BIG, BAD & PLAID

Savannah Scottish Games and Celtic Festival return to Bethesda

When General James Edward Oglethorpe stepped onto the bluff of Savannah and founded the Georgia colony in 1733, one of the first things the military strategist and colonial governor knew he needed was a show of force and strength to stave off any unwanted attack from the Spanish in Florida to his south.

click to enlarge SAVANNAH SCOTTISH GAMES
Savannah Scottish Games

Bring on the Highlanders

Fast-forward to today where Scottish descendants are eager to share their heritage and history once again through the 44th Savannah Scottish Games to be held at the historic Bethesda Academy on May 7, 2022.

“The Scottish population in Savannah is significant,” said Bob Williams, President of the Savannah Scottish Games. “There are many Scottish affiliations here. St. Andrew’s Society, St. Andrew’s School. The Coastal Scottish Heritage Society, to name a few. We’re thrilled to have this event back and everyone has been working hard to make it the best family event.”

“After planning everything for 2020, our games were canceled due to the pandemic,” said Williams. “We didn’t plan anything for 2021, so this year, we have been quite excited to move forward and resume the games for everyone.”

click to enlarge COREY BROOKS
Corey Brooks

The Scottish Games schedule is chock full of events celebrating Scottish heritage, honoring its history, and showcasing the traditional games dating back to the 11th century. Some key activities include. the marching of the clans, Highland dancing, Pipe and Drum bands, Sheep Herding with Border Collies, storytellers, children’s activities, re-enactors, vendors, Scottish goods, tartans, and jewelry, as well as food and beverage options, not to mention all of the games and competition.

Williams explained more about the Scottish clans and what’s thought to be the origin of the Highland games.

“The noted clans—McDonalds, Campbells, Stewards—were the wealthy landowners in Scotland. The second cousins and distant relatives, as well as the people who sublet the property to farm and such—had different names and were in septs within these larger clans. These smaller septs would rally with the larger one. Think of it as extended family,” Williams said.

click to enlarge SAVANNAH SCOTTISH GAMES
Savannah Scottish Games

“Some of them worked well together and some of them butted heads. Scots are known for being a bit stubborn,” he added with a snicker. “But, when it came to the intrusion of the Romans and the English, they tended to band together, as illustrated in movies, books, etc. There was a lot of internal conflict and competition within the clans which led to the rise of the Scottish games. They provided a non-lethal way to work out angst, anger, and differences.”

“The Scottish obviously made use of what they had around for these games. Those were typically logs, stones, weights, and pitchforks,” Williams said. “The games tended to be agrarian oriented in terms of what they were using. They threw cabers which are tall logs that are very specifically weighed. They would also do a sheaf toss – a small bale of hay tossed over a bar with a pitchfork. It’s quite impressive.”

Jason McFarland, Coordinator of the Athletics for the Savannah Scottish Games, laughed at the reference to the caber being called a “big telephone pole.”

“I get it, it does look like a telephone pole,” McFarland said. “The pole is called a caber and is anywhere between 16-20 feet tall, depending on the athlete competing. It can weigh anywhere from 90-120 pounds,” he said. “The object is to pick it up off the ground in the right position and then toss it. It takes quite a bit of talent and patience. I’ve seen people get hurt, but for the most part, these athletes are in great shape and know what they’re doing. The throw is scored on distance and such.”

click to enlarge SAVANNAH SCOTTISH GAMES
Savannah Scottish Games

McFarland shared additional backstory on the caber. “Growing up, I heard that during the British occupation of Scotland, there were forts throughout the country. The Scots weren’t allowed to have any weapons, so they would take a tree—a caber—and lay it against the side wall of the fort for access into the fort for a sneak attack.”

McFarland added, “Other stories say a caber was carried when groups of Scots traveled. They would place it over a river or ravine [or such] whenever they needed to cross it. But, historically, it was also a way for King Malcolm III, back in the 11th century, to find the strongest and most able-bodied warriors through feats of strengths he could use to help defeat the British. That’s sort of the mainline story about the games as to why they exist. There’s also a lot of Greek influence with the hammer throw and the stone throw – obviously with the roots in Greek athletics.”

click to enlarge SAVANNAH SCOTTISH GAMES
Savannah Scottish Games

There will also be presenters demonstrating armor, claymores, and other medieval types of weaponry, while still providing education about the history and heritage of these weapons and their role here in the United States, McFarland said.

In addition to the athletic competition, Williams pointed out the youth Highland dancing contest. 

“It was originally designed primarily for boys, but in the last century, Highland dancing has become more dominated by women and young ladies. Both male and female will compete in judged competitions.”

Williams said Scottish Highland dancing is similar to Irish step dancing, but not. 

“It really is its own unique thing, though,” he stressed. “The music is special and flows with the Celtic feel. The Irish are more refined, using fiddles and flutes, whereas the Scottish prefer accompaniment from a bagpipe.”

click to enlarge SAVANNAH SCOTTISH GAMES
Savannah Scottish Games

And, speaking of the bagpipes, Savannah native, Steward Marshall, was happy to bring his services on board to help coordinate the music for the event.

