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Take A Trip Up To The Highlands Without Ever Crossing An Ocean

The Virginia Scottish Games includes highland competition, haggis and whiskey, bagpipes and plenty of kilts right outside DC.

Kristin Bishop

Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.

It’s fair to say that very few of us will ever toss a nearly 20 foot, 175 pound pole into the air, have it land on its top, wobble for a moment, and then finally flip over. Which is to say, very few of us will ever experience the true joy of competing in the Virginia Scottish Games.

“I am telling you it feels really, really good to flip that thing,” says Highland athlete Heather McKenzie. “There is no feeling like it, honestly.”

McKenzie would know. She has been tossing that thing, called a caber, since she was 16 years-old and was yanked away from her scorekeeping duties to compete in the Virginia Scottish Games, an annual event that her grandfather co-founded and her father helped run. At the time, they needed McKenzie—who back then had played a little field hockey and basketball but had never competitively thrown trees—to participate so they would have enough athletes to make that year’s games official.

Now a nearly 40 year institution, the Virginia Scottish Games, which take place September 5th and 6th, no longer has such problems. More than 60 athletes from around the country and the world—15 of them women—gather at the Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia to toss cabers, 19-pound Braemar stones, and 50-plus pound weights in what has become one of the biggest events in the Highland games calendar.

Even though all of this takes place less than an hour drive west of Alexandria, where the games originally began as part of the DC suburb’s bicentennial celebrations, you will feel like you are an ocean away.

“The setting is much like the Scottish Highlands,” explains Alexandra L. Duncan, vice president of the Virginia Scottish Games, “only with better parking.”

While the Highland athletics competition has remained the center piece and namesake of the Virginia Scottish Games, they are only one of the many ways that the event—which depending on the weather can attract as many as 20,000 people—celebrates Scottish heritage and the impact that the Scottish people had on both the state and the country. Indeed, one can have a fully immersive Highland experience at the games and not see anyone throw anything.

For starters, a number of traditional Scottish clans hold their annual general meetings at the games, often led by a Clan Chief or representative who has flown in from Scotland. The honored clans at this years games include MacKay, MacIntyre, MacCullum-Malcom, Kennedy, and Ross.

“Meeting someone from your clan is amazing—it’s sort of like having an ‘instafriend,’” says McKenzie.

The place will be equally enchanting for lovers of dogs. There will be Border Collies giving sheepherding demonstrations, rescued West Highland White Terriers leading pipe and drum marches, and most other Scottish breeds on display. But if cars are more your speed, the Classic British Car & Motorcycle Show takes place during the games and will feature upwards of 100 perfectly polished vintage Bentleys, Jaguars, Rolls Royces, MG’s, Minis, Morgans, and Triumphs.

“I love the cars,” says Duncan. “My parents’ first date was in a white MGB convertible so I am a bit biased.”

If you’re worried about your wee ones around the car show, you can ease your fears with plenty of activities for children. Near the entrance, there will be kid-sized versions of the games— they’ll throw bricks as opposed to huge stones—as well as face painters. But what will really leave both kids and their parents agog is what’s up the hill: a living history encampment that promises to transport you not just to a different place, but a different time altogether.

There will be as many as six groups of historical re-enactors depicting a different era of Scottish and European history. Expect to encounter first century AD Roman soldiers, Highland warriors from the Jacobite Rising of 1746, the infantrymen who fought for King and Country during the Revolutionary War, and members of a Scottish reconnaissance regiment that campaigned in Europe during World War II.

Glenfiddich recently signed on as a sponsor for the games, which means that visitors over the age of 21 can unwind with whiskey tastings. This year’s featured Scotch is the Gran Solera 21 Year Old, which is finished in casks used to age Caribbean rum. There are plenty of food venders and, yes, that does include haggis—which despite what your great Scottish uncle might tell you, might not mix so well with whiskey.

Don’t forget the music. Live, traditional Scottish music has come to define the Virginia Scottish Games every bit as much as the athletic events have.

As many as 20 bagpiping bands show up at the games every year, and nearly that many fiddle bands. Fiddlers, drummers and pipers will also compete against each other in front of judges that come from across the country and Canada. These musical showdowns are known to get every bit as heated as the athletic games, and only slightly less dangerous.

The Virginia Scottish Games cost $20 per adult for a one day ticket and $30 for both days. Children 5-12 are $5 on Saturday and free on Sunday; children under 5 are free. The whisky tastings are $25 each.

It tends to get hot so pack plenty of water and sunscreen. A fold-up chair or picnic blanket is a good idea, and while there’s plenty of parking, it’s still a good idea to get there early, especially on Saturday. As for wearing a kilt in your clan’s tartan, well, that’s entirely up to you.

Really, the most important thing to bring is the desire to be transported to the Highlands, whether your people hail from there or not. “The hills, the valley, the meadow— it all reminds everyone of Scotland,” says Duncan. “We just add the wandering pipers to set the musical tone.”