Highland Games: Swiss Style!

I’m a bit behind on our adventure updates, but will do my best to play catch up today.

Last Saturday (well, two Saturdays ago), we went to a Swiss Scottish Highland Games Festival. Most of you reading this probably know that Heath used to compete fairly regularly in the highland games circuit in Texas and Oklahoma, and performed at both the Scarborough Renaissance Festival (which is where we first met) and the Texas Renaissance Festival.

For a detailed description of traditional highland games, here’s a great article on Wikipedia. Heath has competed in all events listed there. And my dear friend Kirsti has been in several highland dancing competitions. So, needless to say, we’re no strangers to how things work at a highland games festival. There were a few things that the Swiss do differently (or at least at this particular games).

The caber toss – the characteristic event that is usually the main feature of any highland games festivities. Usually this event showcases the competitor’s strength, balance, and sheer will. The goal of the event is to lift, balance, and flip or rotate a very long, heavy pole end over end.

In the games we saw here in Switzerland, they used a much shorter caber, and made it a game of how far you could pitch the caber – basically a distance game. It was… odd. I’ve never seen the event played like that. As you can see by the picture, the competitor ran up to a marker, and then threw the caber as far as he could. Since it was such a wee little caber, they always rotated it on each throw. After the caber landed, one of the judges ran a line from the marker to the furthest end of the caber and took a measurement.

Instead of a hammer throw, they had an axe-throwing event. The skill needed for a hammer throw and for an axe-throw are obviously a bit different. But it was still interesting to watch. There appeared to be one instructor helping everyone else. It seemed to be really difficult, as your goal was to land the axe in one of the targets painted on the board.

The other familiar event was the weight for height. Again, there was a minor difference being that they did a two-handed throw, where most of the games we’ve seen previously, the competitors used one hand.

Missing from the games was the stone put (braemar), weight for distance, and sheaf toss. In their place they had a completely different range of events.

First was an obstacle course. Contestants had to wear a tire tied with about seven feet of rope to their waist. Then they had to run through a maze that included stacks of pallets to climb over, up a ladder, down a slide, through water, over barrels, under a camo net, and more. It was fascinating. Got quite a few shots of that. I meant to go back and get a video of someone going through it, but I forgot.

Another odd event I guess was a test of balance. There was a very high (probably about 10 feet up) beam running across a pool of water. The gamer was given a tray laden with three plastic balls, and a hoop (about the size of a hula-hoop). The goal was to walk across the beam with said items, stepping through the hoop completely at least once. I got a great shot of a guy as he fell into the pool.

A really fun-looking event was simply a pole climb. Competitors were strapped into climbing gear as a safety backup. Then, any way they could, they scaled a pole that was at least a couple stories into the air. Those that made it to the top could snag one of the medals that were hanging in plastic baggies from a ring at the top. The guys who took off their shoes did the best, making it to the top every time, and faster than those still wearing shoes. It wasn’t easy, though; I saw one guy being lowered back down with totally red thighs.

The final addition to the games was truly interesting, and I’d nominate it to be included in Scottish games around the world. Under the main fire-lit game sign was a pulley system with one end of it tied to a large rock (probably bigger than a braemar). The rock was of course painted blue and white, and I know it was heavy because you felt it thunk the ground if you were standing anywhere near it. Contestants had to brace their feet against a concrete block that stood about 15 feet away from the base of the tower. Then the gamer would use all of his strength to lift the rock by pulling on a rope. Most competetors lowered themselves to the ground as they pulled, trying to get more leverage. Heath got a great video of this event.

Of course, like any other festival there was shopping and food. A person I’d met on an English/Swiss internet forum was there peddling his imported cheeses from the UK and Ireland. We bought a couple of things from his booth, including the most pungent blue cheese we’ve ever tasted and some oat cakes. Mmmm. Heath had some sort of chipped beef sandwich, and I had a yummy Cornish Pastie!

We also bought some excellent mead, lighter than anything I’ve ever tasted before. And from a booth right under the pole-climbing event, we sampled a bunch of wines (or perhaps they are technically a liquor – not sure) made from various berries and fruits. We bought a bottle of the raspberry. Interestingly enough, both the mead and the wine/liquor looked to be local, home-made family type operations. You’d never see that in the US because of the strict liquor laws.

We also oggled some gorgeous hand-carved wooden Celtic wall art, but it was a bit out of our budget, so I grabbed a pamphlet, and hopefully we can get something later.

The site didn’t have any permanent buildings, and there was a creative use of tents, including an incredible two-story tent that was selling swords on the bottom level, and blaring Irish and Scottish music from the top. There was also a sort of round-house made of rounded logs that contained a beer bar.

People were dressed in regular clothes, and in kilts, and some in linen medieval-era clothing. I oggled a pretty linen gown of the late-medieval era, but it, too, was a bit pricey.

For music, there was one traditional pipe band that walked around performing. Scared the baby the first time he heard them, but he didn’t cry like some other babies nearby did, just listened quietly with his eyes opened wide. There was also a group there that I don’t know the name of that played really pretty music, sounding a lot like something you would hear at a renaissance faire. I meant to go back and grab one of their CD’s, but forgot.

The two other events that we usually see at highland games festivals – Highland Dancing and sheep-dog trials – were absent.

We got to the grounds really early. After we’d seen everything (twice – it was a small area), had our lunch, etc. One of Heath’s coworkers showed up with his girlfriend. I had a blast chatting with the girlfriend. She helped me translate at one of the booths, too, and bought us a welcome gift there: a mixture of dried fruit, herbs, spices, and sugar that you mix with vodka or grappa and let sit for a couple of months to make schnapps. Mine was an awesome cinnamon apple flavor, and I think I’ll be trying it out in the fall. I need to find the right kind of jar as well.

After the festival, we went to the coworker’s flat nearby and had some dinner and drinks and chatted. They have a lovely top-floor flat with a huge patio that has an excellent view of the surrounding area. Really relaxing. We stayed far later than we intended, and accidentally took the local train (lots of stops) back to our flat, so we were home extremely late. Exhausted, but it was a very good day.

You can see more pictures of our day at the Highland Games Festival here.

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