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Glengarry Highland Games return July 29-30

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This summer, for the 64th year, the farming community of Maxville, Ontario will host one of North America's biggest highland games.

The theme for 2011 is: "The Year of the Clans". Those with family tartans are encouraged to come and march. And everyone is welcome to learn more about Scottish culture and heritage.

This year's games will take place on Friday and Saturday (July 29-30). Maxville, Ontario is 45 minutes north of Cornwall, or an hour east of Ottawa.

The old favorites will be back: competition, displays, and day-into-night music, dance and athleticism. This year organizers have added a harp workshop that's open to all. The musical guests include a well-known family group from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia: The Barra MacNeils.

Lucy Martin brings us a sampler from last summer's games (2010).

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(Faint crowd chatter as a solo piper plays)

Glengarry is like a lot of places in Canada – it was largely settled by Scots. So this is a major annual event, attended by tens of thousands. Yet, somehow, it still runs on friendly, small-town charm.

Roaming about, it's pretty much non-stop bagpipes, anywhere you go. From solo laments, to bands and their standard marching tunes. That plus fiddles, drums and kilts. The immersion – into so much cultural devotion – is quite something.

(Announcer for the sheaf toss: “The height is going up to 31' 9”.)

The games part features burly men and solid women in kilts. They hurl stones, hammers and sacks – and flip what look like phone poles – called cabers. (Crowd cheers and claps) This might sound silly, but you know what? It doesn't look silly. It's a really engrossing display of strength and skill.

Besides the athletics, there's plenty more. Sheep dog demonstrations. Food and merchandise booths. Lots of music and a few workshops. Many of the participants are children, or teens.

Jennifer Irwin from Carleton Place was in the big white dance tent with her daughters.

Jennifer Irwin “Leah, Laura and Lindsay. It's traditional highland dancing. I didn't dance, but my sister did. The girls have been dancing since they were (questions her oldest daughter) three? Eh, Leah, three? She's fourteen now, so eleven years.”

Leah Irwin: “I've done highland my whole life. Now I take it a lot more seriously, than I did when I was little. I wanted to do better myself, and look better on stage. Just to remember everything my teacher has told me, like turn out, point your feet, jump high enough.”

(Drums and pipes playing in the background)

On the other side of the fairgrounds, long-time teacher and judge, Hugh Cameron was tuning a drum. One of his students, Graham Ricketts-Moncur stayed loose with some practice drills.

Hugh Cameron: “We're pretty fussy on our sound. It's a very high-pitched sound. And it delivers a lot of clarity so, you can have a lot of people, playing a lot of detail. And they, hopefully, can be heard.”

Graham Ricketts-Moncur: “I've been drumming for six years now. As time went on, I realized there was a lot more subtleties in it, than I had first perceived.”

Lucy Martin: “Is this an odd thing to do? Do you have friends that do this, or does everyone look at you like, 'What? A kilt? Drums? Are you nuts?'!”

Graham Ricketts-Moncur: “I have a couple friends at school that do this. Though, obviously, some of my closer friends think it's kind of weird. Like, they call it an skirt, and, you know? But they like the drumming part of it. They think the drumming part is really cool. But, yeah. They are accepting of it, I should say. Probably. Yeah.”

Hugh Cameron: “When I was growing up, it was like, on the one hand, you're, as a young person, you're afraid of being sort of, like, sissified, or whatever, by your friends. On the other hand, the World War two guys were, you know, no underwear under the kilt and were super macho. So, it's like you got it both directions.”

And what about that range of responses, to bagpipes?

Hugh Cameron: “Piping, it's a primal instrument. It's a very old kind of music. Fundamentally pagan. A little bit in your face. If you don't like pipes, it tends to annoy you, because it's hitting you in the body in a certain way. And if you do like it, it's hitting you in that way and you tend to be mesmerized by it.”

(Singer performing“Flower of Scotland”)

It all comes to a peak at the grandstands. One by one, three sky jumpers float down, with a Scottish, American and Canadian flag, fluttering behind. This unofficial national anthem,“Flower of Scotland”, celebrates Robert the Bruce routing Edward II and all his army, back in 1314.

(Song ends to applause. Bass drums beat and massed bands start piping.)

Row after row of kilted pipe bands march in, building a sonic wall of primal sound.

Love it or not, for centuries, this music has touched Scots, to their core. A proud culture that was – perhaps – conquered, but never truly surrendered. The field becomes a grand spectacle of hundreds of pipers, drummers and dancers, massed in the setting sun.

There might be no better way – this side of the Atlantic – to feel the power of the pipes and all things Scottish.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Lucy Martin at the Glengarry Highland Games in Maxville, Ontario.

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