlewild Park is set literally in a forest with the Loyalhanna River running through it. To get from the main part of the park to the athletic field, one must cross a narrow footbridge and pass through what is known as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The late PBS star, Fred Rogers, was a native of nearby Latrobe. The area surrounding the field contained many vendors offering everything Scottish from tartan plaids to various weapons. I stopped and bought a tour book of Scotland and loaded up on travel brochures for our trip to the Isles next spring. The many clan tents are also a must. I registered at both the Campbell and Leslie exhibits. I located other family lines on the big map in front of the St. Andrew’s Society table: Gray, Crawford, Patterson, and Hazlett, to name a few. I learned that our Grays were probably a border clan of the East March area of southern Scotland and that the red “Rampant Lion” on our crest is the same one as on Scotland’s Royal Arms, whose meaning is not unlike that of colonial America’s slogan, “Don’t tread on Me.” Then I passed the children’s games to catch the end of the Border Collie sheep herding demonstration on the main field. A little homesick for my own flock and somewhat full of pity, I watched the small collection of panting ewes being skillfully persuaded into a pen under the blazing sun.

My connection to home mystically changed to a deeper longing for my ancestral homeland as I heard the hundreds and hundreds of pipes and drums slowly approaching the grandstand area for the Massed Band Show. Amid a brilliant array of colors, bands from as far away as Charlestown, SC, and Cleveland, OH, joined the joyful din. I can only imagine what similar scenes must have been like over the centuries in the original highlands of Scotland. Thousands of spectators were cheering and clapping to the familiar “Scotland the Brave.” Along the shady woodsline nearby, picnicers were serenaded as they enjoyed the best that the afternoon had to offer: food and family. I’ll go this route next year! One observation I made was that I had never seen more people in one area with light-colored hair, blonde, red, and gray.

The body-types of the participants in the main event were also duly noted. After the concert the Heavy Athletics began. If I’d ever been self-conscious about my obesity, that idea soon vanished in the company of 300-plus pound athletes. Of course, unlike me, many of them topped six feet and they were mostly muscle. The caber toss involves picking up, literally, a telephone pole and flipping it end over end as far as possible with the landing to be as close to “12 o’clock” in front of the thrower. The whirling hammer throw is similar to hurling a discus except that the weight is at the end of a long stick. The most fascinating event for me involved a 56-pound chunk of molten iron being thrown almost straight up in the air over a bar. This competition ended in a tie at 17 ½ feet. I have no doubt that it could have gone higher had the field not been soaked by recent hurricane-inspired rains that minimized traction. Ironically, the world champion, a huge African American, was one of the finishers. I wondered what clan he claimed. I felt myself straining to power the heavy object skyward and groaning upon each release. Perhaps it was my years of experience in the “lighter” field events back in high school.

An historic military re-enactment took place simultaneously to the heavy athletics at the other end of the field, while later in the afternoon, young people of all ages were solicited to join in a series of tug-o-wars. Some were so small that it must have been an effort just to pick up the two-inch rope. I had several belly laughs watching the participants slipping and sliding on the west grass. That activity soon gave way to another of the Games’ highlights, a real Rugby match, the first I’d ever witnessed. The black and gold Pittsburgh Rugby Club, supposedly all over age 35, easily defeated a black and crimson team from the University of Kentucky. As one who is addicted to American football, I must say that I was fascinated with the helmetless and padless, almost uninterrupted roughhouse play. This was not unlike the bloody sandlot football I engaged in as a teenager.

If you were wondering if I ever encountered those friends whom I spoke of earlier, the answer is yes. We enjoyed a lunch of hot sausages together, topped off with some fresh scones for dessert. As the sun was sinking toward the treetops, I knew that I had to leave this most exciting exploit to return home for my wife’s musical. Knowing that the Games weekend would close the next day with a traditional Scottish worship service at the local Presbyterian Church and an afternoon of Celtic music on the diamond in Ligonier, I crossed the mountain toward home, secure in the knowledge that my Scottish heritage would be well preserved, at least until I return again next year.

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