Saved By Barbarians

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PatrickMeadMy wife and I just got back from three days at Scotfest, the largest gathering of its kind in the United States. This annual celebration of all things Scottish and Irish (to be fair, it was about 80% Scottish) takes place in Estes Park, Colorado at an elevation of 9100ft. The setting is spectacular in the shadow of Longs Peak and by the east entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. While we enjoyed the Scottish food, goods, and music I kept seeing an illustration acted out in front of me, a morality play that was there to instruct the church if the church is willing to listen. To explain this, I have to delve into historical and personal matters related to Scotland. If such things do not interest you, keep reading anyway — there is a point which is going to be made.

When I was a boy, I was taught by my family that we were Scots. We traveled constantly, working here and there, never staying more than a few years in one place and, usually, much less. We had no home town, no state that claimed us. The roots given us by my family were Scottish roots.

As I grew up, I would sometimes work a job just long enough to buy a ticket back to Scotland where I would often roam alone, staying in downmarket B&Bs, observing, thinking, and feeling at home. I was enthralled with Scotland and loved it…but there was something about it that puzzled me; many of the Scots I met there were not proud of being Scottish and eschewed anything to do with their heritage. They told me they hated bagpipes, had never worn a kilt (and seeing a kilt was as unusual during those years as it would be to see one in America today). School books didn’t speak of William Wallace or Robert Bruce. Most didn’t even mention Robert Burns or Bonnie Prince Charlie. Gaelic was unknown and forgotten.

I remember well the night that this was driven home to me. I was in my early 20s and visiting friends in the west of Scotland when they handed me a census form. The government was taking a census and required visitors to fill it out, too. I was the only one in the house who checked the box indicating I knew and spoke Gaelic. That started a conversation with my hosts who told me they didn’t know a word of it, had never heard it, and weren’t interested. We talked for hours as they revealed that being Scottish to them was nice but a bit embarrassing. I was shocked.

Their money, they explained, was printed by the three major Scottish banks and was often refused by shops south of the border, treated as inferior by the English banks. They were lampooned on TV as kilt wearing idiots – bumpkins, drunks, or worse. After a failed attempt at independence in the early 70s many of the best and brightest emigrated to Canada, New Zealand, and Australia as they saw their options dry up at home.

There was a remnant that celebrated being Scottish but it was reserved primarily for visitors and ex-pats or for the ruling upper class. Those who wore the kilt were looked upon as odd and out of the mainstream, but they looked upon themselves as keepers of an ancient faith. The vast majority of Scottish tartan, kilts, bagpipe music, etc. was sold to Canadians and Americans over to visit the land of their ancestors. If you wanted to wear the kilt, there were lots of rules. There was (and is) even a book with the title “So You Want To Wear the Kilt” that spelled out all the rules. Bagpipe music was locked down and the tunes were not allowed to vary. To advance in the bagpipe world you had to be judged by a huge, arcane set of rules and procedures. Every note had to be played in a very exact way at an exact tempo and your face, posture, and demeanor had to be rigid and unchanging as you went through the very long judging sessions.

They were the few, the remnant, the last of the proud keepers of the Scottish ways…and they were choking the life out of it in the process.

At Scotfest, we spent hours and hours with the barbarians breaking the rules. There was Albannach (a Gaelic word meaning “Scottish”) with their wild hair, tattoos, undisciplined pipes and Celtic drums. There was Celtica whose pipes would take on “Smoke On the Water” or “Thunderstruck” and weave them into medleys with Scottish tunes such as “Scotland the Brave” and “We’re No Awa T’ Bide Awa” and who sent drummers into the crowd waving the Jolly Roger flag. Look them up on YouTube and see what I mean when I say that the barbarians have grabbed the kilt and bagpipe. Also look up Badpiper, Clanadonia, Red Hot Chili Pipers, and Saor Patrol.

When we went to their tents, they were packed and people stood twenty and thirty deep all around the tents in the driving rain or punishing heat of the day (in CO and at that elevation, you get all seasons every day). The pressing crowd was clapping, dancing, rejoicing, and enthusiastic. But…when Kami and I went a hundred yards away from the tents of the barbarians, we found the judging tents for the standard, classical bagpipers. No crowds…not even a single audience member. The only ones there were the pipers nervously fussing over getting every single thing right about their face, kilt, posture, and notes and the few family members who supported them. An unsmiling judge sat at the front and took notes, never reacting to the piper in front of them as they wrote down what they did wrong.

The contrast was so stark it took my breath away. I went to talk to the wild haired, tattooed members of Albannach and Celtica. They could not have been more friendly, open, and warm to me — a 56 year old short haired man dressed in American casual clothes. Their kilts were all over the place — ancient, philebeag, wild, disordered — and, therefore, their own. Their music was their own. And their passion for being Scottish and for all things Scotland dwarfed my own. They spoke of the upcoming vote on Independence next year in September (spoiler alert: it failed) with an excited, hopeful light in their eyes. They came from parents and grandparents who wouldn’t have considered such a thing (the Scottish National Party got barely 10% of the vote during most of the 80s and 90s). They spoke sadly of parents who told them they were ruining the kilt and Scottish music. I told them, “No, my friends. You haven’t ruined them; you’ve saved them.”

You see, now the main purchasers of bagpipe music are Scots and their people in the diaspora (Australia, Canada, and America). The kilt is seen daily on Scottish streets and it isn’t the kilt you would have once seen only at a military parade or, perhaps, an upper class wedding. No, now it is made of leather, or canvas and it comes in solid colors like black and tan or brown or blue or it is a standard kilt worn in a nonstandard way. It has become something embraced by the average person, not the old, stuffy class. It bunches about the waist or sweeps over the shoulder and far down the leg.

Gaelic is now seen on signposts and taught in schools (though, to be honest, it is still fairly rare to hear it spoken). Scots who once tried to moderate their accent and speak in more English or BBC tones are now thickening it up and using Scots words that had been dropped by their grandparents. And they’ve saved their national identity while older folk or those in the traditional remnant fear they have destroyed it.

When churches try to regiment everything and require lockstep obedience, they lose their kids. When their kids find Jesus, they react with incredible joy and great abandon. They seem like barbarians to their parents, but they are not ruining the church any more than Albannach and Celtica are ruining Scottish music and culture. While it might look – to those of us in our nearly empty tents – that they are ruining the faith it may very well be that they are saving it.

[Originally posted in 2013]

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