DIARY: In Fergus, Ontario, it’s just like a trip to Scotland without paying the airfare … enough to make any Scotsman happy.
There’s something about the sound of bagpipes that moves my inner Scot and brings a lump to my throat. If the tune is particularly stirring, it might even bring a tear to my eye. Diane reacts the same way, though there’s not a drop of Scottish blood in her veins. She’s Yorkshire Viking all the way through. We’re in Fergus, Ontario, to scout out the scene of the upcoming Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games for my television series, Escapes with Nigel. I’m driving past a tree trunk beside the road, carved in the shape of a Scots pioneer. Somewhere nearby comes the sound of the pipes. It’s not from the statue, that’s for sure, but it’s an odd moment.
Everywhere in Fergus, there are signs of the pioneering Scots’ industry and hard work, where in the 1800s they set up mills on the river and built themselves handsome stone houses. The waterfalls in the middle of the town are the reason it’s there, but a little downstream the Elora Gorge makes a more dramatic spectacle.
A few days later we’re back with the whole crew and once again the streets of the town ring with the skirl of the pipes, but this time we are expecting them. The Fergus Pipe Band has turned out to give me a stirring welcome. They’re just a teaser for the three-day Festival and we’ve been invited to participate.
Arriving on the field of competition we knock off the opening of the show before the crowds arrive. It’s much easier to drive the car up to its mark and get my lines out when there’s no crowd watching. Later in the day, I’m sitting in the grandstand to see the stirring spectacle of the massed pipes and drums. Getting my closing done is a nightmare, but after three takes I manage to get all the words in the right order. By then the folks sitting around me think I’m nuts, blabbing to a camera that’s 50 yards away where they can’t see it. Just ignore me, I ask politely, and they do.
During the day we do interviews with organisers and athletes. The main guy is Bruce Lloyd, who buzzes around in his golf cart, putting out fires and in between crises arranges people to come and chat before our cameras. He seems remarkably calm for a man in a rush, dealing with hundreds of participants and 10 or 20 thousand visitors. Then there’s David Radley, a well spoken Brit, who’s president this year and looks very posh in all his highland gear, and David Webster, a wonderful Scot, garrulous beyond belief with marvellous stories of how the highland games came to be, and author of a book on the subject. In one anecdote he tells me how caber tossing started with highland lumberjacks literally picking up trees and tossing them into a river to float downstream. Cabers are the size of telephone poles, more than 20 feet long. I can’t even imagine picking one up, let alone tossing it end over end.
In a break in the highland games’ so-called heavy events, where giant men throw giant objects around, we get to meet Warren Trask, who’s a past competitor and athletics director. He’s so tall he makes me feel like I’m standing in a hole in the ground. The heavy events are like a pentathlon, he tells me, with athletes competing in all events, or as many as they can manage. Today’s heavy events are for professionals, some of whom attend two dozen or more highland games gatherings a year. We chat with a couple of the competitors, one of whom has won the sheaf toss, by throwing a heavy sack of grain over a bar 30 feet in the air, the equivalent of a three storey house, using muscle and a pitchfork. These are extraordinary feats and the competitors are extraordinarily strong men. The crowd loves it all, of course, especially the caber toss, cheer on their favourites and let out a mass groan when they miss.
There’s almost too much to see in one day, which is why the festival now spreads out over a three-day weekend. The first day ends with a spectacular firework display and the second with the massed bands. By the third day we’re on to another story and miss the fun. While the heavy events lumber along on one side of the field, the tug of war teams are pulling away on the other, to the screams and shouts of their supporters.
In the woods behind the stage, hundreds of pipers are tuning up or practising, honestly, it’s hard to tell which. There are individual and band competitions and they are all going on at once. After a while, one’s ears seem to hear the pipes continuously, a sort of Scottish ear worm. Band competitions are the way most of us judge bagpipe music, but solo piping competitions are the way that pipers judge themselves, I’m told.
We take a break and wander down the lines of tents, where various clans have set up shop, offering all kinds of clan ephemera. There’s no sign of my small clan, but there’s lots of others to choose from. Of course, a true Scot wouldn’t be seen dead in another clan’s tartan, but my crew don’t seem to care and grab some souvenirs anyway. On a more commercial note, there’s another row of tables, stalls and wagons, selling every type of food and British stuff galore. At a Brit video shop, we pick up a DVD of our favourite Scots comedian, Billy Connolly to have some laughs later. More importantly, we get good fish and chips with mushy peas. Scotland’s great epicurean contribution, deep fried Mars bar, is nowhere to be found, thank goodness, although haggis is rumoured to be available somewhere on site.
Off to one side is a small area set up for demonstrations of various sorts, and we watch a sheep being sheared without much protest. It’s such a hot day, I’m sure it’s glad to lose its coat. Further away from the noise and bustle is a serious area, where mostly lithe young dancers are being judged in highland dance competitions. The little ones are unbelievably cute and as they get older and more experienced they get more and more serious. There’s a dance wrangler at one end of the tented stage, herding the next round into position like a sheepdog with its flock. Apart from the highland fling and the sword dance, which I recognize, there’s also a series of reels and lots of other dances which I couldn’t tell. The audience, mostly family, are much too focussed for me to ask which is which.
It all comes to an end with the long pipe band competition, which is excellent to watch and enjoy, followed by the massed bands marching up and down. At this point the bands must be exhausted after a long day of individual and group competitions on a very, very hot day. But they give the closing ceremony their best effort and the crowd rewards them with rapturous applause. Marching beside the drum major is a very small boy, perhaps only six or seven years old, fully kitted out, with a miniature mace to copy his senior’s, who matches every twist and twirl and step. It was impressive, and also very cute and funny, so one wasn’t quite sure whether to be stirred by the pipes and drums or to laugh at the kid so enjoying himself. You can watch the scene at the closing of my show.
It’s too late for this year, but be sure to check out the dates for next year’s Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games. It’s really grand fun. I’ll see you there. I’ll be the guy wearing the custom made Napier tartan trews.
The story was originally published on September 8, 2014. Please check the Bell Local website or Bell Media’s on air video-on-demand channel 1217 for “Escape to Fergus” … now available.
Photos courtesy Carolyn McMaster.