Thursday, July 5, 2007
“KILTIE, KILTIE, KILTIE,” we formed a skipping parade behind the highlander who was probably in the city for the day...my brat pack: Glasgow, Scotland, mid-1950s. Urban Scots as we were, the sight of a man in traditional garb just walking through the neighborhood was enough to draw us away from our games of hopscotch to follow him, chanting, for the length of our block. But when we went to the highlands, there were still plenty of men who wore kilts every day, including my grandfather on the island of Mull, who knew what a handsome devil he looked in full regalia, from his polished leather brogue shoes to his jauntily worn Tam O’Shanter cap. For just walking about the town he wore a fitted tweed jacket and sweater, kilt, rough-knit knee-length socks and a plain leather sporran, or purse, hanging from his belt. For more formal occasions, out came the fine-woven jacket with gleaming buttons, a dagger, or sgian dubh, tucked into his stockings, and a length of tartan cloth— called a plaid— draped around his shoulders. He was a sight to behold.
Monterey County has been overrun with men and women in kilts during Celtic Week, a greedy eight days of parades, piping, drumming, dancing, drinking and throwing heavy objects that began last Sunday with a Caber Parade in Carmel, and ends with the 40th Annual Scottish Games and Celtic Festival in Toro Park this weekend, July 7 and 8.
“Celtie, celtie, celtie,” I might have chanted. Indeed the Celtic race once covered Europe all the way to Turkey. Fair-skinned, warlike, cultured, the Celts were noted for their strong women, whose status was equal to men, their poets, seers, artists and musicians. Deep in the bloodlines of most Europeans, Celtic heritage is strongest in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany. And Monterey County, apparently.
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SUNDAY’S CABER PARADE was a great excuse to cruise around Carmel in a kilt. The Scottish Society of the Monterey Peninsula invited anyone wearing a tartan to march with the bands down Ocean Avenue. Sixty kilties of all cultures joined the pipe bands and dancers and athletes who were all warming up for the Scottish Games.
Now, I always love to see men in kilts and think they all look incredibly handsome— but then I married two Scots (in succession, of course) and am obviously not to be trusted on this subject.
Wondering how it is that so many local men have some form of kilt in their wardrobe, I asked Wilkes Bashford, the famed Carmel haberdasher, what’s the kilt’s appeal for a non-Scot.
“You must be a good, robust, masculine man with a fairly strong degree of self-confidence to wear a kilt well,” he said. “It’s not for wimps. Because of its silhouette, it’s very flattering. And the fabric, the colors— the whole thing is a good, honest solid look, with integrity.”
Well, there you have it, I thought. And a good sporty look on women, too.
All of my prejudices validated, I’m loving this Celtic Week. Oh indeed, there’s nothing more stirring than a pipe band, men and women, kilts swinging, feathers in their caps fluttering in the breeze, big drums setting the pace, tenor drums dancing around it and the skirl of the bagpipes filling the air.
Roddy McKay, chieftain of the Highland Games for the last 10 years or so, was drawn to the music of his native Scotland when he was a teenager. “Scots were a minority in my school in Canada,” he says. “I had a thick accent, and certainly learned about prejudice growing up there. When I first heard a pipe band, though, I wanted to join it in the worst way, and so I chose a Scottish regiment when I entered the military so that I could play in the band.”
Joining up at 17, McKay drummed in the regimental band until he left to be a medic in the Korean War. A few decades later, having moved to King City in 1969, he was recruited to the Salinas Valley Highland Band.
McKay, a retired teacher, enjoyed the camaraderie of the Salinas Valley Highlanders. “They were a parade band, great fellows— local produce guys, doctors— they liked to play together and march in parades.” But he wanted to pursue a higher level of musicianship. When Michel d’Avenas, a serious local piper who had studied with the best in Scotland, returned to the region after serving in Vietnam, the two and others developed a competition band. Over the years and several permutations, this became the Monterey Bay Pipe Band.
For a decade the band has consistently won first-place awards at highland games in the US and Canada. It led the Caber Parade on Sunday and marched in Monterey’s Fourth of July parade, and this weekend will compete with pipe bands from all over the US and Canada at the Scottish Games.
Three years ago, Pipe Major d’Avenas founded the Monterey Bay School of Piping and Drumming in his ongoing effort to elevate US piping. He then convinced the National Piping Center of Scotland to take it over. Over the past week, the acknowledged world masters of bagpipes and Scottish drums have been here to teach at the school.
Since Sunday, 40 musicians from all over the US have been working at the Robert Lewis Stevenson School in Pebble Beach to learn from the National Piping Center’s director, Roddy MacLeod (recipient of an MBE-Order of the British Empire, a chivalric honor presented by the Queen); Lorne Cousin, who played with Madonna’s band on the Worldwide Re-Invention tour; and six other renowned piping, drumming and drum majoring musician-instructors sent from the Piping Center in Glasgow.
