The clans have gath­ered

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION -

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 ages-meared 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, 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.)

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. He's also, well, big. But the leader in al­most ev­ery­thing is the Cana­dian cham­pion, a svelte-look­ing 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 12-inch knife blade stick­ing out of the toes. You drive those knife-blades 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. I fear for the peo­ple out in the field with the mea­sur­ing tape. I stop watch­ing and head for the wa­ter.

The 10 a.m. 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.

It's time for me to go.

Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Media's At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at

rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc.

PHOTO BY RUS­SELL WANGER­SKY/TC MEDIA

A young High­land dancer at The Gath­er­ing of the Clans in Pug­wash stops to ad­mire a big ship in the har­bour this week.

Rus­sell Wanger­sky Eastern Pas­sages

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