The feats of strength that make up what are known as “the Highland Games,” which have been a staple of the annual Tulsa celebration Scotfest, haven’t changed much over the centuries.
The caber toss (basically, a log about the size of a telephone pole that a competitor attempts to heave in such a way that it tumbles end-over-end in a straight line), the stones and weights that are flung into the air, the bundles of straw (or sheaves) that are stabbed with a pitchfork and tossed skyward — these are all activities that have become standard fare at any festive gathering of Scottish people.
What has changed in the past decade or so, said Rick Rutledge, is the caliber of athlete taking part in these ancient games.
“It used to be that people took part in the Highland Games because it was a cultural thing,” said Rutledge, vice president of marketing and media relations for Scotfest. “But now, we’re seeing people who are athletes first. The competition is at the highest level. That’s one thing that makes watching these games so exciting.”
Tulsa’s Scotfest, which this year marks its 40th anniversary, is also upping its game, presenting a three-day event of music, food, culture and competition that Rutledge said is to be “bigger and better than before.”
This year’s Scotfest will be Friday-Sunday, Sept. 13-15, at its new location, Broken Arrow Events Park, 21101 E. 101st St.
This will be the second year the festival will be held there, after many years of occupying the River West Festival Park in Tulsa.
“Any time you change the dates or move the location of a festival, it can be a little dangerous,” Rutledge said. “Last year, we thought that we would be doing well if we managed to have 20,000 people over the course of the three days.
“Instead, we ending having more than 27,000 people attend last year, which was a bit more than we had for our last festival in Tulsa,” he said. “To say we were pleasantly surprised is a bit of an understatement.” However, “understatement” is not part of the Scotfest vocabulary for 2019.
The live music roster has expanded, with bands performing on three stages throughout the festival.
“In the past, we’d have bands perform several times during the weekend, often several times in a day,” Rutledge said. “This year, we have so many groups participating that some bands will be playing only once.
“We have packed our Friday night lineup with a lot of fan-favorite groups,” he said, referring to such performers as Tullamore, Selkie Girls, Murder the Stout, Wicked Tinkers, Celtica-Pipes Rock and Rathmore scheduled to perform.
The Folk Stage will feature primarily local performers — a first for the festival.
“This is going to be something we will be growing in the years to come,” Rutledge said. “We want to support our local artists as much as the national acts we bring in.”
For those who prefer more traditional music, the festival will be hosting Pipe and Drum competitions throughout the weekend, with bagpipers engaging in solo and band contests that are sanctioned by the Midwest Pipe Band Association.
“We’ve moved the pipe and drum competition area right near the entrance gate, so that the first thing you’re likely to hear when you come to Scotfest is the sound of bagpipes,” Rutledge said.
More than 150 athletes are expected to take part in the Highland Games competitions. Rutledge said in years past, the games were held only Saturdays and Sundays, but the number of entrants means that the games will likely begin Friday.
In addition, the festival will feature rugby teams facing off and dancers showing their skills at Highland dancing. The Kids’ Glen will has a variety of activities for youngsters, including a scavenger hunt that helps them learn a bit of Scottish history.
All this activity is sure to induce hunger and thirst, and the festival will offer an array of beverages for all ages and a wealth of Scottish food.
Comedian Mike Myers once said he thought all of Scottish cuisine was based on a dare — a sentiment with which people encountering the traditional dish haggis might agree.
Rutledge said the food that will be offered at Scotfest will counter that stereotype.
“Look, a well-made haggis is really tasty,” he said. “My wife can be a pretty picky eater, but she loves it. And there is a lot more to Scottish food than haggis. People think deep-fried Mars candy bars are something from the state fair, but that started in Scotland. Scones and Scotch eggs (a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat, breaded and deep-fried) and shortbread cookies, all originated in Scotland.
“We will have vendors selling traditional Scottish foods, and they are always very good,” he said. “Every year, I’m amazed at the level of delectability — if that’s a word — that can come out of a food truck. These people put a lot of skill and art into the food they make.”
And for those with less-adventurous palates, Rutledge said there will be vendors hawking more familiar fare.
“We do ask that they have at least one Scottish item on their menus,” he said.
The festival will also offer its popular whisky-tasting events, which require separate tickets. A total of four tastings are scheduled — at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.
“These always sell out,” Rutledge said.
Representatives of various Scottish clans will be on hand to help visitors learn more about Scottish history and culture, and perhaps discover their own Scottish origins.
“We made a special effort to reach out to more clans this year, and we’ll have more clans represented than ever before,” Rutledge said. “They represent an opportunity to get in touch with one’s roots, to learn about the struggles and sacrifices that are all a part of understanding the evolution of Scotland as a nation and its people.”
While the focus of Scotfest is on everything between the Mull of Galloway and the Shetland Islands, Rutledge said Scotfest has grown beyond a niche event.
“For one thing, we’re able to bring a cultural element to just about every aspect of our festival, and we’re able to combine the very traditional with the extremely modern,” he said. “That’s something that a lot of events built around a certain culture can’t really do to the same degree.
“And I think that’s one reason why we’ve seen continued growth when a lot of other Scottish festivals — in places like Dallas, Kansas City, Wichita — have closed up shop,” Rutledge said. “The word is getting around that these people in Tulsa are doing something right.”