Sunday, September 6, 2009

Prairie Falcon: Colorfulness, Pageantry, Identity Affirming Ritual, No Scots' Gaelic Spoken, Symbolism, Communitas

At the Pleasanton Highland Games, I heard no Scots' Gaelic spoken.

These games are rather about things Scottish and show - color, pageantry, and ritual - thus affirming (and re-instantiating) Scots' identity, but they aren't about language. Highland Games also turn such colorful displays into art, synthesizing musicianship and skill in dancing, for example, with identity and culture.

And these Scottish Games seem to amalgamate aspects of Scotland, England (e.g. Buckingham Palace's Scots' Guards came from Britain to pipe and parade ceremonially), the United States (e.g. the U.S. Marines brass band played and paraded), and California (relaxed people - men - wearing kilts and flip flops [sandals - with no hose], with ankle bracelets and necklaces) - with a slightly ritually-martial leaning. These Games also highlight, and ritualize, competition in all the main events. There are bagpiping competitions, highland dancing competitions, athletic competitions, and sheep dog competitions. There aren't Scottish Country Dance competitions, that I've seen, however. I hypothesize that this remarkable emphasis on competition has to do with furthering standards of musicianship, brings order, and perhaps emblematizes a human propensity for competition, with particularly British Isles' characteristics.

And interestingly, so many people dress up at Highland Games in kinds of (regimented) bird plumage.


There are a fair number of Scots in the fabric of the San Francisco Bay Area Calendonian Club and the wider, local community.


And for all the elegance of dress and style, I can interpret what's ritualized at Highland Games as having rich sexual symbolism, - everything from tossing the caber (the big log thrown from between one's legs, end over end, into the 12 o'clock position in competitions to win, often with a cry), to the appearance of the bagpipe, to men wearing kilts which are attractive to women, to girls from age 4-18+ going up and down with elaborate leg movements, - you can't touch the sword in the Highland sword dance. ... Scots' culture inscribes traditional gender roles; Scotland is quite patriarchal (I've lived there for 2 separate years), with next to no questioning of this tradition or practice. Scots' project a male identity which is quite 'manly.' (How does such 'projection' work? Do such images relate to all the wars in which Scots have fought?)


And these Highland Games, for a large number of participants, are relaxed, peak experiences of gathering together with family, with people similar to you, in a setting that gives expression to a kind of communitas (positive group togetherness), with an ideal of elegance and precision, respect for tradition, standards, and competition.


The massed bands, where 400-600 bagpipers parade together in front of a grand stand, and pay ritual respect to the Games' chief, is very martial - many pipers have been soldiers historically - and is inspiring for many, as well. It's also an old tradition. The wall of sound, and the lyricism of the particular bagpipe music ('When the Battle's O'er,' 'Highland Laddie') which is played at massed bands, is inspiring.

(But this martial legacy in some ways is sad (to me), in the sense that it reflects a very turbulent and challenged history. In my own unique reading of British history, there's been a lot of common chimp (Pan troglodytes) activity (aggression, violence and war, as well as peaceableness), and not very much Bonobo (Pan paniscus) activity (peacefulness, egalitarianism, open sexuality, with very little violence and no war. [The primatological data about Bonobo are still slight and coming in]).


In the century and a half, or so, tradition of Scottish Highland Games (I'm guessing there were probably competitions even during the Highland Clearances and before, for example, but not in the form of what we know presently as Scottish Highland Games), and in the somewhat continuous centuries' old Scots' culture, there's very little envisioning of positiveness in Highland Games, of how to realize a better society, of what can be, or of what positive change people can effect (vis-a-vis the 1960s, for example), and no language, in Scots' Gaelic or any other Scots' language, for this.

( - September 6, 2009)

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