Amid a sea of tartan and swell of bagpipes, thousands gathered Saturday for the 17th annual Whidbey Island Highland Games.
Amongst the dozens of notable community members and Scottish clan representatives, one particularly distinguished guest traversed the grounds.
Visiting the Pacific Northwest to attend meetings in Seattle, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter attended the games during a brief getaway to Whidbey.
Mac MacDonald, master of ceremonies, noted that he had spoken with Carter following the opening ceremonies and was told Carter was impressed.
Carter also paid a visit to the Scottish American Military Association, whose representatives were present Saturday.
Carter’s visit was befitting of the event, as several aspects of the Highland Games harken to ancient battle traditions.
According to Scotland.org, the oldest free games in Scotland, held at Ceres in Fife, began under a charter awarded by Robert the Bruce in recognition of villagers’ support at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
According to the Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association, the legend of the origins of the sword dance is no exception.
The association website states that the dance originated with Scottish prince Malcolm Canmore, son of King Duncan of Scotland whom Macbeth defeated and killed in 1040 in order to take the crown.
After fleeing to England, Canmore returned to Scotland with an army and eventually killed Macbeth. It is said that he then crossed his sword over his slain enemy and danced triumphantly over and around the blade.
Karen Shelton-Johnson, Highland dancing chairwoman, said there were approximately 60 dancers competing at this year’s games, a few more than last year.
Dancers were divided into groups based upon age and ability. The premiere class, the most advanced category of dancers, ranged in ages from nine to 28.
“It’s very athletic,” Shelton-Johnson said.
Though the dancers wore more formal attire than their fellow athletes, Shelton-Johnson said their endeavors also require a great deal of “power and strength,” as well as the ability to keep time precisely with the bagpiper.
Until the 1920s, the dance was only open to men, she explained, though today the event is dominated by female dancers.
Athletes also competed in events that included Braemer, or a heavy stone thrown for distance from a standing position; open stone, a slightly lighter stone thrown for distance using a shuffle or spin approach, similar to a shotput; heavy weight for distance, a weight on a chain thrown with a spin approach; light weight for distance; hammer throw; caber, which involves flipping a long and heavy piece of wood similar to a tree trunk; sheaf throw; and weight for height.
“The Greeks have nothing on us,” said MacDonald. “They throw a javelin; we throw a tree.”
Kids’ sports were also incorporated, wherein participants threw less intimidating objects, such as stuffed animals.
Jordan Akins, athletic director for the Whidbey Island Highland Games, said about 40 athletes participated this year.
Akins said the games have provided her a way to connect with her Scottish heritage, something she’s always been keenly interested in.
“The games are great way to experience something that is as much a part of me as being a Whidbey Islander,” she said.
Many attendees and participants shared in Akins’ desire to connect with a long Scottish lineage, including representatives of Scottish clans such as clans MacMillan, Maxwell, Maclean and Donald.
Diane Dolan, whose husband is of clan Maxwell, is herself of Native American lineage. She said she enjoys the community and learning about the history of the Scottish and Celtic people, including the Maxwell clan.
Shelton-Johnson expressed a similar sentiment, saying she takes pride in knowing that her Scottish ancestors participated in the same traditions.
Numerous attendees did not claim Scottish, Irish or Celtic heritage but came to enjoy the event’s many entertainment performances, displays of athleticism and variety of foods and beverages.
“You’re all Scottish or Celtic at the Highland Games,” said MacDonald during the opening ceremonies.