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“NO MATTER WHAT YOU PLAY ON THE PIPES," Michel d’Avenas says, “it sounds sad.” He is talking about the mixolydian tuning of the bagpipes, a flattening of the seventh note in a major scale. It’s a lot like bending notes in the blues. It must be what makes the bagpipes so heart-rending while playing a dirge like “Flowers of the Forest” (about the youth of Scotland dead at Culloden) or “Amazing Grace,” often played on the pipes at funerals.
In a Pebble Beach room filled with light and books and bagpipes and chanters and drums and reeds and a very large table, d’Avenas equips me with an instrument made of spotted red and African black woods— a chanter— the recorder-like melodic part of the bagpipe, with a reed made of Spanish cane, a form of bamboo.
A bagpipe is a complicated instrument— the chanter for melody, a bag that is pressed to emit air, and several pipes that are drones tuned to different notes. Blowing air from the bag through the pipes, modulated by the chanter, augmented by the drones, it’s a continuous flow of sound with no rests, no stops, requiring a piper to develop some form of flourishes to signal a change of bar or key.
“People who get into bagpipes tend to be on the eccentric side,” d’Avenas says. “And of course part of what attracted me to the bagpipes is that so many eccentric people practice it.” He’s been playing for 35 years— beginning at a time when American pipers and pipe bands were mere caricatures.
In my own second year in the US, attending a Miss Universe Parade in Long Beach, I remember hearing a pipe band approaching from a distance, causing my little Glaswegian head to turn with smiling expectation, but, at the sight of a half-hundred men— and women, gasp— in kilts worn way too long and not hung right, and the pipes just a shrill mess, and wimpy drumming, I actually felt sick. But now, Americans who have taken up piping have become more serious about the art, and over the last 10 years, after San Francisco’s Prince Charles Band broke through to the top ranks of pipe bands in the world, there has been a significant paradigm shift.
“And there have been a lot of improvements that help keep the pipes in tune,” d’Avenas says.
“I listen to a recording of a prominent Scottish band of 40 years ago. I can hardly bear it. Now I personally adjust the tuning in all the chanters in the band.” He shows me a chanter with electrical tape cutting off millimeters of a few of its holes.
Bagpipes are sensitive. “A lot of moisture in the air and the pitch just goes up. It can be shrill if you don’t adjust it. If it’s hot and dry, some pipers use a little icewater in the bag of the pipe.”
With all of its eccentricities, why would anyone choose such an instrument? “People like it because there’s so much going on, the melody, the drones, etcetera… Kids like it because it’s so stinking loud.”
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THEY’VE BEEN WORKING HARD ALL WEEK and it’s time for a pint. Pub Night, at the Mucky Duck Thursday, July 5, is a chance for the American musicians attending the Monterey Bay School of Piping and Drumming to pipe out their Scottish instructors. I predict a hangover. Everyone is welcome, there’s no admission fee, and it’s sure to be an earful.
The following evening, Friday, July 6, at 7pm, the pros will give a Celtic Concert at Robert Louis Stevenson School, 3152 Forest Lake Rd. in Pebble Beach.
This is an opportunity to hear ancient piobaireachd and modern music played by the best in the world. MacLeod and the other instructors from Scotland perform, joined by the international award-winning White Spot Pipe Band from Vancouver and dancers from the Allison Barnes Academy of Irish Dancers.
“There isn’t a more beautiful musical instrument in the world...in the hands of an expert,” testifies Roddy McKay.
And then, Celtic Week reaches a crescendo with the 40th Annual Monterey Scottish Games and Celtic Festival— a weekend of Scottish and Irish music, dance and athletic competitions, music concerts, Scottish food and crafts, sheepdog trials, living history re-enactments all set in the beautiful rolling hills of Toro Park.
At the heart of the event are the athletic competitions known as highland games.
There are no points for self-expression in Scottish games. Feats of strength and coordination are the order of the day. “Big” and “heavy” are the words that define Scottish sports equipment. For instance, the caber.
Celtic Week began with a Caber Parade, right? A caber is a big pole, pretty much like a telephone pole. This is typical of the highly technological sports equipment used in highland games. Athletes throw them. And also big hammers. And big bales of hay.
The fellows and a few women that fling these sports accessories around the field all afternoon tend not to be of the lean and lithe variety: If you hear one of them called Wee Geordie or Wee Mike, you can pretty much bet that the bearer of that name is a fellow who fills a doorframe pretty well and doesn’t get teased much for wearing a skirt.
For fun, there are children’s versions of these athletic events throughout the weekend for kids 12 and under, including tossing the caber. No pre-registration is required.
