Where could you find bagpipers, sheep herding and Scottish Highland dance competitions in the ’70s? You did not have to go all the way to Scotland. Try the Macalester Scottish Fair, an annual on-campus celebration that featured the best of Scottish music, dance, art and sport. Beginning in May 1972, the fair drew thousands of people from the United States and Canada to an event where you could, in the words of Mac Weekly writer Corey Gordon in 1975, “relive the glories of old Scotland.”
The performance of Highland dance (the Highlands are a historical region of Scotland, where many of these traditions originated), a traditional Scottish dance marked by frequent vertical jumps, was an annual feature. In one variation, the appropriately-named sword dance, dancers prance and jump around swords. In 1975, 80 dancers from Minnesota and Canada competed in the dance competition.
Fair-goers could also partake in traditional Highland games. The caber toss requires quite a bit of strength as competitors have to toss a 15-foot caber, or pole, as far as they can. Corey Gordon described the caber as resembling a “telephone pole” in his December 12, 1975 article.
Naturally, it wouldn’t be a Scottish festival without bagpipes. The Macalester Pipe Band, along with other pipe bands, performed and competed every year at the fair. 1981 featured bands from Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and Canada, as well as local bands from the Twin Cities. Judges from around the country selected the best of the bands.
In its foundling years, the fair was held on Shaw Field. However, the location caused challenges in terms of space and crowd control. In 1979, organizers proposed moving the fair to the stadium, allowing Macalester to change a fee for entry—the fair was previously always free. Unfortunately, the change conflicted with a track meet invitational and was met with backlash and near boycott from the track team. Forced to reschedule the meet, Coach Bolstorff complained the change would cut down on the number of teams that could come. “It won’t be much more than an interconference meet,” he said in a March 2, 1979 interview with The Mac Weekly.
The coach wasn’t the only one who found fault with the event. Despite the fair’s general popularity, senior Dave Schaller noted in a May 2, 1986 interview, “It just won’t be as good as Scotland.”
Another annual fair tradition was the sheep herding demonstration. In 1991, eight sheep and a sheep dog shared the spotlight in the demonstration, to the delight of 6,000 spectators. Although usual wool-shearer wasn’t present that year, the sheep put on a great show. Macalester students seemed to really love the wooly animals. The February 22, 1974 edition of The Mac Weekly reminded students, “Pets aren’t allowed in the dorms – there are 20 sheep in room 128 Dayton.” Were students raising them for the sheep herding spectacle or perhaps to spin their own wool? It’s unclear.
Macalester celebrated its last Scottish fair in 1999. The event was discontinued due to a lack of funding. Saddened by the loss of the fair, Dr. Lisa Schrenk ’84 wrote a Letter to the Editor in The Mac Weekly in 2003. “The Scottish Fair, more than any other event, represents Macalester’s unique international culture,” she wrote. Although today we can’t toss the caber or perform the sword dance, we at least still have the pipe band to “relive the glories of old Scotland.”