The sound of bagpipes is a familiar one in Dunedin, a town defined in great part by its Scottish heritage, which is celebrated by today’s Highland Games and Festival.
The event, which is in its 47th year, promises all things Scottish: whiskey, bagpipes, large men in kilts throwing logs and some of the most entertaining tug of war you’ve ever seen.
For many with Scottish roots, though, the event is like a family reunion a rare opportunity to connect with people from across the country descended from a common tribe, or clan, that lived in the same part of Scotland centuries ago.
“If you’re looking for a link back to Roman times, this is one way to do it,” said Vincent Baird, president of the Clan Baird Society Worldwide.
The Baird Clan is one of about 40 clans that will be represented at the Highland Games. Bairds live in 39 states and in countries as far away as New Zealand and South Africa.
Each clan can trace its history back hundreds if not thousands of years, and members often hail from across the globe. A couple dozen members of his clan are expected in Dunedin today, and they hope to connect with a few local Bairds who aren’t members of the clan, Baird said. There are lots in Florida, he said.
“We’re a genealogy society,” he said. “We’re looking for Bairds if they can connect, if they have history.”
Not all clan members are related to one another by blood. Some marry into clans. Early on, clans were named by their geography, or took the names of their chiefs.
“They were people who lived together and helped each other and fought wars together,” said Marsha Richardson, a member the Forsyths clan, known in the motherland for its Scotch distilleries.
In many cases, many of the groups’ stories are long lost – destroyed in wars or cast aside in an attempt to assimilate in the New World.
Forsyth clan records were lost in a war centuries ago when a ship carrying them sunk in the English Channel, and reaching out at Scottish heritage festivals is a way to pick up the pieces, Richardson said.
The festivals are also a way for Scots to get together, regardless of name, to celebrate their shared history.
“It’s a love of Scotland and its culture,” said Dunedin resident Terry Eldridge, president of the Highland Games.
The event gets its name from Scotland’s Highland Games, which in its modern form goes back centuries and is often referred to as the Scottish Olympics. In Dunedin, some competitors belong to a clan, others don’t. Both professional and amateur athletes compete in traditional games such as the hammer throw, the stone put and the caber toss, where competitors try to upend a tapered wooden pole or tree trunk.
Music and dancing are also a huge part of the festivities.
The event takes place at Highlander Park on Michigan Boulevard from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain or shine, and benefits the City of Dunedin Pipe Band, the Dunedin High School Scottish Highlander Band and the Dunedin Highland Middle School Band. Tickets are $15 at the gate, and children 12 and younger get in free with a paying adult.
Organizers say to expect a crowd.
“The park gets packed,” Eldridge said. “A few thousand people attend.”