Sometime before the dawn of Christianity, the clans of Scotland began trying to identify the strongest and swiftest in the land through what they called Highland Games.
The competitions featured running, throwing hammers, lifting heavy stones and tossing timber, but at its heart it celebrated everything emblematic of the rich Celtic/Gaelic culture.
In the mid 1700s, the ruling English enacted the Act of Proscription, banning "playing of the bagpipe, wearing of the kilt, gathering together of the people and the carrying of arms under the penalty of deportation or death." That effectively squelched the games, and undermined the clan structure.
Today, events such as the 45th annual Monterey Scottish Games and Celtic Festival help revive and celebrate that heritage through games, music, dancing, food and close-knit clans who keep the spirit alive.
This year the event returns to the Monterey County Fairgrounds on Saturday and Sunday, July 7-8 from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Given their romantic history, the athletic events themselves draw the most attention, and the Monterey event will hold nine events in several divisions, from novice to professional.
"What can be more fun than watching men in skirts throwing things?" said Carlos Borges, 50, of Pacific Grove, a former power-lifter who started his own one-man Portuguese team 14 years ago (he wears a Royal Steward kilt reserved for those with no Scottish clan to call his own).
"This seemed more informal and fun (than power-lifting)," said Borges, the chairman in the Department of Applied Mathematics at Naval Postgraduate School. "The rich tradition is a critical part of the games for me."
In fact, Borges objected vehemently when someone suggested adding a lightweight division this year.
"I threatened to resign over it. That's an abomination. It's about finding the strongest, no matter what size you are. It was a way to choose the king's personal guard."
Borges specializes in the hammer throw and the stone toss. In ancient times, competitors threw a blacksmith's hammer and rocks found around the farm. Today the implements more resemble those seen in track and field events.
More unconventional events include: the sheaf toss (competitors use a pitchfork to hurl a burlap bag stuffed with straw over a horizontal bar), weight over the bar (throwing a heavy weight as high as possible); and the caber toss (tossing a large, wooden pole). Thankfully, less civilized pursuits such as "twisting the four legs off a cow for which a fat sheep is offered as a prize" have been eliminated from modern games.
The retained events are still so visually compelling that Pixar animators videotaped last year's competition at the Highland Games in Pleasanton as part of their research for the Disney animated feature "Brave," set in the highlands of 10th century Scotland.
"The games and the culture surrounding them are fascinating to people," Borges said.
Helping showcase that culture are two local groups, the Scottish Society of the Monterey Peninsula and the Salinas Jaycees. Billed as a family event, the festival features a variety of live Celtic entertainment, including Seamus Kennedy, Stand Easy, Sligo Rags, Barbara Joy and many others.
Kennedy is considered the musical headliner. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, he has built a 32-year career with a ready wit and a vast store of songs.
Kennedy travels the world performing for audiences ranging from religious leaders and presidents to bartenders and bricklayers.
Stand Easy is a Celtic rock band led by John McLean Allan, a bagpiper, singer/ songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
Named among the top acoustic bands in Los Angeles by Folkworks Magazine, Sligo Rags presents Celtic folk with a decidedly bluegrass attitude.
Barbara Joy is a singer/ guitarist/ composer who sings classical to Celtic, interpreting music in her own unique style.
Also look for the massed pipe bands on parade, as well asdrum major and pipe band competitions, highland dancing, Irish step dancing, sheepdog herding, historical reenactment groups, and Clan and Celtic Association Tents.
This year, on Sunday, the festival will again feature a very special "Salute to the Irish" that will include Irish entertainment and Irish Dancing.
Highland dancing is one of the most competitive forms of dance anywhere in the world. The origins of these dances lie within the Scottish clansmen, who performed before and after battle.
Watch the Sword Dance, performed over two sword blades, or the Highland Fling, said to be a dance of triumph at the end of a battle
Attendees can stroll through the Avenue of Clans, visit one of the tents and trace their own ancestry. Organizers also have planned special events for the wee ones with the implementation of Children's Games.
Planned entertainment includes Christopher Yates, the wavy-haired wonder from New Zealand who delights crowds with his Celtic comedy shows and characters. Watch out for "McCloud," the 10-foot tall HIGHlander (apparently his kilt is the whole nine yards).
Eli and Danni Doll perform a display of gravity defying acrobatics on the aerial tissu (meaning fabric in French) and the spinning aerial hoop.
More than 50 vendors will offer tasty British and Scottish food, including the traditionally "offal" haggis (sheep's heart, lungs and liver cooked in the animal's stomach) as well as more mainstream items such as bangers and mash, chicken pasties, meat pies, fish and chips, Welsh cakes, shortbread cookies and English toffee. Also expect plenty of ale and Scotch whiskey, too.
For shoppers, the festival will have booths selling unique Scottish and Irish crafts, jewelry and clothing.
Tickets purchased online before Friday, July 6 are priced at $15 for a one-day pass and $20 for a two-day pass (discounts for seniors, military and children ages 9-15; under age 8 free) at www.montereyscotgames.com. Tickets purchased at the fairgrounds gates are priced at $20/$30.
Mike Hale can be reached at email@example.com. GO!
What: 45th annual Monterey Scottish Games & Celtic Festival
Where: Monterey County Fairgrounds, 2004 Fairground Road, Monterey
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, July 7-8
Tickets: $15 one-day pass, $20 two-day pass online before July 6; $20/$30 at the gate
Information: 682-2022 or www.montereyscotgames.com
What: 45th annual Monterey Scottish Games & Celtic Festival