Dan Cleaveland first got involved with the Celtic Highland Games of the Quad Cities as a sponsor. Then as a tug-of-war contestant. And then came the rock.
"The first thing they do is give you a rock and say, 'You're going to throw this,'" said Cleaveland, co-owner of the Blue Cat Brew Pub.
Cleaveland and his Blue Cat teammates got sucked into the Highland Games, a traditional Scottish trial of strength, control, and endurance that involves chucking everything from rocks to bags of straw to 100-pound-plus tree trunks.
A long time ago, the games were used to choose and train warriors under the guise of athletic contests; now, they're only competitive sports, albeit difficult ones. Most of the events are judged on distance or height, with objects weighing anywhere from 16 to 56 pounds.
Distance is no object with the tree trunk, though. The trunk is as long as 20 feet, weighing as much as 140 pounds. The goal is to get the caber to rotate 180 degrees and plant itself perpendicular to the ground.
Do such specific and strange tasks take their toll? "Yeaaaaah," said Cleaveland, who later claimed he was "just a little sore. It [the competition] goes on all day long."
But the novices got help from judges and the people who travel all across the region to compete in Highland Games. "They would tell you how to do the event" to avoid injury, Cleaveland said.
It couldn't have been too bad an experience. Cleaveland plans on testing himself again this year in the second edition of the Celtic Highland Games of the Quad Cities. "I'm a little more worried this year because I'm a little more out of shape," he confessed.
The Celtic Highland Games themselves seem to be in pretty fine shape at this young age. After a successful initial run last year, with more than 2,500 attendees, organizers are making final preparations for this year's event, at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds on Saturday, August 26. (And you're welcome as a spectator. You don't have to throw tree trunks if you don't want to.)
The amateur athletic contest is one of the two major components of the Celtic Highland Games, the other being competitive Highland Dance. And just as the athletic events have their origins in war, so do most of the dances, which helped keep troops in fighting shape. The Highland Fling was traditionally performed on a shield after a victory, and that's why dancers maintain a single position while performing. The Sword Dance, as its name suggests, is also an artifact of the Celts' bloody history. Another dance has its roots in social protest, reacting to anti-kilt laws that required men to wear trousers.
These dances were performed exclusively by men, but that mandate has long since fallen away. Bob Gillies, chairperson of the local event, got involved in the Highland Games because his daughter dances competitively. He thought the Quad Cities could host its own event and spearheaded the effort last year.
By any measure, that festival was a success.
"We beat every projection," Gillies said. Not only did attendance top estimates, "we finished in the black," he said.
The inaugural Celtic Highland Games featured the games of strength and a dance competition, and this year organizers added a bagpiping competition, a hammer throw, and a rugby match between the Quad City Irish and Palmer College. About 20 athletes and 70 dancers are expected to compete in the two showcase events. Athletes from Wisconsin and all points in Illinois and Iowa are already registered, and "with dancers, they come from even farther," said Lisa Lockheart, co-chair of the second-annual games.
Growth was built into this event. It might sound like hair-splitting, but the Celtic Highland Games of the Quad Cities are not merely Scottish, even though the Highland Games are.
"This is more than a Highland Games," Gillies said. "It's a pan-Celtic event. The Celts were everywhere in Europe. What we've become is a venue for all the different kinds of Celts."
It's an important distinction, because it suggests how far into the future organizers have looked. Limiting the events to those from the Scottish tradition circumscribes how much an event can do. "We took a different tact," Lockheart said. Designating the games "Celtic" - thereby allowing inclusion of Irish, Welsh, Cornish, and other cultures - "gives us a lot more room to expand," she said. "The only limitation is from an organizational and volunteer standpoint."
Organizers are shooting high, too. "We can eventually get to gate counts of 7,000 to 10,000" people, Lockheart said. "If we add a thousand people [this year], I'd be really happy." Lockheart mentioned the possibility of adding track-and-field and golf competitions in future years.
Making the Celtic Highland Games inclusive serves another purpose as well. Although there are different groups of Celtics, "there are more similarities than differences," Lockheart said. The Celtic tribes were united by their religion and language, she added.
The Quad Cities area was thought to be an ideal choice for a Highland Games. While there are several competitions in Illinois and the upper Midwest, there are very few convenient events for people in Iowa, which means athletes and dancers had to travel five hours or more to compete.
The competitions are cumulative, with athletes and dancers amassing points based on their performances.
But the bagpipe event is different - at least for these Games. Because the competition is in its first year, it's unsanctioned. If all goes well this year, the event could be sanctioned next year, which would draw more musicians. So the three bands and eight or so solo pipers participating this year "are coming out of the goodness of their hearts," Lockheart said.
Competitions are only part of the Celtic Highland Games. Entertainment includes two strolling storytellers, historical plays and demonstrations, the Midlothian Pipe Band, and musicians Gael Eliason Funk (a harpist), O'Malley's Luck, Jim Wearne, and the Weldon Brothers. Performers will offer demonstrations of Irish step dancing and Welsh and Irish social dances. The Parade of Tartans marks the midpoint of the proceedings, while a Ceilidh - a party with Irish music and dance - closes the day from 6 to 10 p.m.
Twelve clan tents will offer visitors information about the Celts, and perhaps help some guests rediscover their Celtic heritage, while vendors will hawk Gaelic food and merchandise throughout the day.
"It's like traveling without even doing it," Lockheart said.
Schedule of Events:
8 a.m.: Gates open, registration for competitive events begins
8:30 a.m.- 1:30 p.m.: Games of strength
9 - 9:15 a.m.: Tug of war
9 - 11 a.m., 1 - 3 p.m.: Highland dance competitions
9 a.m. - 6 p.m.: Entertainment on the Main Stage, Clan Tent Stage, and grounds
10 - 11:30 a.m., 1:30 - 2 p.m.: Piping contests
11 - 11:45 a.m., 1 - 1:45 p.m., 3 - 3:45 p.m.: Children's games
noon - 12:30 p.m.: Parade of Tartans
2:15 - 3 p.m.: Bonnie Knees contest
3 - 3:30 p.m.: Massed pipe bands
4:30 - 5 p.m.: Awards ceremony and anthems
5 p.m.: Wedding in gazebo
5:30 - 6 p.m.: Clan Chattan Drum Jam
6 - 10 p.m.: Ceilidh in Starlite Ballroom
Gates for the Celtic Highland Games of the Quad Cities open at 8 a.m. on Saturday, August 26, at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds. General admission is $10, but $5 for students and seniors. Children under five are admitted free. Organizers stress that discounted-admission T-shirts are no longer available, and that no pets will be allowed at the Games.