By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
I didn’t go to the Southeast Florida Scottish Festival and Highland Games in search of an ethnic connection, but it turned out that way.
The annual event in Plantation, Florida (March 2019 was the 36th year), has become a personal favorite among the numerous cultural and heritage festivals in South Florida because it is fun, friendly, lively and quirky.
There’s colorful pageantry and pipers. Spirits flow and high-energy Celtic rock bands keep your feet tapping involuntarily but gladly.
And the spectacle of competitors in kilts (women and men) tossing telephone pole-like cabers and chunks of iron in the Scottish heavy athletic events is always a hoot.
This year brought an unexpected bonus of being invited to carry the tartan banner of Clan Davidson in the parade on the main field, marching in step with the bagpipe bands.
That stemmed from noticing a sign in front of the Clan Davidson booth that listed Davis among the many septs, or divisions, of the Highland Davidsons, who trace their ancestry to the Eleventh Century.
My paternal ancestors came from a different part of the British isle, emigrating from Wales in the mid-1800s. But Grant Davidson Baker, manning the booth with his sister Jane Whitney, pointed out that some in the Davis branch of Clan Davidson started in Scotland and moved on to Wales hundreds of years ago.
But really, he had me at, “After the parade we’ll do a tasting of a variety of single malt Scotch whiskys and you can vote on the one you like best.”
Finding connection in genealogy
We all want to feel a sense of belonging. The urge to connect with one’s past is strong, evident in the rise of the genealogy industry in recent years. It is reflected in the proliferation of cultural and heritage festivals that abound throughout the United States and abroad.
Heritage tourism is purported to be the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry. There are so many celebrations of various cultures throughout the country that it isn’t necessary to travel far to find one.
And you don’t have to be a member of the particular tribe to enjoy the experience. If you’re curious about other cultures, these festivals are a way to learn something about their traditions, food and music.
Over the years we’ve enjoyed a variety of these ethnic celebrations in South Florida, including Turkish, Jamaican, Russian, Brazilian and the Scots.
The common thread that stands out is each group is pride of their heritage and an eagerness to introduce it to outsiders.
It’s a bonus when you find a personal connection at a heritage festival and can share in the sense of pride, as this experience showed. (Subsequent research confirmed that the Davis surname in Wales can be traced to the larger Davidson clan in Scotland.)
But part of the allure of these festivals is the chance to step into someone else’s world. So my wife, Fran, who hails from the Isle of Long (in the lowlands of New York ) with Turkish/Sephardic roots, was just as comfortable joining in the march with Clan Davidson as we followed a bagpipe band around the central field and past the reviewing stand, where I proudly dipped the tartan banner in salute.
Feats of strength in Highland Games
This parade serves as an opening ceremony for the heavy athletics, a sort of mini-Olympics with competition obviously derived from Scotland’s agrarian past, emphasizing tests of strength — notably the caber toss, hammer throw, weight toss and stone put.
Perhaps most indicative of the rural roots of these games, which date back more than 1,000 years, is the tossing the sheaf event in which a 16-pound jute sack of hay is heaved with a pitchfork over a bar that is raised in increments until all but one competitor is eliminated.
Lest anyone question the athleticism of the burly kilt-wearing competitors, spectators were urged to heft the boxy piece of iron used in the throwing the weight competition. It weighs 56 pounds and was a load merely to lift off the ground by a steel ring that competitors grasp while they spin like a discus thrower before flinging it with a loud grunt.
The winner sent it soaring more than 70 feet.
A taste for Scotch
The event we were most interested in taking part in was back at the Clan Davidson booth, where Davidson Baker set up a row of bottles of Scotch representing the various distilling regions of Scotland. He explained the qualities representative of each region and poured thimble-sized shots of a variety of brands.
We were most drawn to the tangy, peaty qualities of the Islay region, and Fran and I both favored the Lagavulin 9 Year Old Game of Thrones commemorative edition that comes in a canister bearing the eye-catching House of Lannister lion sigil.
This culminated in the most important lesson of the day. Davidson Baker, whose grandfather fought with the Gordon Highlanders in World War I, taught us the Scottish Gaelic toast to good health.
Instead of cheers, they say, “Slàinte!”
So, Slàinte, Clan Davidson! Perhaps next year I’ll have my own kilt to wear in the parade.
Scottish Festival Calendar
Scottish festivals and Highland Games competitions are held is most states throughout the country. There are five in Florida.
Celtic rock bands
The Mudmen performed at the Southeast Florida Festival. The prominent Canadian Celtic rock band features brothers Robby and Sandy Campbell on bagpipes.