skip navigation and jump to page content The Library of CongressThe American Folklife Center 
Community Roots: Selections from the Local Legacies Project
Collage of Local Legacies
"Heavy" athletes prepare to compete in caber toss
"Heavy" athletes prepare to compete in the caber toss Courtesy Ligonier Highland Games

Ligonier Highland Games

The first Scottish tartan kilt was first seen in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania in the year 1758 when soldiers of the famous 42nd Highland Regiment (Black Watch), under the command of General John Forbes, marched westward from Philadelphia to wrest control of the fort at the forks of the Ohio from the French. At Ligonier, which lay some 20 leagues west of Fort Duquesne, Forbes had a wooden fort constructed that would serve as a staging area for the final assault. The fort was named after Lord Ligonier, who was the Commander in Chief of the British Army at that time. The town of Ligonier, scene of the Ligonier Highland Games, takes its name from that fort. General Forbes led his troops to a victory that saw the French fleeing the area never to return. Fort Duquesne was burned to the ground, and over its ashes rose a settlement named "Pittsburgh" by Forbes in honor of William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, who had proven to be a friend to the Scots.

Following that conflict, known today as the French and Indian War, many of the Scottish soldiers were offered land in the newly won territory in lieu of being returned to their homeland. Many took advantage of the offer and began setting up homesteads in this heavily wooded wilderness. The Black Watch soldiers then saw further military action in Pontiac's Rebellion, in which Indians who were slaughtering white settlers west of the Alleghenies were defeated. It was then that the Scots, who formed the vast majority of settlers in the Ligonier area, started to create homes and to build a new nation. By the time of the Revolutionary War, it is estimated that one in three persons living in Western Pennsylvania was of Scottish descent. The Ulster Scots (Scotch Irish, whose families had been living in Northern Ireland prior to emigrating to America) enlisted as soldiers in the Continental Army and became the dependable backbone of Washington's army during the days of Valley Forge. After the Revolutionary War, the Scots worked the land, worked the rivers moving people and goods westward, and mined rich veins of coal. A Scottish immigrant named Andrew Carnegie started a company that was to become the major steel producer in the world.

It is this long and deep Scottish heritage that the Ligonier Highland Games in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania celebrates. Heavily treed and traversed by a swift mountain stream, the beautiful Laurel Highlands began to draw well-to-do Pittsburghers for summer recreation and family outings. In 1959, thanks to the encouragement of some prominent Pittsburghers, a modest Scottish fall festival to acknowledge the Highlands' Scottish heritage was begun. A charitable foundation, the Clan Donald Educational and Charitable Trust, was organized to operate the event. The Clan Donald Scottish Games, later called the Ligonier Highland Games, gathered some support and attendance grew modestly. In 1969, the Ligonier Highland Games drew a total attendance of about 1500. Operating at a loss each year, the Games faced a questionable future. An active public relations program, devised by David Peet, who took over the directorship of the Games in 1969, saved the Games. Attendance showed a 50% increase in his first year of Peet's tenure, and continued to grow rapidly. Attendance now reaches an average of 10,000 people annually.

Peet determined to offer a quality of competition that would draw top bands, dancers and athletes to the Games. The Games have continually expanded to include many aspects of Scottish culture. Military re-enactment groups demonstrate the life lived by those Scottish soldiers who first came to Fort Ligonier. Celtic harpers bring the ancient melodies of the Hebrides to life; Scottish fiddlers play lively jigs, reels and strathspeys. Scottish "heavy" athletes compete in events used by chieftains of old to select their most proficient men for battle. Showing the skills the go into creating colorful kilts and plaids, weaving and dyeing demonstrations are staged. Sixteen breeds of Scottish dogs are on display at the games. Rugby players compete for the Ligonier Cup. And at the Highland Games takes place the U.S. National Gaelic Mod, a competition of singing, poetry, and drama, all performed in the historic language of the Celtic people. At the weekend portion of the festival, a piobaireachd competition hosts top pipers in a classical bagpipe open.

On Saturday, the highlight of the festival occurs when 400 pipers and drummers, comprising a huge field of massed bands, march forward toward the assembled crowd. There are also track and field events, with an emphasis on the "heavy" events - weight throws of every sort: the hammer throw, the stone putt, the sheaf toss, and the caber toss, in which a 14'- to 17'-long tree trunk is flipped end over end. An informal Tug-of-War engages competitors of all ages and both sexes. Children's games take place for two hours in the morning and later in the afternoon, they are regaled with Scottish folk tales by Barra the Bard. Entertainers are on hand to sing, dance, and pipe both during the day and at the evening dinner party, which serves as a climax to the fall festival. On Sunday morning, there is a Presbyterian church service, and a short parade to Fort Ligonier, followed by free band concert in the town's band shell. All during the Games, merchants sell authentic Scottish wares, such as woolens, bagpipes, handmade Celtic jewelry, recordings of Scottish music, pots of flowering heather, and edible treats such as shortbreads and Scottish meat pies.

Proceeds from the Ligonier Highland Games fund awards for study in any approved workshop clinic in piping, drumming, or Highland dancing. A major scholarship grant of $7,500 is given for graduate study at a Scottish university of the applicants' choice.

The project is documented with an 8-page report, a program from the 40th and 41st Annual Ligonier Highland Games (1998 and 1999), brochures, a newspaper coverage, and twenty-one 8 x 10 color photographs.

Originally submitted by: John P. Murtha, Representative (12th District).

link to www.loc.govMore Local Legacies...

The Local Legacies project provides a "snapshot" of American Culture as it was expressed in spring of 2000. Consequently, it is not being updated with new or revised information with the exception of "Related Website" links.

disclaimer for external linksLearn More About It...
  The Library of Congress 
The American Folklife Center
Contact Us
AFC Icon