Highland Games bring Celtic flavor to Springfield

Tamara Browning

The technique for throwing an 18-foot, 100-pound caber pole is calculated, and Bill Rogers of Springfield demonstrates it — sans the large, wooden pole.

First, lean into the “tree” that stands up like a telephone pole. Stand and lock hands together, working down the pole to get as close to the ground as possible. Grab the pole with the heels of the hands and throw it up in the air.

Catch it.

Draw the caber close to the body. Lean it on a certain point of the shoulder and jaw.

“The other 17 1/2 feet is up in the air, and the wind’s blowing it. You’ve got it and you’re balancing it and you get your balance,” said Rogers, a champion caber-toss athlete and a founder of the St. Andrew’s Society of Central Illinois.

“Then you run and you lean it forward. As it breaks forward, you stop and you dip and you … throw it.

“The idea is to throw it in the air end for end. You’re throwing it for 12 o’clock on your watch. You’re not throwing it for height or distance. You’re throwing it for accuracy.”

Caber-toss athletes will strive to be spot-on when they compete in ancient athletics during Saturday’s Springfield Highland Games & Celtic Festival at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.

The St. Andrew’s Society of Central Illinois is hosting the games and festival, which will feature athletics, pipe-band competitions, Highland dance competitions, rugby, storytelling, traditional food and Celtic entertainment.

The event will bring to life the society’s goals: to educate the public and society members in Celtic (Scottish, Irish and Welsh) heritage, to continue the traditions and customs associated with all Celts and to pursue charitable causes that benefit the community.

Assisting others in need has been the driving force of St. Andrew’s societies worldwide.

St. Andrew’s Society’s Mutual Aid

The Celtic people were from northern and western Europe, plus half of Spain, Germany, France, and into Scandinavia, Rogers said.

“Our ancestors fled the king of England or the queen, whatever the case may be at the particular time, and they came here several ways,” Rogers said.

Among the ways the Celtic people acquired passage to the United States was to sign agreements of servitude.

“It was anywhere from, like, seven years to 15 years servitude to somebody to pay for their boat ride over here, at which a third of them died on the trip over,” Rogers said.

St. Andrew’s societies were founded as mutual aid societies for the immigrant Celts because they came to the United States with nothing, Rogers said.

“They had been burned out or half of their family hung or put to sword or something, so they fled with the shirts on their backs, and they come over to this country, and they had to form together to help each other out,” Rogers said.

St. Andrew’s societies exist worldwide, including in Scotland, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Irish and Welsh were included in the St. Andrew’s Society of Central Illinois because there wasn’t an active organization for them in the community, said Beth Ogilvy, Rogers’ daughter and chairman of the games and festival.

“So, that’s why we made it Celtic,” said Ogilvy, of Springfield.

“When we founded the St. Andrew’s Society, the goal was to be a not-for-profit organization … to perpetuate the traditions and the heritage of our ancestors,” Ogilvy said. “A lot of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were of Celtic origin. They came here because they fled the tyranny they left and made this a free country.

“We feel like we’re ambassadors to our heritage. We want to make sure that the kids learn why the things are the way they are and what caused them to happen.”

Ogilvy’s contribution to passing on the legacy includes running a studio for Scottish and Irish dancing at her home. Her husband, Tommy, gives bagpipe lessons at the kitchen counter.

“Our house is constantly full of Celtic people,” Ogilvy said. “That’s why we turned our front yard into a parking lot.”

St. Andrew’s Society’s Outreach

The skills that members of the St. Andrew’s Society now practice for competition hearken back to activities that Celtic people engaged in to prepare for fighting.

“It was against the law to have your weapons, but you had one hidden somewhere,” Rogers said. “When a piper would stand on a mountainside and play a certain tune, everybody in the countryside would hear it. They’d run and get their weapon, wherever they had it hid, and they’d meet at a predetermined place and be ready to go fight.”

Now, people either love or hate bagpipes “because they stir the blood,” Ogilvy said. “They’re a very eerie, very passionate instrument.”

“ ... The Scottish drumming is mostly marching. That was when the troops were called together and the pipers and drummers lead the battle. It was declared an instrument of war and banned, because it gathered people for miles.”

A traditional Scottish athletic event, the caber toss, re-creates an activity people in Scotland used to cross water.

“Everywhere you went in Scotland, you had to cross water. If you went across the stream in the wintertime, you waded across it, you froze your feet, you’re dead,” Rogers said.

“So, what they would do is they’d cut a tree down and they’d take that tree and they’d flip it across the creek (for a footbridge).”

Travel has become significantly easier since those days, and hundreds of people are expected at Saturday’s Highland Games & Celtic Festival, rain or shine.

The fact that the event will be held this year at the fairgrounds, after having been canceled last year due to electrical problems there, is a relief to organizers.

“Last year’s cancellation of our property was devastating. Not only is the games a fundraiser — we give a percentage of our profits each year to a charity — it also gives us the income to do it the next year,” Ogilvy said.

One of the largest beneficiaries has been the Ronald McDonald House, which helps families when children in those families are hospitalized. The games have raised $9,000 for the Ronald McDonald House, according to the St. Andrew’s Society of Central Illinois’ Web site.

Organizers hope to continue raising money for community needs. But they also note that the waning economy has wiped out several similar events across the country this year, stretching from California to Massachusetts.

“The list will continue,” Rogers said.

Ogilvy said: “There’s just all kinds of struggles, so the community really needs to come behind us and help us support this event because we don’t want to be on that list for next year.

“It’s a real struggle to do this, but you couldn’t find a more stubborn group than the Scots and the Irish. So, here we are.

“All we want to do is be able to do our stuff. We don’t want to stop anybody else from doing their stuff.”

Tamara Browning can be reached at (217) 788-1534 ortamara.browning@sj-r.com.

WANT TO GO?

* WHAT: Springfield Highland Games & Celtic Festival

* WHEN: Saturday; gates open at 8 a.m. rain or shine

* WHERE: Track infield, Illinois State Fairgrounds

* COST: $10 adults, $5 students/senior citizens, free for children younger than 6.

* DID YOU KNOW? The event will include a heritage area with demonstrations of how tartans are woven, a clan area where people can find out what their family clan would be, a kids area, and entertainment by Exorna, which offers Irish traditional music.