Print this page
Friday, 20 November 2009

The Highland Games, Isle of Skye, Scotland

Written by Lily Iona MacKenzie
Rate this item
(0 votes)

 

The Highland Games, Isle of Skye, August Scottish games, travel Scotland, travel Portree, travel Isle of Skye, Braeside Cottage, Lily Iona MacKenzieThe Isle of Skye has always felt like home for me, though I’ve never lived there and have visited only twice.A first-generation Canadian, I grew up listening to my mother and uncle tell stories about their early days in and around its small capital, Portree.

 

They spoke of their grandparent’s croft on the outskirts of town, of their uncle’s tailor shop, and of the Braeside Cottage where Mum hung out her bedroom window and watched the fishermen going to sea The Atlantic is a constant presence with its smells and grey-green surface encircling the island and those who inhabit it.

 

I’d heard stories about The Lump -a natural amphitheater near the center of town where the Highland Games are held each August- so often it seemed I could actually recall having played there as a girl, instead of my mother.

 

The Highland Games, Isle of Skye, August Scottish games, travel Scotland, travel Portree, travel Isle of Skye, Braeside Cottage, Lily Iona MacKenzieMist and myth shroud Skye; the jagged contours and hulking shapes of the Cullins  constantly changing according to the time of day and the light. In July, it’s twilight for most of the night, creating the most magical atmosphere.The mountains are ephemeral, not quite tangible, as if stepping out of a fairy tale.Yet when the sun breaks, everything seems to snap to attention; the land gleams—green, and lush.

 

My husband and I scheduled our trip to Skye so we’d be in Portree for the August Scottish games. We loved the highland games in the San Francisco Bay Area; the pipers, the kilts, the dancing, and the “heavies”, throwing the stone and tossing the caber. Yet comparatively, San Francisco couldn’t hold a candle to the games in Portree.

 

On the morning of the contests, I was showering at my cousin Douglas’s house when I heard his resonant voice booming over a microphone from the other end of town. He was announcing the first competition; I’d forgotten that he’s often been master of ceremonies.

 

Douglas and I first met in1985 when Mum and I visited Skye, he was three years my junior.From the minute he opened his mouth, we began bantering, as if we were old friends. I knew during that conversation I was home.It’s unexplainable, but we already knew each other on some level – now we just needed a little time to catch up.


Due to his love for language, words came easily to Douglas. With his rolling “r’s”,and lilting cadences, he spoke with wit, humor, and a lovely irreverence.

 

The Highland Games, Isle of Skye, August Scottish games, travel Scotland, travel Portree, travel Isle of Skye, Braeside Cottage, Lily Iona MacKenzieOur family has lived on Skye for six generations. Douglas left the island when he attended university in Edinburgh, but he couldn’t bear to be away.He returned to work at his father’s bakery, eventually taking over the business and supplementing it with a café called The Granary

 

During my 1985 visit to Skye, it was misty nearly every day.Douglas was right when told me it never actually rains on Skye: it only mists. There is a vague indefinite, intangible quality to the mist on Skye. I’ve always loved the way mist softens the edges of things.

 

The first evening, Douglas escorted me to the harbor.As we walked through the city, I was reminded that Norman Newton, an author who has written extensively on Skye, wrote: “history permeates the entire island in the form of castles, prehistoric forts and ancient burial cairns. There is a pervasive awareness of the past and most local people will have stories of clan battles, Danish princesses and folk heroes, because Skye has been a battleground for thousands of years, a place where different peoples mixed and often clashed, before settling down to live in harmony”.*

 

The Highland Games, Isle of Skye, August Scottish games, travel Scotland, travel Portree, travel Isle of Skye, Braeside Cottage, Lily Iona MacKenzieWhen Mum and I left Scotland tremendous sadness came over me.Waving goodbye from the bus, I felt the mysterious bonds of a family and a place I hardly knew pulling at me. I was leaving the only place that had ever felt like home.

 

On my next trip to Scotland, my husband and I couldn’t wait for the games to begin.We quickly dressed and walked the few blocks to The Lump.We found a patch of grass where we could park ourselves, the area above the womb-like amphitheater giving an expansive view of the activities below.In one corner, girls dressed in traditional kilts, white blouses, and weskits, and a few boys who were also competing, flew over the crossed swords at their feet.

 

Growing up, I remember Mum doing these dances at the slightest provocation, leaping and landing softly, a couple of old broomsticks standing in as swords.I also remember reading that the brave warriors would sword dance in front of a fire before battle.


 

There were also the ‘heavies’ who were throwing the hammer, putting the stone, and doing the caber toss. Douglas, wearing his MacKenzie tartan kilt, a blue shirt, and a jacket, strode back and forth among these activities, keeping tabs on all the announcements and establishing a rapport with the crowd.

 

The whole scene was both highly sophisticated and tremendously innocent.After attending the games in the Bay Area a few times, which always draws thousands of people and the purse for the experience, I guess I expected it to be more like that. In Scotland, however, they’ve managed to maintain the original spirit of the event. They still see it as an opportunity for young and old people in the community to come together and work toward a common goal of preparing for the next event.

 

The primal qualities of these games include men pitting themselves against the elements, challenging themselves, and pushing themselves beyond their limits. The games are the most significant tradition that binds me to Skye.

 

Before leaving Skye for the second time, Douglas took me to the old cemetery and showed me the family tree, a sycamore planted in the middle of our relatives’ plot.

Someone once told me that the living stand on the shoulders of the dead. I realized while standing at the graves how my life is intertwined with theirs – a tree’s roots an apt metaphor to describe how deep and enmeshed they can get.Living as I have for so many years in California, I know how lucky I am to still have a link to my past and a connection to my ancestors.

The Highland Games, Isle of Skye, August Scottish games, travel Scotland, travel Portree, travel Isle of Skye, Braeside Cottage, Lily Iona MacKenzie

 

©Lily Iona MacKenzie

http://lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com

 


 

*Newton, Norman.Skye.Devon:Pevensey Press, 1995.

Last modified on Thursday, 22 August 2013

Related items