Well, it starts with that perfect spoonful of custard or buttery bite of Scottish shortbread, and then falling in love with Scotland is all but a certainty after a few visits to the windswept coasts, mysterious islands, and poignant historical grounds.
It was my very first Scottish Highland Games. As is typical in Scotland, it was a rainy day, and a soft cashmere plaid scarf and brolly (umbrella) were in order. We parked the car at Port Glasgow and hopped on the ferry headed over to Dunoon along with a boatful of merrymakers. Weather doesn’t dampen the spirits in these parts. In fact, most of Scotland’s greatest memories I suspect happened in the rain. This was one of those damp and misty mornings. The drizzle eventually stopped, but the mist lay heavy in the valleys and glens, just adding to the dreamlike quality of this incredible event.
The Cowal Gathering in Dunoon, Scotland, is the largest highland games in Scotland, and the absolute most spectacular and grandiose display of bagpipe bands in the world. The finale…wait for it! It’s about to get big….!
We hadn’t even stepped off the boat at the little town of Dunoon when the first soulful bagpipe sound reached our ears. From then on, it was just a matter of following the sound, the merrymakers, and our favorite men in kilts. There was every color of kilt one can imagine. Every Scottish tribe has a tartan, and most have work, dress, special occasion tartans with different patterns of the same or similar colors. Thick wood socks up to the knees, heavy shoes or boots, and layers of shirts and tartan jackets and capes round out the typical outfit.
In fact, we stopped in various pubs on the way to the fairgrounds to warm up with a mug of coffee, and to enter the pub was as if one was entering into a different century. Kilts lined the bar, and the jaunty Tam o’ Shanter cap bobbed all around as the crowd got denser throughout the afternoon, and the laughter and song broke out more frequently. The only indication of the 21st century was the ever present tele with the local football (soccer club) playing.
The memory of that first highland games will always be seared in my memory. Maybe it was Dunoon. Maybe it was the cool, misty morning. Maybe it was the intoxicating mix of the kilts and sound. But there we were, sitting on the hill and looking down on the playing field where the strongmen competed in events, the dancers pranced on tippy toes, and the bagpipe bands competed in sound and formation. The hills formed a natural stadium, and we looked out toward the ferry boats that bobbed in the harbor less than a half mile away. When the finale came, over fifty bagpipe bands gathered on the field and thousands of bagpipes played in unison. The sound was like nothing I had ever experienced. The reverberation of those pipes filled the entire valley and billowed out into the harbor, stopping everyone in their tracks. To look around, one could see open-mouthed awe on spectators, especially the first timers like myself. I have never heard anything like it before or since.
We sat there for several minutes after the last sounds. I wrapped my cashmere blue cape around me, watched the black Scottish terrier play next to me, enjoyed the chill on my cheeks, the mist and fog that dipped into hills and around rocks, and a bite of flap jack. It was a memory I would never forget.
The parade was a raucous affair all the way back to the harbor. The pipe bands had been scored on their military precision, and now they were dressed down and easygoing, playing modern tunes, and donning fun costumes like Elvis masks, and jester hats. The sweet dancers held their trophies high as they walked the cobblestone streets. It was a wonderful display of Scottish pride.
There is not space here to talk of William Wallace, the clan defense of Culloden, Stirling castle, Loch Ness, Inverness, Edinburgh castle, the old course, and the green, green glens near Glasgow and Fort Montgomery. How about the heather on the hills in late summer, the crumbling monasteries once home to the monks who recorded history, the misty lakes, the thistle on the hills, the roaring fireplaces, the aged wood interiors of old, old castles set on secluded lakes? Those are tales for other times.
As for now, we pop into a pub before heading back to Glasgow and the mainland. A bit of bacon wrapped pork tenderloin, clapshot with honey whisky glaze, blackberry apple bramble, and sticky toffee pudding with brown sugar butter sauce should tide us over until our next Scottish adventure. The fire is roaring in the 15th century inn, coats and brollies all around, and the sound of laughter and good Scottish cheer surround us. In a strange and ancient way, it’s home.