Click any picture for a larger view. Many thanks to Michael Cynecki for the vast majority of these memorable photos!
The clans are gathering on the lawn of Northern Arizona University’s Old Main on a clear, breezy August evening devoid of monsoon rain. But like mist drifting in from the sea, our numbers grow. We are Jacobites summoned by Bonnie Prince Charlie, wary of a sneak attack by the British.
Lads and lasses in kilts and tartan frocks flow onto the green under the pines. Clan Scottsdale and Clan Phoenix are here. Aha… Clan Wickenburg! Clan Flagstaff! Clan Wallace marches in with brave hearts. Clan Prescott joins us!
I stand with Clan Southern Arizona in my red Royal Stewart tartan and sash. My highland shirt is one size bigger than necessary to ensure properly puffy sleeves. Royal Stewart ribbons jut from my kilt hose, filling out my trusty, ball-weathered buckle shoes. It’s ancestry-accurate on my father’s side. Not wanting to neglect Mother’s side of the family, I include a Cameron clan kilt pin, a tiny sword with a Gaelic inscription holding my sash together. And before you ask that question, be assured I’m taking appropriate defensive measures to protect my modesty.
I quickly see we are outnumbered, not in any military sense but in the lad-to-lass ratio. One clansman estimates 2:3 –- clearly encouraging math. Tomorrow, we march on London. Tonight, we march into the ballroom.
The Bonnie Prince calls us together, noting the British have failed to disrupt us, and leads the charge for the dance floor.
“Huzzah,” I say with gentlemanly restraint as we begin a silent march inside.
His Royal Highness wonders aloud where our enthusiasm is.
“HUZZAH!” I shout.
Ashurst Hall stands ready for the evening: wooden floors, tall windows, and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Angels on stage, led by Madame Becky. It’s the best ballroom I’ve set foot in yet, and it’s a full house.
The Bonnie Prince and Flora MacDonald begin the procession, as we all turn back the clock in our heads and hearts, from 2006 to 1745 as some eighty of us parade around the room, two by two, lad and lass, smiles in our faces, getting into the highland spirit.
“Welcome, welcome!” His Royal Highness calls out to us as we pass by with a bow.
A mixer follows the procession... one, two, three, four... into the center... one two, three, four... back out. A turn to my partner, a bit of fancy footwork, a few other steps, and pass through to the next partner. Cinch.
“Line up in sets,” comes the call for the next dance.
I’ve done it many times before, but seeking out a new partner still leaves me with a wee bit of trepidation. Couples take their places and the urgency builds. I know who I’m looking for -- a kind lass standing still on the floor, eyes searching. I approach a pair with such disposition.
“Are ye seekin’ a partner?” I ask with the best Scottish accent I’m capable of. She accepts the invitation, and I quickly honor her with a bow, which is quickly matched with a curtsy. I treasure these moments of respect.
A jig comes next, a time to show off some freestyle stepping. I decide to try a Highland Fling. It looks simple: one hand above your head, hopping with one foot back and forth behind your knee. I’ve researched it. I’ve practiced a little... well, as much as I can without bothering my downstairs neighbor... which isn’t much at all. I get out on the floor, cutting in as instructed and give it a try in front of a charming lass. I’m not going to win any highland dancing contests, but I’m satisfied it’s Scottish enough.
Everybody’s showing considerable dancing ability, especially on the reels. Just when I think I have them down, a new one comes along to challenge me.
It works like this on the floor: Madame Becky walks us through the figures in a dance. Then we do it. I can see we’re going to have a little trouble on this one.
It’s a twist on what I know as “stripping the willow.” The head couple’s lass swings down the line of lads, swinging her partner between others. The lad swings the line of lasses, swinging his own. Then lad and lass work their way back down the set again, swinging each other and the proper lines. A new head couple emerges, and we go through it again.
“Keep it reel,” the Bonnie Prince reminds us.
I’m so lost in the joy of the dance I have trouble remembering who swings who in what order. But partners joyously remind me. We clap in the line when we’re not swinging somebody. Some keep dancing and swinging after the music stops. I join an impromptu three-person reel in a corner. We’re all working up a considerable sweat. I’m glad that Highland shirt breathes.
“Ahhh, breeze,” I say as I cool down in front of those tall open windows, letting the nighttime winds replenish my spirit. I supplement it with a few cups of punch.
Now comes something that probably came to Scotland by way of the Bahamas: the Pineapple Dance. Two lines of lads and lasses form in front of three chairs. Three people sit at the front, one in the middle with a pineapple. If you have the pineapple, you either pass it to the person sitting to the left or the right of you, and then chasse (a.k.a. sashay) down the lines with the other person not holding the pineapple. The pineapple person moves to the center chair, people from each line move forward to fill in the empty chairs, and the game continues. The idea is for lasses to chasse with lads and likewise, but the realities of ratios soon catch up. A few hearty lads chasse with lads to roaring applause.