“I’m thrilled to be doing this. We’ve got great music lined up,” Marshall said. “There will be pipe and drum bands from the Charleston Police, the Savannah Pipe and Drum, a group from St. Augustine, and the Black Thistle Caledonians. Listening to them is like nothing else.”

Marshall, a self-proclaimed history buff, said it’s important to understand one’s heritage—which is typical in any culture. 

“Sharing those things that are special in your heritage helps keep those memories alive for future generations. You know, Oglethorpe trusted the Scots to help protect the colony of Georgia. He got a large group of well-respected Highlanders to settle in Savannah for protection. Even though they’d been displaced from their home after the [Jacobite] Rebellion, they found a home here.”

Williams also explained there will be a moving tribute called Flowers in the Forest. 

“It’s a recognition of all the Scots from the clans who passed away in the previous year. Since we haven’t had this event in two years, we’ll have a lot more people who’ve been involved in the games and clans who will be honored. At noon, we have the official opening with the march of the clans, an honor guard, and young ladies from the high school who will be singing… it will be spectacular. Throughout the day, the pipers will march around the perimeter of the grounds with pipes and drums all day long,” he concluded.

While the athletic competition is for amateur athletes, McFarland said these people come to play. He should know since he attended the Scottish games in Cowal as a youngster and an older teenager.

“My dad was in the Navy and we were stationed in Scotland near where the Cowal Highland Games took place. And, the McFarland lands, ironically, are near there,” he said. “So, it was great seeing it as a 7-year-old, but also to witness again as an older teenager. It was a family event and meant a lot.”

“There’s so much more to [these games] than anyone could ever imagine,” McFarland said. “I thought it was one of those things people signed up for when games were around to do just for the sake of it, but it’s much deeper than that. Over the years, I’ve talked to athletes who do this for a living with sponsorships behind them and they make some good prize money. Most of the athletes here for our event will just be regular folks. We have classes running from lightweight divisions all the way up to 60 for masters,” he said.

click to enlarge SAVANNAH SCOTTISH GAMES
Savannah Scottish Games

McFarland said it’s vital to get the younger generations involved in their own history. 

“We always focus on getting the young crowd involved. It’s stressing the history of the culture and the kinship of it all. We like to give interesting facts and information. When folks come visit our family tent, we share stories and let them know what we’re known for. Each clan offered something special to society and has interesting stories to pique people’s interest.”

Marshall wants people to come out and enjoy the festivities and completely immerse in the experience. 

“Come one, come all. Take it all in. It’s here in your city. There’s free parking and you couldn’t ask for a nicer place than the Bethesda Academy. It would be hard for anyone to have a bad time at this event.”

McFarland hopes visitors and locals alike will come out and cheer on the athletes. “They’ve worked hard for this moment, so come support them.. He stressed, though, that there’s so much more.

“As I said, it’s a family affair. Even though it’s Mother’s Day weekend, bring Mom, get her some great food, watch some incredible feats, see the kids race around the field, and, in general, come learn more about Savannah’s rich Scottish heritage.”

“Oh, and come see us at the McFarland tent and stop by for a wee dram.”

Tickets for the event are $15 for adults; $10 for active military and first responders, and $5 for students 11-17. Kids 10 and under are free. Bethesda Academy – parking across from the main gate and people can walk in. There will be golf carts for anyone needing assistance/handicapped needs.

For more information on the event schedule and tickets, please visit savannahscottishgames.com

Author’s Note: This author spent 53 years thinking she was of British/German heritage…two years ago a DNA test showed her to be 48% Scottish and 12% Dutch. You never know…


Schedule for the 2022 Games

Bethesda Academy, 9570 Ferguson Ave.



Gates open for Clan setup

and competitors

6:30 am


SE Regional Highland

Dancing Championship

8:30 am


Gates open to the public

8:45 am


Athletic competitions begin

9:00 am


Clann Ciúil

(Entertainment Stage) &

Border Collie Herding

9:30 am


Children’s Activities & Games

10:00 am


Seldom Sober

(Entertainment Stage) &

Border Collie Herding

11:00 am


Opening Ceremony

Presentation of Colors, Flowers of the Forest,


Parade of Tartans,

Massed Bands, and children’s kilted run


12:00 pm


Competitions resume

Clann Ciúil (Entertainment Stage)

12:30 am


Children’s Activities Border &

Collie Herding

1:00 pm


Pre-premier Highland Dancing

Seldom Sober

(Entertainment Stage)

1:30 pm


Clann Ciúil

(Entertainment Stage)

2:30 pm


Seldom Sober Culver on the Entertainment Stage

1:30


Clann Ciúil  on the Entertainment Stage

2:30 pm


Border Collie Herding

3:00 pm


Seldom Sober

(Entertainment Stage)

3:30 pm


Highland Dance Awards Presentation

4:00 pm


Heavy Athletics Awards begin

4:00 pm


Closing Ceremony

4:30 pm


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