By Chance

Some of the best things in life happen by chance. We were enjoying a family vacation on the West Coast of Scotland when, by chance, we spotted a poster advertising the Highland Games to be held the following day on the isle of Mull in the Western Hebrides. As we stepped off the ferry at Tobermory, there was a frisson of excitement in the air, insistent drumbeats, the bagpipes’ drone, marching feet. Eagerly, we followed the procession to the parade ground and found our places on the grassy bank bordering the arena. We were enchanted, not only by the sea glistening in the background, the perfect blue sky day, but also by the constant activity.  At one end of the field, Scottish dancers stepped with deft feet, flaring kilts and arms aloft to the accompaniment of a lone bagpiper.  At the other end, we watched in awe as brawny kilted men competed in the “heavy events,” throwing the hammer, carrying a huge weight and, of course, tossing the caber. Cabers are the trunks of sizeable trees. The idea is to pick one up by the end, balance it, break into a run and flip it end over end, so that it lands in a 12 o’clock position. No mean feat. Although the athletes include professionals as well as locals among their number, there’s plenty of opportunity for things to go awry; the athlete failing to raise the caber, falling backwards or lurching drunkenly from side to side, but when there is a clean toss, it’s a thing of wonder!  As the day progressed, the activity never ceased, a road race, piping competitions, children’s events. Perhaps there were concession stands, memory fades, but I do remember and still savor the fresh Scottish salmon sandwiches my mother made for lunch!

Fast forward a number of decades. By chance, I’m chatting with a boy who’s visiting our church. Catching my faded British accent, he plucked up his courage to ask if I came from Scotland. Inevitably, the conversation drifted to the delights of shortbread, haggis, oatcakes and I’rn Bru! Turns out my young friend had written a report about Scotland, inspired by a visit to the Northeast Florida Scottish Games and Festival. By chance, the 2024 event was only a couple of weeks away.

No sparkling Scottish isle, no purple-headed mountains, no green swarth. Instead, a dusty fairground and some limp palm trees. Nonetheless, the air buzzed with excitement for all things Scottish and maybe Scottish, and with the pulsing of massed bagpipe bands.  After the central parade, where the clans marched displaying their family tartans, came the athletes and the Scottish dogs! The whole spectacle was accompanied by a rendition of “The Stars and Stripes” on the bagpipes!  We ambled around the fairground, and yes there were the “heavy events.” A little disheveled and not quite so “heavy” as in my recollection. A traditional caber is from a larch tree, is 18 feet tall, and weighs about 160 lbs.  I’d guess the Floridian version is pine; the judges selected the shorter trunks and explained they could weigh 100 lbs. All the same, the competitive tension was palpable, and the crowd erupted when a couple of cabers teetered then plopped end over end. Scottish Highland Games take place in the summer, the Floridian event is in February – and for good reasons. The athletes all sport a kilt. This manly skirt is made of wool, is heavily pleated, and requires about 8 yards of fabric. Sweaty and itchy in February, presumably close to unbearable in the sultry summer.  I’d been under the impression that tartans dated back many centuries and that there was a taboo against wearing a tartan not attributed to your Scottish ancestry. This is a misconception; tartans were codified in the nineteenth century and made popular by Queen Victoria, who cherished all things Scottish and maybe Scottish.

Hungry after our meanderings, we eschewed the haggis in favor of an American hot dog since there were no Scottish salmon sandwiches in sight.

As we strolled around, we came across the animal enclosure (separate from the  Scottish dogs).  Highland cows were the star attraction. I confess I’ve always liked them. With their shaggy ginger coats and their long horns, they are well adapted to the rains and perils of the Scottish highlands but incongruous in Florida! I chatted with their breeder, who explained that most people keep them as pets – how time has moved on.

Eventually, we wandered away from the shortbread stalls, the Celtic jewelry, and the boiled peanuts! We were serenaded by the droning strains of “Amazing Grace” as we headed home. Wishing that my father’s erstwhile auburn hair signified Scottish heritage, I reflected on the enthusiasm and energy of another lovely day at the Highland Games.  

And, all by chance!

News Flash!

Several of you have been kind to ask when A Glass Darkly will be published.  I haven’t intentionally been building up the tension, but I was disappointed by two different publishers in 2023.  Now, I am back on track, working with Transcendent Publishing, and expect to launch my debut novel in late spring or early summer.

End Notes

End Notes — Taking a break.

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