Those chasses get wildly creative. We have the Strictly Ballroom style, twirling all the way down. We have the Highland Hoedown, with copious stomping. I find out soon I can’t get too fancy, because when I get to the end of the line, my buckle shoes slide at least two feet after the last leap. I nearly avoid ending up flat on my back with my kilt flipped up.
Now, let us give our feet a break and do some headwork. The prize drawing is upon us, albeit with a twist I recall from this gathering of pirates in Prescott. Books of Scotland, historic costume patterns, and Walker’s Shortbreads are up for grabs. But the Bonnie Prince hath decreed, you must be able to recite a fact Scottish, English, Irish or Welsh history, which includes “a name, a date and a specific place. Failure will mean a solo Highland Jig and a decision by the gathered clans as to whether ye may claim your prize!”
I have a fact ready, but I don’t get to use it. Several names are called. A few have done their homework. Many have not.
And so many jig in front of clans for ten seconds. Perchance they would rather dance? They perform admirably.
“HUZZAH!” I shout over and over again. Others pick up on the magic word and are repeating it after each dance now with hearty Highland fervor. We’re into our characters completely. My weak attempt at a Scottish accent is sounding more English than Scottish, but luckily, nobody accuses me of being a spy. And what loyal Englishman would attempt a Highland Fling anyway?
Still, I almost get into a scrap. Miss Becky asks for a volunteer to help her demonstrate a dance, and I step onto the floor. So does Robert The Bruce (aka Robert de Bruys). We are facing each other, Miss Becky to our sides.
“Duel! Duel!” a few clansmen egg on.
My rival playfully goes into his attack stance, importing some moves he picked up in the Far East. I assume my counter-stance with a few hand motions I picked up from Brigadoon. It’s going to be his Stewart-Jitsu versus my Highland-Kwan-Do. But before this showdown can even start, another clansman makes a sneak attack and steals the girl away. We stand too flabbergasted to fight.
No matter where we travel on the timeline, we always have room for some waltzes, a chance for me to seek and share a moment of beauty with a lass. I keep the steps to a simple back-and-forth.
I ask a lot of names during the course of the evening, and sadly, I remember few. But I always remember these moments -- grace, class, friendship, and respect in three-quarter time. They make up for so much I wish I could forget from my younger days.
And happily, the last dance is not the last word. The meeting of the clans continues back in the hotel room lobby. We’re still stoked from the evening, and we have to keep reminding ourselves to keep the chatter down before we all get the order to disperse. What would be more humiliating: a defeat at Culloden or La Quinta Inn?
Morning finds us picking up where we left off, breaking bread with friends and nourishing our souls in a poolside prayer service.
This is where the deeper meaning of We Make History comes through, as we share what we are thankful for, how God has touched our lives, and who needs our prayers the most -- our families, our schools, our nation. All of us are inspired to be servants using the gifts and talents we have.
I am reluctant at first to share my story, preferring to let other voices carry. So many other voices deserve to be heard. But as I listen to others and their stories of challenge and fulfillment in their lives, I have to question my own and remind myself of the answer.
“I probably work in one of the most depressing professions,” I share, touching on the big picture of journalism. “At times I ask, why do I do this?”
Why do this, when my heart has been opened after twelve years of hardening in a high-stress, high-burnout job? But I stay, I explain, because I have a chance to affect change, to uplift others, and to show respect. Leadership means leading. In the final prayers, tears roll down my eyes -- tears of joy and thanksgiving, of feeling blessed as I ask for the guidance to make the right decisions. Several people offer their words of encouragement afterward.
The weekend of Highland merriment concludes with a picnic and touch football in kilts. Nobody gathers dust on the sidelines.
“I know we want to win, but we’re a team, and I want to get everybody involved,” the Bonnie Prince proclaims as we switch up positions, running every play in the book in a low scoring, 14-7, fabulously defensive game. Some of our teammates will be playing for the NFL one day -- no doubt about it.
I think back now to that final dance of the previous evening, the last waltz where we all started in a circle and then broke off into couples. The lass next to me was a bit unsure of her waltzing ability, and she politely declined to continue with me.
“It’s all right,” I tell her with a smile. “I understand.”
I seek out another lass in need of a partner. But this time, I find none.
A row of several lasses are still waltzing in a line from our circle. Do I join them, or do I go it alone?
For some reason, I decide to go it alone -- a solo Highland waltz on the edge of the dance floor, still hoping to find some lass in need of a waltzing partner.
Sometimes, all of us feel we are dancing alone in life. But we’re never really alone. Not as long as we can enjoy these nights of grace and honor and then slip back into our other lives and times with the grace within us, even if some of those surrounding us don’t understand what we’re all about.
So my first stop after returning from Flagstaff is at work, where I surprise the weekend newsroom staff in full tartan with some extra Highland Chocolate Chip cookies I baked for the picnic. My compatriots enthusiastically devour them with thanks to the kilted baker, and I am uplifted.
Yes, this is why I do this.
More recollections and pictures from this wonderful event!
More about the Jacobite Rising via Wikipedia.
More Life & Timelines Adventures