The clans have gathered
The day before the Gathering of the Clans in Pugwash, N.S., there’s scarcely a sign of even a kilt. There are bilingual road signs, Gaelic and English, and there’s a small set of amusement park rides setting up, empty ticket kiosks, and there are all the out-of-province licence plates, but not a kilt in sight.
The Go-Gator and the Spin-the-Apple sit silent, and the carnies who have set them up are sitting shirtless with age-smeared tattoos, old muscles sagging under their skin and Tshirt tans. There’s an occasional compressed-air hiss from the rides still being set up, electrical cables snaking.
Just past the last ride, the Sedna Desgagnes is taking on salt: Pugwash is a salt town, Windsor Salt a major employer (company motto - The Salt of the Earth) and the huge carrier sits in a bay that looks far too shallow for its bulk.
On the day of the Gathering of the Clans, the second person I meet in Pugwash is wearing a kilt, and she’s also piper. She’s trying to find the pipe band parking: it seems an overly mundane task for someone so cloaked in the high style of the highlands.
Highland dancing starts at 8:30 a.m., with the smallest girls. It’s almost immediately apparent that Highland dance moms are like, well, dance moms everywhere. And hockey dads. There’s more than a little repressed history here. The littlest girls are marvels, shrugging off every misstep, dancing unencumbered to the music on the boardwalk behind the stage even after their performances are over. (Did I mention that, for fairness, everyone dances to the same sliver of prerecorded bagpipes for each set of dancers? The sound of pipes made me wistful, walking towards the stage, before I realized, with a start, that I was mooning over a recording.) The modern world, though, has crept in more than that: their velvet vests with silver buttons actually snick closed with velcro, and many wear Crocs over their soft leather dance shoes, keeping the damp of the still-dew-wet grass away. Every dancer’s hair is pulled back in a severe bun.
I’m not saying that the Heavyweight Highland Games are something of a niche sport: all I’m saying is that, when I walk past the grounds at 8 a.m., the scoreboard’s just been put up, still bearing last year’s names. This year’s names, when the whiteboard is redrawn, are almost all the same. (Actually, I’m not saying anything bad about the event - when the 12 of them line up, it’s like there’s 25 guys standing there. In kilts. With heavy things.)
When I arrive back at the venue, they’re slinging a 56pound metal ball on a chain out into the outfield. When it lands, it disappears under the grass, like it was shot into the sod by a cannon.
These are big men: one tops out at six-foot-six, 310 pounds. Another was a player in the CFL with the Blue Bombers and the Argonauts, as well as a competitor in strongman competitions. (I’m going to one of those next week.) He’s also, well, big. But the leader in almost everything is the Canadian champion, a sveltelooking 235 pounds. He throws that foolish 56 pound stone some 44 feet. He’s already thrown a rock some 55 feet. And the Scottish hammer-throw? This takes explanation. First, you put on work boots. But not any work boots - work boots with a 12inch knife blade sticking out of the toes. You drive those knifeblades into the ground to anchor yourself, spin the hammer around your body a few times for a wind-up, then give it a little flick - behind yourself.
Matt Doherty, all 235 pounds of him, heaves that 22-pound sledgehammer and it buries itself 82 feet, three-and-a-half inches away, handle upright. He doesn’t see where it lands: he is facing the other way. I fear for the people out in the field with the measuring tape. I stop watching and head for the water.
The 10 o’clock parade is heavy at the start with firetrucks: I am a former firefighter, and I see that the surrounding towns have been frugal with the trucks they’ve sent. Almost everything that’s not from Pugwash is a tanker, meaning everyone’s kept their front-line trucks in the station for fire calls. Smart, I think. The parade’s most jarring moment? The Windsor Salt float - they are a major sponsor - boasts two giant steel pots and a jolly dancing saltshaker. Inside the pots are four teens: two dressed as lobster, two as ears of corn. The happy lobsters wave their pincers. The delighted corn waves its ... fronds? It is both funny and deeply disturbing.
In another corner of Pugwash, there is a piping competition, the pipers spread out to corners of a massive field so each piper can be heard by the individual judges. The pipers play different things, simultaneously. I will say this: dueling banjos sound wonderful. Dueling bagpipes are hell on Earth. Nearby, members of pipe bands are pulling full flasks out of the tops their long socks and are handing them around. I like them. The Sedna Desgagnes, belly full of salt, slips from the dock, blows its huge horn. The tiny girls keep dancing, hands thrown up over their heads.
Back at the the athletic grounds, they are still throwing heavy things. The competition will last hours, and the almostlast-thing is throwing that chained 56 pound ball over a high jump bar. I could barely pick the stupid thing up. I couldn’t put it in the trunk if they wanted me to. It’s time for me to go.