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“Throwing at the Beach: Highland Games Arrive on The Strand”

Amanda Ford participating in one of the Highland Games. Courtesy photo.
Amanda Ford participating in one of the Highland Games. Courtesy photo.

On Saturday, the kilts descend on Grand Park at The Market Common.

Along with these kilts, words like caber, Clachneart, bangers and haggis will be bandied about with impunity, vying for placement into the local lexicon.

If you think this is all Greek to you, think again. It’s Celtic.

The inaugural Myrtle Beach Highland Games & Heritage Festival has arrived.

For the uninitiated, Highland Games are celebrations of Celtic culture, built around events dating back to the Middle Ages in Scotland. Events include feats of strength and endurance, music – featuring the iconic Great Highland Bagpipe – folk dancing, Scottish whiskies, ales, traditional Scottish fare and much more, including a parade of tartans and Scottish clan tents.

The games are popular attractions across the nation and the Carolinas, with such events taking place in nearby Wilmington, N.C. and Charleston – but until now, the Grand Strand was devoid of this Gaelic goodness.

And all of this came about because of the Myrtle Beach Regional Pipe & Drum Band, which has been a part of the fabric of the Grand Strand since its inception in 1997. The band is volunteer-based and currently boasts a growing roster of more than 20 members.

“We pretty much cover the coastline of South Carolina,” said band director Todd Cartner, adding that more and more people that move into the area are requesting the band to play various events and venues – a tough prospect at times, especially when considering the costs involved with outfitting each member from head-to-toe in authentic Celtic garb.

“We needed to do something to raise money for the band,” he said.

Sometimes solutions present themselves in seemingly random ways.

At a practice session at Cartner’s house one day, the band noticed a live television interview being done at the Cape Fear Highland Games in Wilmington, NC. Intrigued, Cartner and a couple of other members drove to Wilmington to check it out.

What they saw was an event that drew 3,500 spectators last year.

Cartner and company realized that a Highland Games event in Myrtle Beach would raise awareness about local bagpipe bands in general while helping to cover costs for their band.

“It’s a scalable event that we could grow every year,” he said, adding that he attended other Highland Games events with several band members, including the Triad Highland Games [Greensboro, N.C.], the Scotland County Highland Games [Laurinburg, N.C.], the Grandfather Mountain Games [western North Carolina], which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, with attendance estimates easily sailing past 20,000 visitors.

They also hit up the 44th Annual Charleston Scottish Games & Highland Gathering, which took place on the grounds of Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant.

But these were not idle visits, as Cartner explains:

“We went to every vendor – whether it was a merchandise vendor, a food vendor, or a clan tent – and we handed them applications to our games, right on site. And the other thing we did was a little ‘save the date’ card and passed out 10,000 of those at all of the games.”

The heavy athletics component, of course, is forefront at the games – and right off the bat, the Myrtle Beach Highland Games [www.myrtlebeachhighlandgames.com] is keeping this legit with the involvement of two athletic organizations: Southeastern Highland Athletics Group (SHAG) and Highland Games League (HGL).

“SHAG is a group of professional judges, athletic directors and sports medicine people,” said Cartner. “They do games all over the southeast. This is a group that athletes can join and become part of their circuit.”

All athletes need to fill out an official application in order to participate in any SHAG-affiliated event. What these athletes do is commonly referred to as “throwing.” [See info box for details.]

More than 50 athletes are currently on tap for the throwing events in four categories.

SHAG president and athletic director Scott Medlin said that organizations like his are contracted by Highland Games groups across the nation – and its mission is laid out on SHAG’s website:

“SHAG provides equipment, trained personnel and years of combined experience to make sure every game is run as smoothly and entertainingly as possible.”

Medlin trained under the late Ross Morrison, longtime president of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. He is a stickler for accuracy.

“I teach people to be able to judge in the right way,” he said. “My background is in track and field, so all of my weights are certified. I check them by scale before I even come to a game and make sure that if there are any world records, they are legal – that they are as real as anybody can check.”

Medlin will be coming the Myrtle Beach event and serving in a number of roles, including on-field announcing, scorekeeping and watching for safety issues.

Amanda Ford of Wilmington is in her second full season of competitive throwing, and was invited by both Cartner and Medlin to compete in Myrtle Beach.

“My motivation to start throwing was simply the friendly sport competition and the completely random friendships you make with people from around the world,” she said.

Ford cites two event components as strong suits.

“I have an advantage in the sheaf toss because of the drive power I have with my legs,” she said. “It can sort of be compared to a deadlift when breaking down the technique of this event. When driving the sheaf up to ‘pop’ it off your fork, I put everything into my legs to create the power behind the sheaf so it goes as high as it can.”

For the hammer throw, Ford relies on a strong base stance, flexibility and the ability to keep her arms long on the wind-up.

“I also continuously keep focus on my breathing and low points, which can be difficult for some,” she said.

