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Williamsburg Scottish Festival

History of the Williamsburg Scottish Festival

In 1977, an interest grew amongst the members of the St. Andrew’s Society of Williamsburg and others in the area, to organize a Scottish heritage and culture Festival. With the St. Andrew’s Society providing the funding, they formed a corporation called the Williamsburg Scottish Festival (WSF), Inc., and it was established as a 501 (c) (3) corporation under the laws of the commonwealth later that year.

In June of the following year, the corporation, with help from the St. Andrew’s Society and the Scottish community, held the first Williamsburg Scottish Festival. Because the new organization lacked the experience and organizational structure necessary to conduct a full Highland gathering complete with piping, dancing and athletic competitions, this first event consisted of only Highland dancing competition and Scottish country dancing demonstrations. The venue was the Parish Hall of Bruton Parish Church. Interestingly, the funds used to conduct the first Festival were raised through a garage sale and donations made by local Scots and other interested parties.

The next year, the WSF moved to Jamestown Academy, a small private school. The festival committee added piping and drumming competition and limited highland athletic participation. While at Jamestown Academy, the first clan societies informally sent representation to the Festival. Next, WSF moved to the Bruton High School grounds, and then to the William and Mary soccer field. The extreme temperature and humidity of Williamsburg summers, particularly troublesome during the year at Bruton High, prompted the WSF committee to shift the annual event from June to late September.

The Festival committee used Stone Mountain Highland Games as its model and sought guidance from several people in its leadership to mold the WSF organizational structure and procedures. During this period, the WSF Board established the Balmoral Society as its financial support agency. The Balmoral Society is not a society in the strict sense of the word–rather, it is the name given to the individual, clan and corporate sponsors of the Festival.

The WSF William & Mary site saw the first “Parade of the Clans.” The initial clan parade began with a pipe band leading the clans past the reviewing stand as clan representatives rendered honors to the honored guests. This simple beginning has evolved into a complex march past, during which everyone … lads, lassies, and even the wee bairns are involved! Most importantly, this event provides all participants with a special feeling of kinship and tradition among the clans.

The breakthrough year was 1984 when the Festival became a full-fledged Highland Festival, featuring all the events that make Highland gatherings an enjoyable experience. There was the first impressive Welcoming Ceremony with massed pipe bands appearing for the first time, exciting music and pageantry, a full slate of competitions and demonstrations, and a variety of activities for the whole family. In addition, for the first time, there was a concerted effort to solicit participation by clans and societies and they responded in great numbers.

Another WSF tradition began in 1984. In conjunction with the Balmoral Society Sponsors’ Reception, there was the first and only “Wren Rally.” Just prior to the sponsors’ reception, the WSF leadership, honored guests, Balmoral Society sponsors, and the sponsoring clan representatives gathered in front of the historic Wren Building on the campus of William and Mary. The Clan coordinator called out the name of each clan in order, beginning with the honored clan. The clans responded by shouting their clan war or rallying cry. At the conclusion, everyone, led by pipers, processed down Duke of Gloucester Street to Dr. Janet Kimbrough’s home in the restored area of Colonial Williamsburg for a reception. Interestingly, the city police ordered that participants “could not be in step,” for in doing so, the procession would become a parade, which required a permit! Dr. Kimbrough’s house in the restored area was selected as the site for the reception because the gracious lady of the house was a descendant of Robert Burns’ sister. The rally was so successful, it was renamed “The War Cry Rally” and henceforth featured in the Festival itself, so everyone could participate. Since then, it has been incorporated in the Parade of the Clans, and is one of the Festival’s most popular activities.

Nineteen eighty-four also featured WSF’s first Clan Chief as an Honored Guest. Lord Rothes, Chief of Clan Leslie was invited to preside over the event. He was accompanied by his wife and Clan Leslie was recognized as the first “Honored Clan.” In succeeding years, WSF has honored Lord Huntly of the House of Gordon, Sir William MacPherson of Cluny, David Ross of Ross, Danus Skene of Skene, Brigadier Ronald MacLennan of MacLennan, and a number of other Scottish chiefs or their designated representatives. One of the more memorable Festivals boasted the arrival of Duke of Atholl, Chief of Clan Murray, who arrived with a pipe band and full contingent of the “Atholl” Highlanders,” the duke’s private army. Although he was not the Honored Guest, the group provided a rare measure of pageantry. In order to find accommodations for the Highlanders, the Festival committee initiated an “Adopt a Scot” program where local families adopted a member of the contingent and provided them with a “Bed and Breakfast.” The Scots enjoyed the experience and a number of informal Ceilidh blossomed around town that evening!

Nineteen eighty-four was also the year that the first Lord Dunmore Award was first presented. This award named in honor of the last Royal governor of Virginia, a Scot, and recognizes the clan organization or Scottish society that most accurately and attractively portrays Scottish heritage and culture.

In addition to the Bruton Parish House, Jamestown Academy, and the campus of William and Mary, other sites were used as the event grew. Jamestown Festival Park, now Jamestown Settlement, followed the College, followed by Berkeley Plantation in Charles City County, and then the Williamsburg Winery. Perhaps one of the most interesting sites for the Festival occurred during the last year at Jamestown Settlement. Heavy rains associated with a passing hurricane rendered the grounds unusable. The committee refused to cancel the Festival and frantically searched for an alternative site, eventually finding a major hotel that was available due to a sudden cancellation of a large conference. Suddenly, the Williamsburg Scottish Festival became a huge indoor party! For 2008, the festival will once again find itself in a new home. The event will be held at the Rockahock Campground in New Kent County, just west of Williamsburg.

As the years passed, additional activities and features have been added to the Festival, enriching its appeal to more and more people. Historical re-enactors and living history groups, particularly those associated with Scottish, British and colonial American history joined the Festival, as well as demonstrations by skilled historic craftsmen and women. The rise of enthusiastic public interest in modern Celtic and Celtic Rock music has prompted the inclusion of a featured Scottish Pub Tent in the Festival. Now WSF offers two venues for music: a Celtic Heritage Tent that features traditional Scottish and Celtic entertainment, and the Pub Tent, which headlines more modern Celtic style entertainers. In 2000, the Festival was renamed the Williamsburg Scottish Festival and Celtic Celebration to acknowledge its expanded celebration of the cultures of Ireland and Wales.

As the Festival celebrates its thirty-first anniversary, those associated with the early days can take great pride in its growth and stature as a major regional Highland gathering. Newer generations can appreciate the efforts of the Festival pioneers and take the event to newer and higher levels of excellence. The goal of the Festival remains as it was at the beginning: to educate future generations the rich heritage and culture of Scotland.