If you can’t make it to England, Scotland or Ireland this year, the next best deal is to drive an hour and a half to Estes Park for the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival – the largest gathering of the clans west of the Mississippi…and certainly the nation’s most beautiful with Rocky Mountain National Park forming a jagged backdrop for the pipe bands, folk dancing, jousting, cannon firing and beer tents.
The festival, Sept. 8-11, has been going on for 30 years and has become wildly popular – and crowded. But the festival people know their audience, and while there’s often a line for food and restrooms, it’s seldom that you can’t walk right up to one of the many beer tents and get a Guinness or a wee dram of Scotch whiskey.
The traditional kick-off is the Sept. 10, Saturday morning parade at 9:30 a.m. It’s free, fun and worth getting up early. It’s also hopelessly crowded with spectators, but most of them gather by the Estes Park information center, where the parade ends. Walk along the parade route towards the mountains and the crowd thins out. The parade is billed as the largest “all Celtic” parade in North America, which means you get pipe bands, marching clans in kilts, thousands of dogs from the British Isles, and some Renaissance re-enactors, but none of the boring miles of cars filled with dignitaries, politicians and realtors. It’s all fun and colorful.
The festival is $20 for a one-day ticket and you get a lot of entertainment for your money. Here are some tips from an annual festival-goer:
- Go early. Everything is easier the earlier you arrive, especially the parking, which is a reasonable $5 right on Hwy. 36 next to the festival grounds.
- You can buy a ticket online ahead of time and save another wait at the entrance.
- Check the band and jousting schedules when you arrive. They are only posted at the entrance.
- It’d be really difficult to see everything, but don’t miss Albannach. This is a wild Scottish band of eight crazy, long-haired and heavily tattooed Celtic drummers and one wailing bagpipe. Watch this group and you can see why England built a wall to keep the Scots out. You would not want to see these people coming at you with a claymore. The beat is irresistible and after a few numbers, the Celtic blood of the audience is up and they’re dancing nearly as wildly as the band.
- Visit the dogs of the British Isles and sheepherding exhibits. It might not have been their intention, but England has certainly bred the funniest looking dogs, and from Jack Russells and bulldogs to Scotties and sheepdogs, they’re out in force. There are dog obstacle course races (more fun after a few wee drams), and the sheepherding competition is amazing.
- Hit the food tents early before the long lines, and go Celtic – bangers and mash, pasties, fish and chips, even haggis is available.
- Don’t miss the cannon firing. Eight cannons are set up along the lake and fire once an hour. Particularly fun is the mortar that fires a bowling ball 500 yards into the air, aiming at the Loch Ness monster in the lake.
- Unless you’re a fanatic for pipe bands and speeches, avoid the sun, bleachers and crowds at the noon gathering of the bands ceremony. The bands play more on their own throughout the day, and there are a lot of speeches.
- Do have a whiskey. You can always have a Guinness chaser, but whiskey, sipped neat, outdoors with a pipe band in the background is the true essence of Scotland.
- Plan plenty of time to check out the Irish step dancing, highland fling, jousting (heavy armor being added this year), clan tents, folk singers (Alex Beaton is especially good), and vendor tents, where if you’re lucky enough to have a Scottish, Irish or English last name, you can buy a souvenir mug, key chain or coaster celebrating it.
- And always, keep a wary eye on the horizon. It’s a rare year that it doesn’t rain at some point in the day, and you want to be somewhere near a vendor tent when it does.