Ligonier Highland Games celebrate Scottish heritage
The woodland setting of Ligonier's Idlewild Park is pure Western Pennsylvania countryside for thousands of families who picnic there each summer.
But during the first weekend of September, the grounds surrounding the amusement park are transformed into a little bit of Scotland for the Ligonier Highland Games.
A variety of Scottish-themed activities take place at Idlewild and in Ligonier, from Friday night's Ceilidh (Scottish dinner) and professional pipers' competition at Mountain View Inn to Sunday's Scottish worship service at Covenant Presbyterian Church and pipe band concert at the Diamond.
The main event is the Games itself, conducted on Saturday at the park and featuring a Scottish fair, children's games, pipe band, Scottish fiddling, Celtic harp, Highland dancing and athletic competitions.
This year's event has special significance, as organizers mark the 50th anniversary of the Games.
For Arthur and Debbie Sutherland of Murrysville, the Games are a homecoming for those with Scottish roots.
Arthur Sutherland says that when he and his wife cross the bridge over Loyalhanna Creek to enter the festival, "it's like going to Brigadoon" -- an allusion to the mythical land in the Scottish Highlands made famous in a Broadway musical of the same name.
The Sutherlands have been attending the Highland Games for about 30 years, Sutherland says. For the first four or five years, he displayed and sold the miniature soldiers he paints as a hobby. Since then, he and his wife have helped with the Clan Sutherland Society of North America's tent in the Clan Tent section of the Scottish festival.
Before his father died, the Highland Games "was a big family thing," Sutherland says. These days, he goes to perpetuate his heritage -- and "we just plain have a lot of fun there."
Members of the volunteer committee that supports the Ligonier Games have been looking forward to celebrating this milestone year. For David Peet of Bethel Park, the 50th anniversary Games will have special significance.
Peet, who has been executive director since 1970, announced he will hang up his tartan after this year's celebration and retire from his post. His successor will be Richard Wonderly of Altoona. Peet will continue serving the Games as executive director emeritus.
"They told me I can't quit," he says.
During Peet's tenure with the Ligonier Games, attendance and the number of participants increased substantially. He recalls how he got involved in the festival.
"I was always interested in my Scottish heritage but never did anything about it," he says. "When I moved to Pittsburgh, there were a number of Scottish fraternal societies that had meetings and were a social type of thing. Many of the members had come from Scotland to work at Westinghouse as skilled machinists in the '20s and '30s. They were the foundation of the Order of Scottish Clans that comprised eight or nine different societies in the local area."
At one of the meetings, Peet met William McLay Jr., a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, who played in a pipe band with other former CMU students and was Peet's predecessor in the leadership role with the Games.
"Three years later, McLay was transferred out of town and he told me, 'You're in charge,' " Peet says. He was working for the Pittsburgh office of Sunkist Growers as an assistant sales manager at the time and agreed to accept the directorship.
"I put to work the things I knew best -- marketing and promotions," he says. "The first year, we doubled attendance; the second year, we doubled it again."
Attendance figures have continued to increase, from 1,200 when Peet started to an average of 10,000 visitors, depending on the weather.
Peet's first Games featured one vendor and a handful of pipe bands. Now, there are 25 vendors and as many as 25 pipe bands. The heavy-athletics portion of the event -- six tests of strength and endurance in stone put, 22-pound hammer throw, 56-pound weight for height, 28-pound weight for distance, 20-pound sheaf toss and caber toss -- also has grown.
David Strunk of Ross, a former competitor and one of five judges of the competition, says that when he became involved in the Ligonier Highland Games during the 1970s, there were as few as five competitors in each event.
"Now there are waiting lists," Strunk says.
An increasing number of young men are becoming interested in the historic athletic events, including competitors with backgrounds in track and field and weightlifting.
"You don't have to be Scottish to participate," Strunk notes, "but you do need a kilt. It's a requirement."
Wonderly and his wife, Nancy, also have been active in the Ligonier Highland Games for several years. He says his mother-in-law, Roberta Goss, played a major role in volunteering for the Scottish festival and got him interested in participating.
"I married into it," Wonderly says.
Wonderly started working at the festival 15 years ago, helping with children's games. He organizes the Clan Tents portion of the event. He says he has worked closely with Peet, who asked him a few years ago to eventually consider the executive director position.
"I've been trying to learn his job," Wonderly says. "It's something (Peet) has done for so long. The Games keep growing, and attendance continues to go up."
The new director says he hopes to maintain the event's reputation as a top Scottish festival while placing more emphasis on music.
"We're trying to bring in younger crowds. Music is a big help," he says.
In addition to the family fun that the Highland Games brings to Idlewild Park, the event generates revenue for surrounding businesses, according to Keith Hood, general manager of sales and marketing for Kennywood, which owns Idlewild.
