Myrtle Beach flips out for first Highland Games
An inaugural Highland Games filled Myrtle Beach’s Grand Park at The Market Common Saturday with bagpipers, sheep herding Border Collies, Scottish food vendors and a host of strong men and women throwing heavy objects in the air just for the fun of it.
Organized by the Myrtle Beach Regional Pipe & Drum Band, band director Todd Cartner brought the idea to City Council and gained approval and sponsorship for the first ever Myrtle Beach Highland Games and Heritage Festival. Cartner sold the city on the idea that he says has enough appeal to grow into a significant tourist draw to the area. Saturday’s strong attendance seemed to support that prediction.
Glasgow native and Canadian snowbird Joanetta Boyd has visited Myrtle Beach annually since 2003 and was almost giddy with excitement Saturday as she watched the opening ceremonies. She and friend Debbie Rees, a Canadian with an Irish background who finds the pipe music “haunting,” had also attended Friday night’s Ceildih (pronounced kay-lee), a traditional Gaelic social event with music and dancing.
“I really enjoyed it,” Boyd said, turning heads with her strong Scottish accent. “It was very exciting. I’m looking forward to the games, the pipes, the collie dogs and everything.”
Saturday’s turnout included representatives from 22 Scottish Highlander clans and the Council of Scottish Societies of America. Kicking off the ceremonies was a March of the Massed Bands by four bagpipe bands that included the Myrtle Beach group with the newly formed Coastal Carolina Shields Pipes & Drums, The St. Andrew’s University Pipe Band and the Cross Creek Pipes & Drums. Singer Morgan Sutherland followed with Songs of the Nations for Canada, Great Britain, Scotland and the U.S.
There were a lot of kilts — not skirts — worn by men and women of all ages. St. Andrew’s senior and president of student government, 21-year-old history major and bagpiper Stuart Marshall admitted wearing a kilt can bring about some teasing, but he pointed out that part of the uniform includes a sgian-dubh, or black knife tucked into a high top sock.
“So that is part of the uniform. Anybody has a problem, they see that, too,” he said, lightheartedly. He said he is always happy to explain the cultural history when a parent tells a child to look at the men in skirts.
Marshall is one of a group of college-age students forming the band from Laurinburg, N.C. He and his brother were encouraged to embrace their Scottish heritage by their father, a historian. After a trip to Scotland, both brothers learned to play the bagpipes and Marshall selected St. Andrew’s in part because of its Scottish Heritage Scholarship. He said while wearing a kilt is a requirement of playing a bagpipe, he had been wearing one even before he played the instrument. He donned the plaid apparel whenever his family would visit the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, which just celebrated 60 years.
A bagpiper for more than 40 years, 74-year-old Dan Curtin began his bagpipe lessons at age 30 while a New York City police officer. Moving to Myrtle Beach after retirement, he joined the newly formed Coastal Carolina Shields band.
This is probably the best turnout for a first games I’ve seen
Chris Chafin, Highland Games athlete
While listening to the melodious sounds of the bagpipe and viewing the array of kilts made for a unique day, the games themselves drew excitement from the crowd.
To enter the games, athletes must wear a kilt and must compete in all the games of the day. Saturday’s games included the hammer throw, which amounts to swinging a 16- or 22-pound hammer attached to a handle around and over the head and shoulder and tossing it as far as possible. There was also the sheaf toss where the athletes took a 16- or 20-pound burlap bag stuffed with bailing twine or straw and using a three-prong pitchfork tossed the bag in the air and over a crossbar as high as possible. Then there was the Caber toss, an actual tree trunk weighing 120 pounds that was tossed end over end.
Visiting Highland Games athlete Chris Chafin, whose job is chief of police in Fairbluff, N.C., said the Myrtle Beach group did an excellent job promoting the event.
“This is probably the best turnout for a first games I’ve seen and the crowd is enjoying it. The main thing is to get the crowd into it,” Chafin said.
A competitor for 20 years and a professional in the games for the last nine years, 48-year-old Chafin travels throughout the U.S. and Canada. His town, he said, supports him with a flexible schedule.
Women’s competitor Amanda Ford, 33, of Wilmington, was winning all the women’s events by late in the day. In her second season of games, Ford threw a weight 15 feet over a crossbar to win that “weight for height” competition. Ford said she strength trains four to six times a week but noted that sports agility helps in winning.
“If you cannot move, having muscles doesn’t matter,” she said.
There was also a children’s section with numerous activities that included archery, which drew the attention of 11-year-old Dominique Thompson of Myrtle Beach. Another draw to all ages was the sheep herding by working Border Collies and presented by farmers Donald and Dorothy Thomas and Terry Stroud of North Carolina.
Even the “Tour of the Isles” Scottish whiskey tasting held at nearby Tupelo Honey garnered a standing ovation, according to Cartner.
To ensure the Highland Games would be successful in Myrtle Beach, Cartner and other Myrtle Beach Regional Pipe Band members visited area Highland Games in the surrounding area prior to developing the festival concept. What they saw were events drawing thousands of spectators. Combining that with the interest already being shown in the area for bagpipe music, they determined bringing such an event to the city could work. They also needed a way to help pay for their own band expenses. Another outcome, since the nonprofit band has a background with area firefighters, part of the funds raised from the festival will provide support for two firefighter relief funds.
Angela Nicholas is a freelance reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org