Ford said she expects to compete well, try for new personal records, drink some beer and make new friends in Myrtle Beach.

“I’ve been looking forward to this game since last season. I think it’s going to be an amazing turnout and I’m completely honored to be invited – and I can’t wait to see everyone there.”

An interesting twist on the throwing events is an opportunity for spectators to participate in scaled-down versions of some of these components, called the Medieval Times Patron Games.

There will also be plenty of events for kids in the Ripley’s Kids Glen, including kid-safe versions of the caber toss and sheath toss [stuffed animal] – in addition to a wellie boot toss [firefighter’s boot], tug-of-war, three-legged sack race, archery and hatchet throwing. They can also do battle with a Medieval Times knight [“Fight-a-Knight”]

“We are also going to do an event called the Celtic Run. We will have kilts for all of the kids, and they can do a 50-yard dash.”

The atmosphere promises to be festive and authentic – with a dizzying array of Celtic clan tents and merchandise vendors, hawking everything from kilts and sashes to Celtic jewelry emblazoned with the Myrtle Beach Highland Games logo.

Traditional fare will be plentiful – haggis, fish and chips, Scottish eggs and bangers – but for those who don’t stray far off the beaten path, take heart. Familiar favorites like Dominos and Moe’s Original BBQ will be on hand as well.

Add to this mix Border Collie demonstrations, a Parade of Tartans, the March of the Clans and Societies and a mass pipe band performance featuring four bagpipe bands linked together, and you begin to get a feel for the scope of this undertaking.

A “Tour of the Isles” whiskey tasting has already sold out.

And let’s not forget the visiting bands – Tuatha Dea out of Tennessee and Columbia-based Celtic folk-rock outfit, Syr.

“One thing that we decided to do that we learned from the Grandfather Mountain Games is to bring in some really good Celtic music,” said Cartner. “Tuatha Dea coins themselves as a Celtic gypsy band, and they are amazing.”

He added that Tuatha Dea was one of the finalists in the Hard Rock Rising Battle of the Bands last year.

On hand also will be the St. Andrews University Pipe Band from Laurinburg, N.C.

All of this begins with a welcome party on Friday night called a Ceilidh [pronounced “kay-lee”]. This takes place from 6 p.m.-10p.m.

The decision to utilize the location at Grand Park came about after the city of Myrtle Beach signed on as a sponsor.

City of Myrtle Beach Public Information Officer Mark Kruea said Cartner ultimately brought the idea to City Council after presenting it to the city’s Special Events Technical Review Committee.

“It’s a new event for us and one that has fairly broad appeal through a built-in audience, especially in the Carolinas,” he said. “Some on Council and staff were familiar with Highland Games at other locations, including Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, while others were familiar with various pipe band competitions, in Charleston and elsewhere. In short, I think we saw it as an exciting addition to the event schedule, albeit on a fairly busy weekend already. Todd asked if the city would co-sponsor the fledgling event, and Council said yes.”

Kruea also cited a strong Scottish holdover just across the North Carolina state line in Scotland and Robeson Counties, hence the name Scotland County.

Could the Highland Games be loosely considered sports tourism?

“It’s certainly not what we think of as sports tourism in the traditional sense, so I’d say no to that. But it very much is tourism in other senses, as it will attract visitors from near and far. The event has a chance of being a big hit, I think, but caber tossing and the other athletic feats aren’t the sole focus. It just doesn’t fit the tournament mold.”

Kruea noted that Myrtle Beach is not Scottish in origin, but many regular visitors are.

“It’s a fun, colorful, family type of event that will appeal to many,” he said. “I’m amazed at how many people are looking for an excuse to make a trip to the beach, and the Highland Games will give them a really good reason to pay us a visit.”

A trip for two to Edinburgh, Scotland will be raffled off at the closing ceremonies. This includes round-trip airfare, hotel and $1000 spending cash.

All in all, Cartner is confident about the outcome of this first effort.

“This is something Myrtle Beach has never experienced, and the beauty of it is that we can grow every year,” he said.

“IF YOU GO”

WHAT: Myrtle Beach Highland Games & Heritage Festival

Athletics, Music, Vendors, Beer & Food

WHERE: Grand Park at the Market Common, 1004 Crabtree Ln, Myrtle Beach

WHEN: Saturday, March 19, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

HOW MUCH: Adults [12 and over] $12, Children 6-12 $6.00, Seniors [65 and over] $5

Children under 5 free

Rain or Shine

WHAT: Friday Night Ceilidh [Welcome Party]: Music, Beer & Food

Featuring Ripley's Drum Corps, Syr, St. Andrews Pipe Band and Tuatha Dea

WHERE: Grand Park at the Market Common

WHEN: Friday, March 18, 6 p.m. – 10 p.m.

HOW MUCH: Adults [18 and over] $7, Under 18 free

Rain or Shine

For more info, hit up www.myrtlebeachhighlandgames.com.

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