Scottish Highland Festival a tradition dear to the hearts of Michigan families with Celtic heritage

Centuries of Celtic tradition will be on display at Alma College this weekend at the 47th Highland Festival and Games.

Founded in 1968 as a way for Alma residents to connect with their Scottish heritage, the event celebrates cultural roots through a variety of customs dating back to the 1300s. Most faithful to the days of Scottish yore are the athletic events, which include feats of strength and power originally performed as an alternative to war in Scotland.

"The events were used by chiefs of highland clans to determine who their strongest warriors were," said Jeremy McBain, a longtime participant in the games.

Centuries ago, the clans used the games to determine the winners of conflict by pitting their strongest warriors against each other to prevent bloodshed.

The games consist of seven to nine events, the most famous among them being the caber toss. A Highland Games crowd favorite, a caber is a log 17-to-21-feet in length and over 100 pounds thrown end-over-end in an attempt to accurately have it land straight from the point of origin.

The events take not only raw strength, but also explosive quick-twitch muscle training. McBain said he trains six days a week year-round for the competition.

"In the winter time, I spend a lot of time in the gym doing strongman type training, olympic lifts like squats and dead lifts," McBain said. "Outdoor training consists of footwork, some drilling on throws with my own equipment, lifting boulders, things like that."

Other events include the open stone, which appears very similar to the shot put of modern track and field. A 42 or 56-pound weight is thrown for distance at the heavy event. Another highlight is the Scottish hammer event, which uses a 22-pound metal sphere attached to a flexible handle that is thrown for distance.

"I love the history of it, thats one of the things that drew me to it," said Mike Brown. "It's nice to know that were keeping alive a tradition that our ancestors put in place. It's interesting on that aspect to be doing something that not many people do but dates back as far as the olympics."

Brown started throwing in 1999, participating in six to eight competitions a year until suffering a work-related injury in 2006. He said his brothers-in-arms wouldn't let him walk away from the sport, so he has been judging the games ever since.

He has judged four Masters World Championships across the United States and Scotland. His experience speaks to the spirit of camaraderie among the athletes, who in some cases have been coming to compete for generations.

"There's definitely a brotherhood, we want to see everyone do their best," Brown said. "Some of us have been throwing together 15 years and because of that, off the field we take care of each other."

The Alma Highland Festival sets off professional competitive season on Saturday morning. The amateur competition is held on Sunday, but that is not all there is to the event.

Paula Moegenburg, an official for the event, said there is a wide array of events and music, including a piping and drumming band competition. There are also entertainment tents, several Celtic musical groups like the Chelsea House Orchestra and Celtic rock group,  the "Mudmen."

Along with vendors and various craftsman, members of 33 Scottish clans will be in attendance, allowing patrons to trace their family's heritage. Moegenburg said Saturday draws a crowd of roughly 12,000 because of the games.

"Friday we started in the evening with more of a welcome gathering so people can sit down and catch up, we call it the 'Friday night get together'," Moegenburg said. "Saturday morning everyone has their game face on. Everyone is in a good mood, its like coming home."

McBain said the Highland Games are an integral part of who he is. Raised in celtic culture, McBain has done his fair share of playing Scottish bagpipes, speaking the language, and even owns quite a few kilts.

"We're like family, we hang out all year," McBain said. "It's just a great close-knit group. We compete against each other, but we always have each others back at the end of the day it doesn't matter that we win or lost."

Tickets for the event can be purchased at the gate and cost $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and children 6-17. Children six years old and under get in free. Two-day passes can be purchased for a discounted price.


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