"Our relationship with the Ligonier Highland Games goes back many years, and we've always been honored with their choice to hold these wonderful games at Idlewild," Hood says. "From an Idlewild marketing perspective, the Ligonier Highland Games provides us with exposure in places where we don't otherwise advertise, such as Canada. From a community standpoint, the Highland Games is a truly important annual event for Ligonier. The hotels are full, and the town is alive with all things Scottish."
History of the Games
During the Revolutionary War, it was estimated that one out of every three people living in Western Pennsylvania was of Scottish ancestry. The large number of Scots formed the impetus for the success of the Ligonier Highland Games, according to executive director David Peet.
Peet says the original gathering of the clans of Scotland known as the Ligonier Highland Games was started in 1959 by Lewis Davidson, bagpipe director at the former Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University); Clinton "Jack" Macdonald, former owner of Idlewild Park; and a Pittsburgh businessman who held the inherited title Reginald Macdonald of Kingsburgh. Reginald Macdonald was past high commissioner (1954-64) of Clan Donald USA, a national organization of some 4,000 families who trace their ancestry to branches of the Highland Clann Domhnaill, including Macdonalds and affiliated surnames.
Clinton Macdonald became president of Idlewild Park in 1957, the same year he was appointed the first commissioner of Clan Donald for Pennsylvania by Reginald Macdonald of Kingsburgh. Peet says Clinton Macdonald was dedicated to establishing an outstanding and authentic Highland Games in Western Pennsylvania, which he worked hard to accomplish.
Clinton Macdonald died in September 2001, and the 2002 Ligonier Highland Games program memorialized "the man who conceived, created and supported these games for 43 years." The tribute included a quote from Macdonald, noting that he once said, "We're not interested in becoming one of the biggest Games. We just want to be one of the nicest."
Since 1982, the Ligonier Highland Games has been a founding, charter member of the Association of Scottish Games and Festivals.
Today's games, held under the auspices of the Clan Donald Educational and Charitable Trust, is one of the largest and highest-regarded venues for Scottish athletic and cultural competitions in the country, Peet says.
The event also serves a philanthropic purpose, he says, raising money for a scholarship fund for performers and students interested in graduate study at a Scottish university. The Games also underwrites the cost of workshops at Idlewild Park during the Games in Celtic harping, Scottish fiddling, drumming and piping.
• 9 a.m.-4 p.m. -- Seminar on Scottish Gaelic at the Wingate Inn, Route 30, Latrobe, led by Dr. Philip Smith, president of International Association of Tartan Studies. Send $30 registration fee for books and study materials to Ligonier Highland Games, P.O. Box 884, Bethel Park, PA 15102-0884.
• 6-10 p.m. -- Free professional piping competitions at Mountain View Inn, Route 30, near Greensburg.
• 7 p.m. -- Ceilidh (Scottish dinner) with whiskey tasting and entertainment by MacTalla Mor at Mountain View Inn. $35. For reservations, call 724-834-5300.
• 8 p.m. -- Informal Scottish Country Dance Party open to all at Mountain View Inn. $8. Music by Scottish fiddler Melinda Crawford.
All events at Idlewild Park, Route 30 West, Ligonier. Times are approximate. Many events run throughout the day.
Admission: $15; $12 for senior citizens; $5 for ages 6 to 12; free for ages 5 and younger
• 9 a.m. -- Scottish Fair opens with vendors, clan tents, genealogy booth, Highland cattle, Shetland sheep and pony display. Special exhibits include Scottish breed dogs and living history. Workshop in Scottish Fiddling with Melinda Crawford. Competitions in Highland dancing, heavy athletics, solo piping and drumming, and U.S. National Gaelic Mod start.
• 10 a.m.-noon -- Children's game
• 10 a.m. -- Scottish Country Dancers perform and offer audience participation throughout the day at the Raccoon Stage; Celtic Harp Workshop led by Sue Richards.
• 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. -- Southminster Ringers perform near bridge.
• 11:30 a.m. -- Sheep herding by Jack Monsour's Scottish border collies.
• Noon -- Welcome ceremonies with Parade of Clans and Massed Bands.
• 1 p.m. -- Scottish Fiddling and Celtic Harp competitions.
• 2 p.m. -- Pipe band competitions and Barra the Bard storytelling for children at Ricky Raccoon Building.
• 3 p.m. -- Tug-of-war competitions.
• 4 p.m. -- Rugby
• 5:30 p.m. -- Awards ceremony and final Massed Bands performance at main field.
• 6 p.m. -- Games close at Idlewild Park.
• 7 p.m. -- Cocktail hour and whiskey tasting precedes dinner and Ceilidh at Mountain View Inn. Reservation required. $35; $12 for age 9 and younger. Mail orders with check payable to "Ligonier Highland Games" to 2006 W. Chestnut Ave., Altoona, PA 16602-2053. Call 814-943-0559.
• 10:45 a.m. -- Scottish Worship Service at Covenant Presbyterian Church, North Market and Church streets, Ligonier.
• 1 p.m. -- Free pipe band concert at the Diamond in Ligonier.
Details: 412-851-9900 or online