Kilts, hammers, highland dancing and Celtic music will again make an appearance Oct. 5-6 at Riverside Park in Aztec.
Started by a group of locals with Irish and Scottish ancestry, the Aztec Highland Games & Celtic Festival has adapted to community needs and interests during its nine years. While many favorites will return, a few “tweaks” and new events will also be offered.
Despite Aztec being somewhat removed from Scottish and Irish culture, the festival was immediately successful in its first year. Not only did the games draw 30-40 athletes and a large crowd of vendors and visitors, it managed to turn a profit. Its success drew support from the community and the city of Aztec.
Committee Chairwoman Christa Chapman said that while the festival’s overall success has remained consistent over the years, individual aspects have grown, declined or changed.
In its first few years, highland dancing was limited to exhibitions. Interest grew in a traditional dance competition, but the cost of paying judges and the workload involved made that a challenge until Albuquerque dance teacher Emma Trentman volunteered to recruit judges and organize the competition in 2015, making it only the second annual competition in New Mexico
A new, non-local judge is chosen every year. This year, the competition will be judged by world championship highland dancer Lynne Erbrick. Dancers of all levels are invited to participate, including noncompetitive demonstrations and group choreography. Dance workshops teaching this year’s championship steps will be offered Sunday and will be taught by Erbrick.
Music has also adapted over the years. Originally, the committee sought big-name headliners for evening shows, but realized festival-goers were often too tired to stay late and crowds were biggest in the early afternoon. Less expensive, but still popular bands were moved to the early afternoon and evening shows ended.
This year’s musical lineup includes local bands and new bands from throughout the Four Corners. Stubby Shillelaghs, Big’ns, Patrick Crossing, Top o’ the Mornin’, Truckley Howe and Kirkin of the Tartan will perform on the Shadd Rohwer Memorial Stage.
Throwing cabers, rocks and hammers may sound chaotic, but the heavy athletic competitions are both organized and judged by certified local and regional judges.
This year’s competition will feature six events: the caber toss, the sheaf toss, the braemar stone toss, the Scottish hammer throw, the distance weight throw and the height weight throw. All competitors are required to wear kilts.
Athletes are grouped by skill, weight, age and gender. Many local athletes come from the Four Corners Celtic Athletes who regularly practice in Aztec, but the majority of athletes come from out of town. Chapman estimated three-fourths of the competitors come from outside the Aztec/Farmington area.
Also coming from out of town is the majority of the equipment used in the games. Members of the Rio Grande Valley Celtic Festival Association help with recruiting judges and renting equipment for the Aztec games. Chapman stated that registration fees generally cover the rental fee each year.
Between competitions, attendees can visit a variety of vendors. This year about 40 vendors are expected. Most vendors will offer at least some Celtic/Scottish goods.
New this year are more kids’ activities and specialized crafts, such as making swords, shields or dragon sock puppets, and the Romance Novel Posing contest. The posing contest will replace the Bonnie Knees contest, which was discontinued after the organizer moved out of the area. Men will pose in their best PG-rated imitation of old-school romance novel covers and female volunteers will judge the contest.
Haggis samples will also be making a return this year, which Chapman insisted is better than most people think.
Whether attendees are brave enough to try the haggis or not, the festival promises fun for the whole family as they celebrate Celtic culture and traditions.
“The highland games athletic competitions are the biggest draw of the festival,” Chapman said, “but the other elements create a very immersive experience.”