"O Scotia! my dear, my native soil!
For whom my warmest wish to Heaven is sent,
Long may thy hard sons of music toil
Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content!"
If from somewhere beyond the Scottish Highlands Robert Burns watched last Saturday's fourth annual Virginai Scottish games, he saw his "warmest wish" come true.
From hither and yon they came, lads and lassies in plaid kilts by the thousands, playing bagpipes, fiddling, dancing, hugging, meeting with "clans" (family lines traced back hundreds of years) and competing in atheletic events preserved for centuries by Scottish farmers. They were healthy, peaceful and content, the Scots and descendents of Scots who spent the sunny day on the Episcopal High School grounds sharing their ancestry with one another and with outsiders.
Elizabeth Taylor and husband John Warner, both rich in Scottish blood it turns out, watched much of the second half of the day-long activities.
"My Scottish ancestry goes back to Queen Mary of Scotland, on the wrong side of the sheets I might add," said Taylor, who called the sound of bagpipes she heard as she approached the games "wonderful."
"I'm part of the fourth generation out of the Stuart Clan (of the Stuart royal dynasty)," Warner said. "In fact, my ancestors built Balmoral Castle."
Taylor had been invited to start the children's games for the day and, other than that, Warner said, "We're just trying to attract as little attention as possible."
For the most part they succeeded, as spectators flocked to the various events. But the favourite all day long was the Heptathlon competition composed of seven athletic events from the old country - the 16-pound stone put, 22-pound hammer throws, the sheaf toss, 56-pound weight toss and the caber toss. They are called the "heavy" events in Scotland for obvious reasons. An important distiction in terms is that "throws" are for distance and "tosses" are for height. In any case, they are grueling, designed for rough, strong men. And, for the most part, that's exactly who competed.
"You better believe you have to be in good shape for these events," said Arnold Pope, 45, of Fayetteville, N.C. Pope, who admits having some Scottish blood but "not enough to do anybody any harm," has completed in Scottish games in various parts of the United States for four years and once in Scotland.
"Some of the guys here are regular competitors at Scottish games," Pope said. "We always show up at the same place. It's like a reunion."
In addition to Pope, the regulars in Alexandria included Ed McComas, Fred Vaughn and Dave Bryson, a big newcomer who at 21 is by far the youngest of the lot. The attraction is in the atmosphere sourrounding the games, they all agreed, since cash prizes for winners are usually small. Last Saturday's Winner, McComas, was awarded $600 toward a trip to Scotland to compete in the Highland Games there.
Of "intermixed" background, McComas, 45, who lives in Blatimore and, works for an oil company, played the games like a Scottish throughbred. With his brawny arms straining, kilt swirling and easy smile flashing at admiring nolookers,
"The attraction of this competition is out there," McComas said, pointing to the crowd that had gathered to watch the unique caber tossing event, which is traced to Scottish woodsmen who would toss logs across streams. A caber is a 19-to 20-feet-long log weighing approximately 125 pounds which contestants try to toss end-over-end. The winner is the contestant whose toss lands closest to the "12 o'clock position" which would be perpendicular to the point he tossed from.
McComas won Saturday's caber toss to the delight of the crowd which shouted, "C'mon, Ed," as he lifted the log, rested it carefully against one shoulder so that the log was pointing almost straight to the air, steadied himself and began an awkward run, slowly at first and gradulaay picking up speed. Suddenly he stopped, planted his feet, thrust upward with his arms and the log flew into the air landing practically straight on one end. It seemed to stand still for a moment before teetering and falling at a nearly perfect "11:55" measure.
"I've competed in a lot of track meets," said McComas, who competed in the shot-put, discus and hammer throw for the Ameatur Athletic Union, "where the only spectators were relatives and dogs." So several years ago McComas began competing in the hepththlon and now he tries to make 12 to 14 games per year.
Last year McComas and Vaughn traveled around Scotland competing and winning "a lot of seconds," with Vaughn taking first in one town where, according to McComas, "the people thought it was wrong for Americans to be wearing kilts and they didn't like us doing so well." All turned out well afterwards, Vaughn added, when the people made up by "giving us whisky and beer."
In less strenous but no less intense competition, pipe and drum corps from the area as well as from Pennsyivania, New York, Ohio and elsewhere vied for top honors.
%Scottish legend has it that it takes seven years to make a good piper," said Fred Vanderspool of Annapolis who plass the bagpipers for the City of Alexandria Pipe and Drump Corps and who, coincidentally, has been playing for exactly seven years. "It is a difficult instrument to learn. We paly about three times as many notes as people actually hear. We control our tone and pitch by squeezing the bag with our arm. Just as slight change in pressure can throw the pitch off."
Vanderpool and fellow corps member, Bill Thomson of Alexandria, were not saitisfied with their group's performance Saturday.
"Judges listen for a group where everyone starts together and ends exactly together," Thomson said. "We didn't start together, didn't end together and we weren't completely in tune, so our chances don't look good."
"The really top groups are so perfectly in tune and start and end so perfectly together, they sound like one bigpipe," Vanderpool added.
Both men were impressed with the attire of the McDonald Pipe Band of Islewild Park, Pa. The group wore kilts with a piece of material which extended over their shoulders, plumed hats and spats.
"Those long kind of kilts are what might be called military dress," Vanderpool explained. "In the old days a soldier would take that one long piece of material and stretch it out on the ground. then he'd lie on it and wrap part of it around his waist - that became his kilt. The remaider of the material he'd warp around his chest for warmth and maybe put some over his heads as a hood.
"Our outfits (more traditional short kilts withour the extend cloth) are more infromal. Ours are more like civilian dress."
Visitors interested in tasting a bit of Scottish authenticity munched on meat or raisin pies or tried some Yorkshire Relish Sauce. Others explored their personal roots by visiting different clan booths which were often decorated with coats-of-arms and lists of descendants' names.
"We have one big clan meeting every year," said Peggy Tichy of Silver Spring, a member of the Gregor Clan. "It's like a big family reunion. It's amazing how close you can feel to people you only see once in a while. Two hundred of us from the Gregor Clan went to Scotland together in 1675 where we met up with our clan members who live there."
Regardless of the clan, members keep in touch. The Gregors have a brochure with history and general information in addition to a yearbook which details marriages, deaths, births and chivevements of clan members. The McLeod Clan had a magazines; others use newsletters.
Despite the color of the day and the uniqueness of attire, perhaps the most significnat sight was that of a child, 5 or 6 years-old, wearing a T-shirt that said, simply, "Scotland forever."
Did you see that, Robert Burns?