September 30, 2004

The Urban Scottish Festival

[Originally published as an Editorial]

After experiencing the Kincardine Scottish Festival in late June, the notion that an outdoor piping, drumming, and band competition must be held in a massive field on the outskirts of a rural village seems antiquated and restricted.

Kincardine, instead of placing its event in an open and anonymous sports field, for the past five years has held its festival on the streets of the town, using its small, central park as a patch of greenery for the band contest, vendors, and beer tent. Solo events are held on street corners, bands are assigned homes and gardens for their tuning facilities, and patrons can actually listen to the band competition without leaving the beer tent—a godsend for the die-hards who are torn between listening and socializing.

The people of Kincardine clearly feel a part of their festival. Businesses open their doors and welcome visitors, pubs create Scottish specials, and it seems as if everyone in the town embraces the event.

More often than not, our competitions in their usual form are detached from the community where they’re held. People are fenced out, the car park is bigger than the venue, and there’s lots of trudging to get from one thing to another. It’s as if organizers want to take a path of least resistance and, as a result, disenfranchise the very people they’d like to put through the gate.

An event like Kincardine embraces the community by planting the contest directly within the community. It’s a stroke of pure, simple, obvious brilliance. Instead of trying to draw people to their event, they take the event to the people.

Because of its format, Kincardine is sensibly careful about growth. They limit the number of band entries, and acceptance is first-applied, first-in. We have seen many events actually become victims of their own success. In Ontario, for example, the once picturesque and tranquil games at Embro and Fergus decided to leave their small, green parks for anonymous and sun-baked open fields to accommodate more vendors and spectators and, of course, parking. This has resulted in a decline in their popularity with many competitors.

Kincardine foregoes the usual and predictable massed bands, opting instead for a parade through the streets of the town. Everyone loves a parade, especially the competing bands that simply do their 20-minute stint and then get on with their day. No baking or soaking on a massive field waiting for a chieftain to stop talking or a decrepit tanoy to start working.

The now-defunct Fort Erie competition, originally held at one of the world’s most picturesque venues on the shore of Lake Erie, decided a few years ago to move the event to a faceless race track park by the side of a major road. Pipers and drummers, to a person, were disappointed in the loss of character. So when the contest folded, competitors were sorry, but not half as sorry as they were when the event moved.

Taking the Kincardine format, there’s no reason why piping, drumming, and band competitions can’t be held on the streets of towns, villages, and large and small cities. Every summer the world’s metropolitan areas host street festivals, celebrating Greek, Italian, gay, and Caribbean cultures. There’s no reason why Scottish culture can’t be celebrated on the same level, with equal parts competition, entertainment, and cuisine attracting those with Celtic heritage and those who are simply looking for something to do without leaving their city.

If you haven’t been to the Kincardine Festival, picture this: Highland dancing down one street; five or six corners feature solo piping and drumming events; bands tuning up in designated spots down side-streets; local restaurants creating special cuisine for the day; local pubs setting up outdoor beer gardens or even sponsoring a central beer pavilion. Best of all, the community feels that they are a part of the event, rather than being treated as outsiders just visiting.

The time is ripe for an Urban Scottish Festival format. Pipe bands are formed in population centres, and it only makes sense that we bring our show to the people, rather than hope that they come out to see us.


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