HAMILTON – Hundreds came for the kilts and stayed for the caber toss at the annual Bitterroot Celtic Games and Gathering at the Daly Mansion over the weekend.
Now in its sixth year, the event has undergone some changes to stay closer to its roots, including changing the name from the Bitterroot Scottish Irish Festival.
The change was made for two main reasons, said organizer Ken Schultz. The first was to make sure that all seven Celtic tribes knew they were represented as part of the event. At the same time, the organizers also decided to drop the word "festival" from the name.
“ 'Festival' is all about music and beer,” Schultz said. “Highland games go back hundreds of years when the clans would get together and they would compete.”
He said the 21 clans represented at the gathering work to spread the history of their genealogy and teach family members about their roots. The Bitterroot area is a perfect venue because copper king Marcus Daly – whose summer house provides the location for the event – was Irish, and brought Irish and Scottish immigrants to the area now known as Hamilton to work in his lumber operation.
“We wanted to bring that to the surface,” Schultz said. "Let people know that if they’ve been here for so many generations, at some point the family probably worked for Mr. Daly."
Among the highland games set up during the Bitterroot Celtic gathering was the sheaf toss, an event in which participants use a pitchfork to throw burlap bags stuffed with baling twine over the top of a raised bar. As described by Garrett Middleton, the bar is raised by two feet for each round of the competition until only one person can still throw it over the top.
“It’s sort of like the high jump or pole vault in track,” said Middleton, who also teaches and coaches at Corvallis High School.
For the kids' competition on Sunday, the sacks used in the sheaf toss weighed eight pounds. During the men’s event held the day before, they were 16 pounds. Middleton said a good throw is all about planting your feet while facing away from the bar, then getting a wide swing to toss the sheaf over the shoulder into the air.
“We had a guy yesterday who did 31 feet,” he said.
In addition to traveling around the Northwest competing in highland games, Middleton also placed fourth in the lightweight class of the Scottish-American Athletic Association’s World Highland Games in Arizona last year.
Christina McKenzie and her family came to the Daly Mansion from Choteau to be part of the Celtic gathering. She said this was her third year at the event, and the second time she decided to participate in the kids' highland games.
“My favorite is the caber and the hammer toss. I think I’m the best at those,” 13-year-old McKenzie said.
Kids throw with two different weights of hammers, judge Cody Jessop said. The 10- and 12-pound hammers they use are lighter than the 18- and 22-pound hammers the adult class threw on Saturday. Competitors gather momentum by swinging the hammer in a wide circle before letting it fly.
“Someone did 85 feet with the 22-pound and 108 with the 18,” Jessop said.
In the afternoon, the Bitterroot Celtic Gathering provided a Scottish whiskey tasting led by Elliot MacFarlane, who travels around the United States spreading the history and heritage of Scotland as part of his work with the National Trust of Scotland.
While pouring samples for participants, MacFarlane talked about the regulations that govern what can be called a Scotch whiskey. In addition to being produced and bottled in Scotland, all scotch must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years.
“If you’re going to put Scotland’s name on the bottle, it’s something they want to be proud of and protect,” he said.