Highland games connect the Maines with their Scottish roots

A chorus of bagpipes rang out on Thomas Point Beach and Campground this weekend, as thousands of people from New England and beyond converged on Brunswick for the 43rd annual Maine Highland Games and Scottish Festival.

Organized by the St. Andrews Society of Maine, the festival featured traditional Scottish athletics, highland dances and piping competitions, as well as sheep dog demonstrations, historical reenactors and more.

“We try to offer something for everyone,” said George Newell, the group’s president. “My motto is, ‘You’re welcome, Scott or not.'”

The festivities began on Friday evening with a Ceilidh, a traditional Gaelic gathering featuring music and dance.

The line of cars waiting to enter the campground Saturday morning for the game’s opening ceremony stretched more than half a mile. Representatives from dozens of clan organizations took turns with celebratory battle cries before Jimmy Rodan, vice president of the St. Andrews Society of Maine, discussed the history behind the event.

Although modern Highland games date back to the 19th century, their roots run centuries deep into the past. The Maine Games, according to Newell, are part of a tradition that spans the world, giving those connected to Scotland a chance to gather and celebrate their shared cultural background.

“We do it because we love our heritage,” he said. “We must remember our past.”

The Maine Ulster Scots Project, which had two tents set up at Saturday’s festival, is specifically dedicated to uncovering that past, said president Rebecca Graham. The group researches and preserves the history of Northern Ireland’s immigrants, many of whom originally came from Scotland.

Maine, which according to census data has the most residents per capita who claim Scottish or Scottish-Irish ancestry in the United States, continues to feel the presence of Northern Irish settlers who began arriving in 1718, she said.

“(Being) stubborn, not swayed by overwhelming evidence, swayed by character — those are the things that are deeply Maine,” Graham said. “They are also deeply Northern Irish.”

Brenda Aldrich and Doris Barrett of Clan McNaughton traveled from Walpole, New Hampshire in hopes of finding more relatives. The couple has been participating in similar events for more than 40 years, including six this summer alone.

“Once the pipes start ringing in the spring, we’re ready to pack up and go,” Barratt said. “I don’t know what it is. I think it’s in your blood.”

New to the fold were Brian and Karen Urquhart of North Andover, Massachusetts, who were participating in their first Highland Games. Brian Urquhart said he made the trip to learn more about his heritage and to enjoy musical acts such as the Sean Haley Band.

“There’s lots of food and entertainment and a nice shady campground on a hot day,” Urquhart said. “It’s terrible.”

Athletes participating in traditional competitions such as seef toss, stone putt and hammer throw were far away from their native land. But the sounds of the pipes were almost enough to transport Newell to the Highlands.

“Someday I’ll get to Scotland,” he said. “But it’s a little bit of Scotland in Maine.”

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