There was plenty of evidence.
Whether it was the sounds of bagpipes, gargantuan athletes performing unthinkable feats of strength or tartans abounding, they all pointed to the same truth: the Smoky Mountain Scottish Festival and Games is back.
A year after the festival was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the huge, two-day event returned to Maryville College on Saturday. Events lasted all day, covering multiple aspects of Scottish tradition from sports to music and more.
The festival will continue today, with gates again opening at 8 a.m.
Saturday’s schedule included a military tribute, multiple athletic contests and a pipe band competition. Numerous vendors sold everything from fish and chips to bangers and mash and haggis, a traditional Scottish dish made from sheep meat.
And just as sights and sounds were easy to find Saturday, so were the stories of the festival’s various participants and attendees.
On the athletic field, Wes Kiser won the caber toss in the pro division, throwing a towering pole into a bounce, then flip, as spectators roared with applause.
“I did a games last month and that was the first competition we’ve had in 18 months. ... I’ve been throwing by myself in a field for the past month,” Kiser said. “To come out and hit the numbers I’m throwing, I can’t complain too much. And it’s just great to be here with all these people.”
“I’ve been throwing stuff against other people since I was 14, and I am 35,” he said. “Twenty-one years I’ve been throwing things as far as I can.”
(End-over-end tosses are scored according to the hours on a clock, with a 12:00 score being highest (falling directly away from the thrower). Kiser had a 12:00 and two 11:30s.)
Kiser first was introduced to Maryville’s Games by Scott Medlin, who oversees athletics at the festival. Medlin used to officiate college track and field events, and Kiser competed at Appalachian State University, he said.
“(Medlin) watched me throw and said, ‘Hey, you don’t quite have enough grace and finesse to be good at this, but you should try (Scotland’s) Highland Games, because that uses strength.’ And so I did, and the rest is history,” Kiser said.
Multiple tents and hundreds of people away, Tonya Phillips sat blindfolded, cautiously feeling the knees of participants she couldn’t see in the “Bonniest Knees” competition.
In just her first time attending the festival, Phillips took part in one of its key events: blindfolded women judge the knees of men only by touch, with a winner eventually chosen by varied reasonings.
“I went to the kids tent to get a Scottish flag, and they were asking about what it all entailed,” Phillips said. “And when they finished telling us about it, I was like, ‘How do you become a judge?’ And they were like, ‘Sign this piece of paper.’”
“I loved it. It was a lot of fun,” she added. “It was very interesting because they don’t have any guidelines for you to follow (to choose the winner).”
Later in the day, in a shadowed tent bearing relief from the overhead sun, The Selkie Girls performed as a precursor to the marquee act, band Seven Nations.
The group, which drove from Dallas to perform Saturday, was at its second festival, lead singer Alli Johnson said. It performed in 2018 and was booked for last year’s edition before it was canceled.
With its members having Scottish and Irish heritage, the band takes old Scottish and Irish songs and rearranges them in a modern take.
“I am so happy with the turnout,” Johnson said. “It’s more than I expected, and more than when we were here in 2018. It seems like we have way more people this time around.”
The festival board announced the creation of the game’s Hall of Fame on Friday during the patron’s dinner on the games field. The inaugural class of three recipients were Dan Greaser, Sara Frazer and Cliff Fitzsimmons (posthumous), father of The Daily Times copy desk chief Marcus Fitzsimmons. Members of the hall had their names added to the statue of the piper that was custom cast for the festival.