Oklahoma's Iron Thistle Scottish Games to carry on with Highland Games despite coronavirus pandemic
A version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman.
Still in the game
Iron Thistle Scottish Festival carries on with pandemic changes
YUKON - Traditional feats of strength - from throwing a long log called a caber end over end to tossing a sheaf of straw with a pitchfork - will be on display at this weekend's Iron Thistle Scottish Festival.
As impressive as the athletes in the Highland Games undoubtedly will be, the festival's organizers will be attempting the equally mighty feat of putting on the long-running event despite the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's been tedious, but we're really, really trying to make this happen because we know we have a lot of loyal fans. This is the Celtic state fair," said Jonathan Irvin, athletic director for the Iron Thistle Scottish Festival.
For more than a decade, the United Scottish Clans of Oklahoma has been honoring the traditions of Scotland and other Celtic nations at the annual Iron Thistle Scottish Festival at Yukon's Mollie Spencer Farm, formerly known as the Kirkpatrick Family Farm. Usually a spring event, this year's festival has been shifted to this Saturday and Sunday and undergone several changes due to the pandemic.
"When the weather is good, it's a hugely attended festival ... and it is completely volunteer-run," said Public Relations Chairwoman Terri Folks. "This year, it'll be free, it's outside, and there'll be social distancing."
As many as 8,000 people typically attend the festival, provided the weather cooperates. Men and women are encouraged to wear kilts if they have them, although it isn't required.
While many Oklahoma festivals have been canceled in light of the pandemic, Folks said Iron Thistle's organizers opted instead to pare down the event in an effort to carry on while making it as safe as possible under the circumstances.
"There's so many people that they're just so excited to have something to go to," she said.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, this year's festival will skip the traditional Friday night start, which usually includes a torchlight calling of the clans ceremony and a ceilidh, or an informal social gathering with folk music, singing and storytelling.
The Iron Thistle Festival typically includes a full lineup of live music, Celtic dancing and children's activities. But this year, the event will be limited to the Highland Games, food vendors and trucks, the Viking village recreation and just a few other attractions.
New to this year's festival will be the Wallace Sword Hold, named for the real-life Scottish hero portrayed by Mel Gibson in the Oscar-winning 1995 movie "Braveheart."
"It's a replica of William Wallace's sword, and it's like a grip test. ... You've got to hold the sword out away from you at shoulder level for X amount of time, and if you are able to do it, you earn the right to wield. It's an honorary title," Irvin said. "The guesstimation is that there's been about 14,000 people that have tried to hold it, and there's only been six that have actually been able to do it."
Since the event has been stripped down, organizers are foregoing the usual entry fees, Irvin said, although attendees must sign a COVID-19 liability waiver to enter.
Festivalgoers are urged to wear face masks, which vendors, volunteers and clan representatives will be required to wear. Social distancing will be encouraged, and hand-washing stations will be be set up around the grounds.
"We are hoping that we can just give the city something to do because there's not been a whole lot going on," Irvin said. "Just pick a champion on the field and support them all day long, eat your funnel cake or whatever it is and maybe have a beer."
Despite the changes, the festival still will boast its signature attraction: the Highland Games.
In the spirit of the ancient Scots, heavy athletes gather to compete against each other in displays of strength and skill. Categories include the hammer throw, sheaf toss, stone put and caber toss. The latter is always a crowd favorite, as athletes are called on to throw a long log end over end, and ambitious competitors can also try tossing the extra-large "challenge caber."
"It should humble a lot of people ... but there's money on it," Irvin said. "People always want to see caber (toss), but the challenge cabers are cool because they're usually either ridiculously heavy or ridiculously long."
About 70 athletes are expected to compete in this year's Iron Thistle Highland Games, including a small but mighty number of contenders in the elite women's class.
"These women are athletes to a tee," Irvin said. "They're going to be pretty amazing to watch."
Between the fall time frame and the free admission, Folks said she is hopeful this year's festival will draw some new attendees who will be interested in coming back once the event is restored to its usual size and scope.
"It's stuff you wouldn't normally see. ... You just don't see people tossing these humongous telephone pole things and rocks. It's totally different from any other kind of sporting event they've been to," Folks said. "People are just really looking for some fun, family-friendly activities."
Iron Thistle Scottish Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Where: Mollie Spencer Farm (formerly known as Kirkpatrick Family Farm), 1001 Garth Brooks Blvd. in Yukon.
Coronavirus protocols: Masks and social distancing are encouraged, handwashing stations will be available, and attendees are required to sign a COVID-19 liability waiver.
Information: www.unitedscotsok.com or www.facebook.com/IronThistle.