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Reflections on the Celtic Classic Highland Games & Festival

Showing of the Tartan Parade at the 2021 Celtic Classic.

On the weekend of September 24th, we attended our first Celtic Classic festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Coming from Southwest Virginia, we have a number of festivals and Highland games close by, and all of them have been wonderful. There is something about being amongst a sea of people that are truly there to honor their heritage and history that fills a person with a certain joy. Whether they do so by wearing the kilt, throwing a caber, eating haggis, listening to music, or appreciating the craftsmanship of Celtic art, the sense that everyone there has at some level a genuine appreciation for the richness of the culture is palpable at these events. It's also entirely possible we are biased and projecting just a little bit. But in our experience, everyone we've met at these festivals have all been amazing folks.

This weekend though, was something else. After a few days to recover and reflect, we believe it's fair to say our experience at the 2021 Celtic Classic was nothing short of magic. We traveled up on Friday afternoon with some friends of ours who are seasoned veterans of the festival, so we were lucky from the beginning to have guides that knew how to have a great time. There were a ton of vendors selling everything from Viking jewelry and drinking horns to leatherworkers and tea shops. It was enough to have something new to see the whole weekend, but not so much to where it was overwhelming. The vendors were very friendly and we likely spent a bit more on souvenirs than normal.

The food was incredible. Our first day there, we had the best turkey leg either of us ever had in our lives, and it was made even better with a pint or fifty of Guinness. We also tried to eat our body weight in poutine and meat pies; we almost succeeded. The House of Douglas bakery, who has been at the Virginia Green Hill Highland games and the Asheville, NC Celtic Festival was also there (Confession, I have an obsession with their Eccles cakes and always walk away with a bunch of them every time I see them). We also met the guys from the Infamous Welsh Cookie Company, and they even gave us free cookies for singing them a sea shanty!

On our first evening there, the first act we saw was the legendary Seamus Kennedy. He played an amazing set and sang "The Barley Mow" as well as "The Lad's First Pint" which are favorites of ours. He is one heck of an entertainer and very kindly signed a copy of CD for us at the end of the show and talked with us for a bit since during Covid we had the honor of opening for him for the Celtic Festival Online. There's nothing quite like seeing music in person though. He set the bar for the weekend so high that we thought that would be the peak of the festivities. Man, were we wrong.

Josh smiling with Seamus Kennedy on stage in background
Enjoying "The Barley Mow" at the Seamus Kennedy set!

Saturday arrived, and we got there early because there was a parade that goes through the games before the main acts start. It turns out there is a high school in the parade that offers a bagpiping program, for which I will be eternally jealous because I couldn't study piping while I was in school. In addition, there were serval competitive pipe bands that marched through. To make it even more special, one of the pipe bands wore the Mackay modern plaid kilt (good to know they have great taste in tartans)! After the parade, we went looking around again, and that's when we saw it: USA Kilts was at the Celtic Classic! To clarify, I have been a fan of their channel since the pandemic started and have really enjoyed all the great content they have put out about kilt fashion. If the guys who run the company were there, I was also going to purchase a new kilt.

After checking out some vendors and watching a lovely piping competition, we went to the side grove where the clan tents were set up. The festival has a designated section for busking and they allowed us to play in front of the tents. In the middle of the set, we were singing "Roll the Old Chariot" and I was singing with his eyes closed. Midway through the song I opened my eyes and who should be standing but Rocky and Eric from USA Kilts in person. They were great guys and super friendly, so the next day I went and bought my first great kilt. As soon as it's ready and delivered, we'll release a video.

Goofing around at the Armstrong tent.

Toward the evening we took a break to watch a border collie demonstration for herding sheep which was both an impressive show and a welcome reprieve from standing and walking all day. When night came, our friends suggested going to see the band Runa perform. We hadn't seen them before, but they did not disappoint. They are amazingly multi-talented and played a ton of instruments. They also danced and sang in French if you can believe it. They definitely made a couple of new fans that night. Toward the end, Julie suddenly realized their percussionist, Cheryl was also the host of the Goderich Music Festival, which we participated in a few months ago. We got a chance to speak with her some after the performance and she was wonderfully kind and cheerful. She truly does what she loves and was willing to impart some of her experience to us, giving us some ideas on how to make our performances even better in the future. We made sure to see them again on Sunday.

I realize I keep mentioning all these people and talking about how nice and friendly they are. But that was one of the things about this festival; everyone was so nice and approachable. That's one of the things we love about the Celtic music genre. No matter how famous a group is, we've always found the groups we speak to after the show all seem to be really wonderful and down-to-earth people. That congruence between personality and performance

Sunday was more shopping-heavy than the day before, but all the same, we still managed to see Fig for a Kiss in the morning (another new band for us, but we really loved them), and an amazingly exciting performance from an Irish step dancing company. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and we left for home in the afternoon tired, but exhilarated. Long story short, we had more fun than anyone should be allowed to have, and it was perfect. Thank you Celtic Classic for one of the best weekends ever.

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