Games, music, clans and more highlight Highlanders Festival

A myriad of blissful sounds filled the air at Saturday’s Highlanders Festival, from bagpipes and drums to the exotic voices and instruments of the handful of bands playing on various stages. Even the quick whistle of a sheepherder could be heard while strolling through the Radford University campus.

Contrast those sounds with the strains, grunts and thuds heard in the center of Moffett Lawn.





That’s where the annual popular Tom Raisbeck Memorial Scottish heavyweight games were taking place, a tradition at the festival where contestants engage every muscle in their bodies, face included, lifting outrageously heavy rocks, carrying tombstones and tossing cabers. All this while wearing kilts. One large, bearded man wore a red, black and white kilt with a black T-shirt that read “Strong and Pretty.”


This year’s games were the first to feature pro-class athletes.

“It’s a lot of fun when strong people get together,” said Jaden Williams, a former Radford employee who was warming up to lift and throw stones weighing up to 255 pounds.

“This makes you realize you’re not as strong as you think you are,” he said, laughing. “And I’m definitely going to be sore tomorrow.”

The games, however, were serious business within the corners and throughout the interior of the fenced-in area. Crowds sitting and standing along the perimeter cheered as one man strained to exert enough energy to push a large stone upward from his broad chest.

“Go, go, go,” the crowd chanted just as the competitor hoisted the boulder slightly above his head, precariously holding it inches above his forehead for a couple of seconds before dropping it onto a red mat that matched the color of his blood-rushed face.

Just a few feet away, a woman swung with one arm a 56-pound weight up from her ankles and high into the air in hopes of seeing it travel over the bar and then dodging the falling object before it thumped to the ground.

Later, competitor Frank Sharp picked up a large stone, which, combined with its ring-weight handle, tipped the scales at 505 pounds. Sharp, a Radford alumnus, carried the stone 55 feet – a new record – while the ring dug into his fingers “like nobody’s business,” said the games’ athletics director Chad Clark, and the stone “beat the crap out of his shins.”

Despite the pain and agony, “It was a lot of fun. We had an absolute blast,” Clark said later. “I love it when I know the athletes on the field are feeding off the energy the crowd is providing, and we had that all day long. These athletes love the Highlanders Festival because they feel that energy.”

Providing a soundtrack for the games and the sprawling festival was the Scottish band Albannach and SYR, a Celtic folk-rock band from Columbia, South Carolina. Both played on the Moffett main stage as crowds listened and danced. A few headbanged along with the rhythms and beats.

PanJammers, an award-winning steel drum orchestra based in Blacksburg, Virginia, played to the crowd, too, as did Kinnfolk and Hollace Oaks, while dancer Claire Pollite entertained the large gathering. Old-time musicians Dittyville -- Erynn Marshall and Carl Jones -- put on quite a show near the campus Red Clocks.


If you walked between Moffett Lawn and Peters Hall, you likely saw two border collies running circles around a flock of sheep and a few ducks, keeping the animals contained within a small grassy area at the herding demonstration, which is always a fan favorite.

“I’m having a ball,” said Doris Adams of Culpeper, Virginia, with her eyes trained on the games in front of her and her ears tuned to SYR playing behind her. “I’m really enjoying this.”

In addition to the bands, festivalgoers were treated to a multitude of food trucks, some of which served authentic Scottish fare, while others offered tasty classic festival food such as pizzas, burgers and delicious funnel cakes. Vendors populated half the lawn, selling crafts, jewelry, kilts, T-shirts and a lot more.

As happens every Highlanders Festival, members of Scottish clans set up booths, and at noon, they were introduced while marching onto the lawn as part of a massed band performance. The concept of clans --  extended networks of families with loyalties to particular chiefs – dates back to the 12th century.

The Highlanders Festival began in the mid-1990s, with about 3,000 people attending. Since then, the festival has more than tripled in size and now attracts an estimated 10,000 people each October. This year’s festival again brought thousands of spectators to campus on a day that began cool and rainy but gave way to warmth and sunshine.

While massive stones were being tossed about by the heavyweights, another set of games and activities was happening between Peters Hall and Pocahontas Hall. Games just for kids.

“Throw it like this,” said Radford senior Aaliyah Hutson, instructing a group of children on the proper form for tossing a cardboard caber.

Each kid selected one of the many cardboard tubes, some thicker and heavier than others, got a short running start and tossed the faux caber with two hands as far as their strength would allow. It was a fun and rewarding experience for Hutson of Suffolk, Virginia, and a couple of her fellow recreation, parks and tourism majors, Dannielle Davis, a senior from Salem, Virginia, and Ryan Andrews, a sophomore from King George, Virginia.

“A lot of the events we do in our major involve working with children,” Hutson said. “This is a really good opportunity for us to get more experience to grow our skills in working with kids by working and facilitating these games.”

Saturday’s Highlanders Festival was the first for Hutson, and while she was enjoying time running the kids’ games, she was itching to experience all that was happening around the corner, just a few yards away.

“I can’t wait for my break,” she said. “It sounds really exciting over there.”


Oct 18, 2023
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761