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Enthusiasm for All Things Scottish Aplenty at N.H. Highland Games

The 42nd New Hampshire Highland Games took place this weekend in Lincoln.  It’s one of the largest gatherings like it in the U.S.  NHPR’s Cori Princell attended with her family...and something of a unique perspective.  

I moved to New Hampshire from Scotland about six months ago.  My husband worked there as an oceanographer, at a research lab on Scotland’s west coast.  

That part of Scotland is classified as remote and rural by the Scottish government, and there wasn’t a lot to do. So when our town, Oban, and the towns around us put on highland games or shows, we tried to go. These were small, local events - athletic or agricultural competitions, girls dancing high on their toes under a tent, cakes sold by local ladies, and rented bouncy castles for the kids.

It was often cold and raining, but we’d see our friends there. And standing on those green fields, surrounded by mountains, there was a distinct feeling of community.

That’s what the games were about for us, so why would thousands of Americans travel to Lincoln, N.H., for something similar?

Credit Cori Princell / NHPR
Grace Berglund and her daughter, Kristin Menslage. Menslage has been attending the New Hampshire Highland Games for 25 years, since she was a kid, and now she brings her own children.

The first difference we noticed about the New Hampshire highland games was the heat - it’s never that hot in Scotland. And then there was the crowd.

I talked to the local fire chief and confirmed that as many people attended the event that day as makes up the entire population of Oban. And though Scots do like their kilts and wear them for special occasions, I believe we saw more kilts that day on Loon Mountain than we did in our three years in Scotland.

I started asking people why they were there.

Many answered like Kristin Menslage: “Well, we have a lot of Scottish heritage in our family. My mother is from the Henderson clan, my father is from the Macrae clan.”

Everyone I met seemed to know their clan - Armstrong, Lamont, Henderson.  

“This is a way for us to kind of embrace some of that history and to see some of those things...it’s kind of nice to see your heritage come to life,” Karen Nocito, Clan Colquhoun, explained.

A few people I met had traveled to Scotland. But if they hadn’t, it didn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm.  

Credit Cori Princell / NHPR
Parker Bell says his pipe band is a tight family.

I found sixteen year-old Parker Bell tapping a drum under a tent. He’s a snare drummer and bass drummer with New Hampshire Pipes and Drums in Manchester.  

“I guess half of it is the culture and half of it is the music,” he told me.

“The people are just so nice, and, just, the sounds echoing off the mountains...it’s just so magical. I love it.”

Jim Roberts is another member of that Manchester pipe band. He doesn’t spread this information widely, but Roberts doesn’t actually have any Scottish heritage. He has traveled in Scotland, though, and he’s actually been to my old town.

Roberts explained that in addition to piping, he does 18th century reenacting, and he’s interested in the Jacobites.

“I think the thing about Scots in general over the years is their resiliency,” he said. “I mean, it seems like every 100 years they were fighting the English, trying to get their independence.”

In that cacophony of pipes and drums, on the New Hampshire mountainside, I encountered this kind admiration for the Scots, and such affection.

I saw Scottish tattoos. Babies in tartan. Charlie Zahm, Scottish entertainer, performed ‘Caledonia’ at least three times.

There was something so American about it, and I wondered what my friends back in Scotland would think.

The Red Hot Chilli Pipers were under this tent.

Towards the end of the day, I wandered past a music tent and drew close. And for the first time all day, I heard what I realized I’d been missing, a Scottish voice.

This was the band leader of the Red Hot Chilli Pipers - a popular, high-energy group based in Glasgow and Edinburgh. And as the leader ribbed his band members at the close of the show, I realized I’ve been missing that particular sense of humor too.

I talked with percussionist Grant Cassidy afterwards.

“America’s great, we come here loads,” he told me. “This is about the fourth or fifth time we’re in America this year, and I think it’s the band’s fifth time in New Hampshire, so it’s great. The crowds love it. We love it.”

Cassidy also pointed out the obvious. “The fact that it’s sunny this weekend makes it a whole lot better. In Scotland it’s always raining.”

It would have helped me in Scotland to have had more sun - and a dose of this enthusiasm -  on some of those dark winter days.

My family after our first New Hampshire Highland Games.

But right now, as I’m adjusting back to American life and sometimes missing my old home in Scotland, it was great to be surrounded by people who love that distant place too.