In the late 11th century, King Malcolm III of Scotland—in an attempt to find the swiftest messenger in his kingdom—started an event called fell racing in which participants ran against one another off-road and across uplands. This type of race and other feats of strength were eventually all rolled into what became generically known as "highland games," a sort of community cultural festival that mixed sports with music.
This Saturday's Celtic Festival is Missoula's third incarnation of highland games-inspired events. It's much heavier on the music than the physical feats, but it stems from the same idea: that a mix of sports, beer and music is the best way to capture the Celtic spirit.
In the early 1990s, Missoula hosted some of its own highland games at the Western Montana Fairgrounds, offering food and music, plus all sorts of wild sporting competitions. The caber toss, for instance, required competitors hoist a 75-pound, nearly 20-foot-long, tapered pine pole vertically in the palm of their hands, and then run forward in an attempt to toss the wooden pole so that it turned end over end before striking the ground.
The Missoula Highland Games only ran for a couple of years. After it fizzled out, another Celtic Festival hit Caras Park for a couple of years before ending its run in early 2000. Festival coordinators moved the event to Butte where it became the An Ri Ra Irish Festival, which has been running every August for several years.
Recently, Bob and Shannon Lukes, owners of the Highlander beer brand, decided it was time for another Celtic festival of music and games. The couple has owned the beer brand since only 2008, but their interest in the Scottish brew's 100-year history in Montana prompted them to push for a celebration in conjunction with other groups, including Missoula's resident Irish organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).
"I wanted to do something special to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Highlander," says Bob Lukes. "It was natural to look toward a Celtic festival. There is such a strong Celtic population in western Montana—certainly the Irish in Butte—but there's a fair share of them in Missoula, too, including Scottish and Welsh folks."
The Celtic Festival board raised $10,000 and signed on a handful of regional performers—the Dillon Junior Fiddlers, the Missoula Irish Dancers, the Celtic Dragon Pipe Band, the Missoula Highland Dancers and Malarkey, a Celtic band from Plains. The headlining act, however, comes from L.A. by way of Dublin: The Young Dubliners. The band, which is often compared to The Pogues and The Waterboys, will add a more contemporary edge to an otherwise traditional lineup.
The Lukes' celebration of Highlander beer is also about heritage with a contemporary twist. Bob, in fact, is a huge history buff, beer lover and trademark attorney, making him especially qualified to latch onto one of the oldest beers in the state after its federal registration had lapsed. Bob's venture into the Highlander mark started a couple years when, while going through old corporate files of Garden City Brewery and the Missoula Brewing Company, he found out the Scottish beer had gotten its name from a New York City baseball team called the Highlanders. In 1910 the New York Highlanders became the New York Yankees and that was the same year Highlander beer was released. Nine years later, prohibition came along and Highlander ceased to exist until the ban was lifted in 1964. At that point, though, big breweries were on a roll, and the country's taste for light beers like Olympia spurred the Missoula Brewing company to refashion the Highlander recipe to taste like other domestic beers. Three years later, the brewery was bought up by Rainier, which produced Highlander for another seven years out of Seattle. After that, like so many other local beers, it was discontinued in favor of big national brands.
"It was kind of the end of the local breweries in Montana until the revival of microbrews," says Bob. "I had thought about buying Highlander sometime in the '90s but I didn't have the idea of how to do it, or the wherewithal. Originally I thought we'd have to build a brewery and that was going to be a very expensive process."
Instead, the Lukes purchased the brand and started having the beer brewed at the Great Northern Brewery in Whitefish.
"We wanted to do a Scottish recipe since, you know, the name is Highlander," says Bob. "We started out with an original recipe for Scottish red ale and then worked over a period of months to refine the recipe to what it is."
The festival will showcase Highlander in a few other forms: Big Dipper will sell a Highlander flavored ice cream and Silk Road will offer Highlander battered fish and chips.
Finally, like all great highland games events, there will be sports. Irish road bowling kicks off the whole festival Saturday morning at the old Stimson Lumber mill in Bonner. The 300-year-old sport was first brought to the United States during the Civil War when groups of bored Irish-raised soldiers started tossing cannonballs down country roads. Folfers and golfers should be able to get the hang of it since it's all about staying the course with the least amount of throws. There's some geometrical strategy involved, as well: You can bounce the cannonballs off the sides of obstacles to get them going in the right direction. It's the kind of sport Celtic games have always embodied, and something the organizers hope will make the Celtic Festival more than just a one-year piece of local history.
Irish road bowling kicks off at 10 AM at the old Stimson Lumber mill in Bonner on Saturday, July 31. Go to www.missoula-aoh.org to sign up in advance. The Celtic Festival's kids' activities and bands start the same day at 3 PM in Caras Park. Go to www.celticfestivalmissoula.com for a full schedule.