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MIGHT AND MUSCLE aren’t what ultimately defines our peculiar breed. We are a very sociable race. What I love about visiting my kin in Scotland is the friendliness, the colorful, metaphor-laden speech and humor, the bursting into song at the drop of a hat, and the tendency of any gathering to end up in a living room full of people dancing.
More than water separates the Celtic tribes in Scotland and Ireland; there’s a difference in attitude that can be clearly seen in their traditional dance. The solo form of Scottish dancing seen at highland games is derived from men’s sword dancing, involving leaping over sharp objects without getting cut. The competitions at highland games have institutionalized a highly stylized form of step dancing involving fast footwork and arm movements. Irish dancing is more balletic, with the upper body and arms held very still. Both are beautiful to watch.
But it’s the Scottish country dancing I’ll look forward to seeing, a social dance form that probably was the forbearer of American square dancing. Most people in Scotland learn how to do some form of this dance when they are children— I remember the excitement of participating in an eightsome reel at a party as a child.
Scottish country dancing has probably changed less over the years than the solo highland dancing, because it is less influenced by competitions and judges. Each dance is set to a specific piece of music, usually played by a ceilidh, or party band, with fiddles and accordions. Couples dance in groups of four or eight in intricate interweavings, to music like “King O’ The Rookery” or “The Piper and The Penguin.” It’s great exercise, lots of fun and incredibly flirtatious.
In Scottish dances— preparation for which is the reason that Scottish Country Dancing groups meet regularly to practice— the men wear kilts and ghillies, flat-footed, soft shoes with laces up the calf— and the women wear a version of that shoe with a full-skirted dress and some form of tartan. Of course, at a ceilidh in Scotland, people wear normal party dress and dance anyway.
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THE HIGHLANDS OF SCOTLAND are so rugged that one of the few farm animals that can survive is sheep, and shepherds tend flocks all over the hills. Sheepdogs were bred and trained to work the flocks, keep them together, bring them home. These animals are so remarkable it’s like poetry to watch. Demonstrations are scheduled for both days.
It’s rare in Scotland to be asked— or for anyone to care— what clan you spring from. The tracing of roots has been such a great preoccupation in this country of immigrants that people descended from the same genealogical Scottish families formed associations around their clans. Booths representing these clans are now a constant in any highland games.
Each clan has its own tartan, or weaving pattern, to identify its members. Wear your colors this weekend, or if you don’t know much about it, clan members will help you trace your family tree, show you the valley in the highlands where your clan originated, identify your tartan, your shield pattern and hook you up with your cousins.
Traveling in the highlands a few years ago, I talked with an old caretaker of a famous highland castle. Telling him I was now living in the US he chuckled, “Aye, a lot of Americans come here to look for their ancestors. Funny, though, everyone’s related to the chieftains. I’ve never met anyone looking for traces of their shepherd forebears.”
The Scottish Fest will of course also offer some fine examples of Scottish cuisine— which might be generously described as “rustic.” For every immigrant there’s a remembered food that just can’t be recreated far from home. I can still have porridge and salmon and fish and chips, but not a Scottish breakfast— designed to keep you going throughout a cold day of labor. It consisted of fried-everything: bread, rashers of bacon, eggs, tomatoes, wee sausages and black pudding— definitely not the diet plate.
It’s the mark of a poor country to have national dishes that take pride in using leftovers and parts of an animal that wouldn’t otherwise be et. Haggis— you don’t want to know what’s in that. Black pudding, my favorite breakfast sausage, is a blood sausage fried to a crisp; Scottish pasties are oblong pies with flaky crust and meat and onions inside. Now, cakes and baked goods— that was the pride of every household when I grew up. I believe that sugar consumption in Scotland was the highest in the world. But this weekend is a good time to taste many of these forbidden dishes and wash it all down with a tankard.
There will also be booths selling Celtic crafts— intricate traditional jewelry or modern variations; knitted and woven clothing, leatherwork, tiles and fine woodwork. And groups dressed in ancient garb will stage historical reenactments.
Featured performers at the 40th Annual Scottish Games and Celtic Festival include the champion White Spot Pipe Band from Vancouver, Celtic rock band Stand Easy, a “roots” string band, Hamewith, featuring fiddler John Taylor, and Irish merrymakers, Ken O’Malley and The Twilight Lords.
So this weekend children will try their hands at athletic events, and cabers and hammers and stones will be thrown by large, kilted people. Darling children will dance in colorful costumes. Amazing dogs will herd sheep. People will forget their diets and eat meat pies and drink lots of ale. Clan representatives will inspect family trees. Falcons will fly from gloved hands and on Saturday night new friends will be made and undoubtedly songs will be sung at a barbecue and party. Sunday the affair will culminate with a spectacular parade of pipe bands. It’ll be brrrriliant.