By James Fife
I mentioned a while back how in a former life I was a theoretical linguist. Most linguists specialize in not just a technical area of language science (as I did in syntax and semantics), but also in a particular language or language family. For me, the choice was Welsh, and, more generally, the other Celtic languages as well. The choice was partly just accident, but it had a sort of subconscious root in my family being Scottish in origin. When it came time in my linguistic career to decide on a focus language area, having a historical connection with the Celts provided as good a basis to pick one of those languages as any other. Other factors came into play to make Welsh the specific choice.
Linguists are like anthropologists, in that to do their job properly and really understand the language they are studying, they must get to know not just the technical aspects of a language’s grammar and phonology, but also the culture of the people who speak it. So, specializing in a Celtic language naturally led me over the years to learn more about Welsh, Irish, Scots Gaelic, and Breton, and the history, music, and general life of those peoples.
So it is both by nature and by training that I had a burning enthusiasm to attend the Victoria Highland Games since I first learned of them as one of the many intriguing events going on in our new city. Unfortunately, in the time since we bought Home North, it has not worked out that we have been in Victoria at precisely the weekend when the Games are held. We were always here just a little before or a little after the scheduled weekend, and, since it’s an annual event, mis-timing meant no chance again for another year.
But this year, by careful design, we arranged to make a visit to coincide with the Games and Victoria Day, thus taking in two new Victoria experiences in one trip. We’ve about completed our catalogue of visiting in all seasons; now we needed to hone in on individual highpoints in the calendar to complete our Victorianization process.
Our plan was to hit Topaz Park early on the first day and soak it all in. We were bringing along our neighbour—who is a native Scot—so the enthusiasm level in the car was reasonably high. I had prepared well: I was wearing my clan-tartan scarf (despite the warm 13° temperature), complemented by my Welsh woolen Dai cap (sporting a Welsh Language Society pin), and I had mentally prepared by browsing my huge picture book of ancient Celtic art treasures. I couldn’t possibly be more fired up for the full, ethnic experience ahead.
As we approached the park, the misty haze of my Celtic miasma started to dry up in the stark sunlight of reality. Although I had lived in Wales and Ireland for years, I had forgotten about the concept of ‘Celtic time.’ Despite our arriving a good hour past the official start time, things were still being set up and none of the scheduled activities was underway. So, we wandered around the field watching the preparations and hoping for something to start soon.
Beyond the sports fields where competitors were still warming up, the main area was like a huge street fair, but one with a very odd focus. The usual farmer’s market stall trinkets were here replaced by ones flogging kilts, bodhran drums, and bagpipe accessories, as well as some less Scottish-themed items. There was a double row of tents dedicated to various clans. But, as I guess a sop to pan-Celticism, in their midst stood a lonely-looking, Welsh tent offering a few Welsh Tourist Board pamphlets—staffed by an attendant who seemed more interested in finishing her reading than responding to my enthusiastically uttered greeting in Welsh. There was the obligatory food court, which had some well-attended booths having a semblance of a British ‘cuisine,’ but also to one side a less-busy, Hungarian food kiosk that looked almost as out of place as the Welsh tent. At least here our neighbour met an old friend who was selling Scottish pies, so he at least was getting something out of the event.
But eventually the Games roused from their slumber and got going. We were then pretty busy moving about the increasingly crowded field to catch several troops of Irish dancers flinging their legs up, some dog agility events (without sheep—a very un-Celtic arrangement), and a pipe band that had a penchant to set modern pop tunes to bagpipe and drum scores. The stalwart drum major stood by impassively immobile and dour, as if he took a dim view of all the new-fangled use of the pipes and drums.
I personally wanted to catch at least a bit of a hurling match to remind me of my Dublin days. But as these were real competitions, they did not happen on cue, so it was hard to be in the right place at the right time. We managed to catch the highlight of the afternoon when the opening ceremony was held. Following the usual round of (thankfully short) speeches by mayors and MLAs, a massed pipe and drum band entered the field and played far more traditional and expected favourites. This was followed by a cannon that would not fire on cue to signal the official start of the Games, but that too felt very ‘Celtic’ in its effect.
By then we were all pretty knackered and decided to head for the gate. On the way out we did pass people throwing large stones and tossing bales of hay over a goal post. You know, the typical things Scots do to pass the time. Marilyn was disappointed to miss the whiskey school and the sword-fighting, but she was rewarded with good, old-fashioned, Highland food: Jamaican jerk chicken rolled in a naan bread.
It was all in all a right cailleseangaígh. That’s a Scots Gaelic word I learned early in my Celtic linguistics career. It was one of several terms an anthropologist recorded for different levels of street fights occurring in Glasgow. A cailleseangaígh is not the most destructive sort of fight (called a ‘clash maclabhar’), but it is a bigger set-to than the lowest level (a ‘mere midweek duirdream’). The Highland Games pleasantly proved to be another one of the many and varied delights we have discovered to Home North.