The Northeast Florida Scottish Games and Festival is celebrating 21 years of bringing a wee bit o’Scotland to Northeast Florida February 27 at the Clay County Fairgrounds. EU Jacksonville talked with one of the festival’s founders about growing pains, Scottish games, and the acquired taste of haggis. A Mass Band Opening Ceremony kicks off the festival at noon, a spectacular event that organizer EJ Taylor says is not to be missed. “All the competing bands come together and march into the arena where we have our opening ceremonies and we introduce our honored clan. We have anywhere from 40 to 50 clans. It’s quite an awesome sight really,” she says. “The honored clan this year is Clan MacPherson. We also have an amazing lineup of bands this year featuring Albannach, Cleghorn, and Cuttin’ Bracken. We will have lots of wonderful food and merchandise vendors, and we do lots of demonstrations. Also, we have about 100 athletes from around the country that participate in our Scottish athletic competitions.”
One of the highlights of the games is the athletic competition, where athletes compete in such challenges as the popular caber toss, the hammer throw, weight for height, sheaf toss, and stone throw. The athletic competitions, Highland dancing, and bagpipe and drumming competitions are all sanctioned festival events. Other activities include sheep dog trials, where border collies demonstrate how shepherds and dogs work together to herd sheep, along with a Highland breed dogs and Highland livestock, including Clydesdale Horses and Shetland Ponies.
An athletic clinic is held a week prior to the games to offer instruction in a safe and controlled environment. Highland athletes are there to demonstrate and teach the proper techniques and Taylor says many participants join in as novices at the games.
One of the most popular attractions is the children’s area, which draws up to 1,500 kids with clowns, face painting, miniature athletic events and a coloring contests with a $10 cash prize. “The kids and the parents love it,” Taylor says. “But the parents may miss out some of the other events because the kids don’t want to leave the area.”
Taylor has been a part of the games since its rebranding 21 years ago. Initially, the St. Andrew’s Society of Jacksonville hosted the event but let it go for financial reasons. The newly reformed group incorporated as the Jacksonville Scottish Highland Games. Only 100 people attended their inaugural event held at the Church of Our Savior in Mandarin. They relocated to the University of North Florida, but campus growing pains forced them to find a larger venue. “It was very small,” says Taylor. “We now get upwards of 15,000 people, so it’s growing quickly. It’s been a wonderful journey.”
The relationship with the Clay County Fairgrounds has given them room to expand and add 20 events. They have also included some American food vendors to appease those who “simply don’t like Scottish food, unlike me, who loves all of it,” Taylor says of the traditional Scottish food like fish and chips, bridies and of course, haggis. “It’s not everybody’s taste. I grew up on haggis because my grandparents emigrated from Aberdeen. I’ve grown up loving all that good food. It took me a while to get used to it but it tastes a little bit like meatloaf if you don’t think about what’s in it.”
The Games continue to grow and reflect the deep connections and effects the Scots and their descendants have had on the United States and Northeast Florida in particular. Not everyone who comes to the games is of Scottish descent, but everyone can learn a wee bit ‘o Gaelic or trace their heritage with the help of a free, onsite genealogical expert. “It’s really exciting to learn about and celebrate where you come from.”
Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the gate. Proceeds will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Clay County Sheriff’s Office Pipes and Drums. For information or to purchase advance tickets, visit www.neflgames.com or find them on Facebook at Northeast Florida Scottish Games and Festival.
Local ticket outlets include Ameris Bank Branches in Clay County (Orange Park, Fleming Island, Keystone Heights and Middleburg), D & R Sewing, 9050 San Jose Blvd. Ste. 6, Jacksonville, Clay County Chamber of Commerce, Green Room, 2022 Carnes Street Ste. 2, Orange Park, Richardson’s Jewelry Station, AAA Trophy Mart, 6936 Beach Blvd., Jacksonville, Borderlands Comics and Games, 10230 Atlantic Blvd. Ste. 11, Jacksonville, The Bayard Rooster, 12661 Philips Highway (US 1), Jacksonville, Lynch’s Irish Pub, 514 1st Street North, Jacksonville Beach, Culhane’s Irish Pub, Atlantic Beach, Celtic Charm, 310 Centre Street, Fernandina Beach, Logo Depot, 3535 Highway 17 #5, Fleming Island, Guitars United, 11700 San Jose Blvd., Suite 11, Jacksonville, Real Vapors in Jacksonville Beach, House of Ireland and Ann O’Malleys in St. Augustine, FL 32084
The Clay County Fairgrounds are located at 2497 State Road 16 West in Green Cove Springs, about 30 miles south of downtown Jacksonville. The festival runs from 9am until 5pm with additional entertainment planned until 9pm. Parking is free. Children under 11 are admitted for free.