Whether from the 79th Highlander Band leading 26 Celtic clans in the Clan Parade or a lone piper in the woods competing in the solo piping contest, the call of bagpipes set the mood for the 5,000 visitors, artisans, athletes and clan members who filled Elizabeth's Casey Jones Park over the weekend of July 19-20 for the 23rd Annual Elizabeth Celtic Festival.
The festival highlighted live-steel entertainment, athletic competitions ranging from Scottish heavy athletics to rugby, and Highland dance competitions along with food and drink fit for an Irish Chieftain or bonny Highland lass.
Alana Wolner, a principal organizer for the event, said that the festival is a family event underscoring the rich heritage and traditions of Celtic culture.
Competitions began early Saturday with a Rocky Mountain Scottish Athletes-sanctioned Heavy Athletics Competition, seven strength events open to men and women testing competitors' strength and technique.
A precursor to many of the individual field competitions held in modern track and field, Highland games pioneered events such as the shot put and the hammer throw, which some legends date as far back as the Tailteann games held in Tara, Ireland, in 1829 B.C. In Scotland, games were a way for clans to demonstrate strength to each other without going to war and later to train with alternatives to the weapons banned by the English.
The Highland Games wrapped up with the most iconic of events, the caber toss. Competitors lift a 20-foot caber (Gaelic for wooden beam) and stabilize it before tossing it end over end. The straightest toss receives the highest score.
In addition to Scottish athletics, veteran ruggers from along the Front Range took the pitch for old-boys rugby on both days. Though originating at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, in 1823, rugby has been enthusiastically folded into the fabric of Irish, Scottish and Welsh cultures. Rugby is a sport that has a loyal following, with ruggers graduating to old-boy status after reaching age 35.
“The average age out there is about 55,” said veteran rugger Randy Licht at the July 20 match between the Colorado Ol' Pokes and the Denver Barbarian Old Boys. “I'm one of the younger guys, and I'll be 56 next month.”
The old-boys game is played using the same rules the professionals use, with the exception of unlimited substitutions.
For those with interests other than athletics or live sword-fighting displays, the festival offered cooking demonstrations, performances at the Children's Glenn, and a Living History Village where visitors could try their hand at making bobbin lace, blacksmithing and leather working.
The Elizabeth Celtic Festival began as part of the Elbert County Fair in Kiowa in 1993. Two years later it was held as a separate event, and in 2006 the festival moved to the shade of Casey Jones Park in Elizabeth. Each year the festival continues to expand and was recently voted the Best Event in Elbert County for 2014 by the readers of Colorado Community Media, publisher of the Elbert County News.
A highlight of the weekend for Wolner is carrying on the tradition of the Clan Gathering. Held on the first night when the pitches have been cleared and the heavy iron put away, the participating clans come together to tell favorite stories and family histories, or just update each other on current events.
“It's a great celebration of family and history,” Wolner said. “Afterward we roast marshmallows, adding our own American twist to the tradition.”