For those who enjoy brilliantly-colored flags and costumes, bagpipe tunes, unique foods, dancing maidens, frolicking children and the excitement of tumultuous monsoon clouds skirting overhead, the lure of the annual Arizona Highland Celtic Festival in Flagstaff every July is irresistible.
The festival is the biggest fundraising event sponsored by the Northern Arizona Celtic Heritage Society (NACHS), the homegrown non-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving and furthering the cause of Celtic cultures.
These cultures include the Celtic regions of Western Europe – Asturias, Brittany, Cornwall, Galicia, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales – each with their own indigenous culture and distinctive language.
From its modest beginnings in 1998 in Wheeler Park downtown, the festival has steadily grown and expanded into larger venues such as Thorpe Park, and eventually the spacious Foxglenn Park.
For the past two years, about 8,500 people have flocked to the fields of the park, including local folks and a number of out-of-state and international visitors.
The festival hosts workshops on a variety of subjects, including Celtic history, food, literature, dance, clothing, storytelling and how to play a number of instruments, including musical bones, bagpipes and the bodhran, a traditional tambourine-like drum.
The concept of the Celtic society began the year before the debut of the festival, said Jude McKenzie, one of the founders of NACHS who also served, until recently, as its president. Today, she is on the advisory board and is the events coordinator for “everything we do,” she said. Her husband, Richard McKenzie, who is also a founding member, currently serves as president.
A small group of people came up with the idea of NACHS in August of 1997. “Our primary goal was to start a festival and to make it inclusive of all of the Celtic regions,” she explained. “What an education that has been, as many people do not realize that there are Celtic regions in Spain and France. It was actually Richard’s idea, round about April 1, 1998, when he said ‘I think we can do a Celtic Festival and I think we can do it THIS YEAR!’ I nearly died when he said that! So, we had $400 in the bank from our first event, which was an Alex Beaton concert, and we did it.”
As many as 500 dedicated volunteers help lead workshops and take on other duties, including the set-up and break-down processes. Signing up volunteers, as well as planning the next year’s festival, begins more than a year in advance.
“Many, many of our volunteers have been with us for years. That is a major strength,” McKenzie said. “At the festival we honored our volunteer coordinators – one family of three who help from Wednesday through Monday (and have been doing so for 11 years) and a couple who help with the creative side of things doing the labyrinth and workshops. I could go on and on about our super volunteers!” Raising money to help sustain and grow the cause of Celtic cultural in Northern Arizona has been challenging, she said. “As for fundraising and other moneymaking, we do everything from sell Regimental Validators [an original kilt-check tool] in our website, to the Tea with Diana Gabaldon.”
McKenzie believes the festival is popular because of the Celtic influence in Northern Arizona. “I think that when you go to a festival and it feels like a giant family reunion, it’s bound to have a deep effect on people. Also, the quality of music we have been able to provide with teachers from both the Jim Thomson U.S. School of Piping & Drumming, as well as the Grand Canyon Celtic Arts Academy has been extraordinary, and people like good music.”
To date, NACHS, largely funded through its festival, has awarded $100,000 to students and practitioners of the Celtic arts.
“Scholarships began right after our first festival,” McKenzie said. “We felt it was important to give back. Recipients have been able to compete in the World Bagpipe Band Championships in Scotland, the world championships in athletics, fiddle in Ireland, fiddle and bagpipes in Wales-Scotland and Ireland, Scottish Highland Dance, Irish dance, musical bones and lots of other instruments, too.”
A recent scholarship winner was Kevin Haggard, a baker from Santa Maria, California. Owner of Heritage Meat Pies, he has been cooking Scottish meat pies professionally for 30 years and selling them as a vendor at various highland games.
In November of last year, Haggard, funded through a NACHS scholarship, traveled from California to Scotland to compete in the annual World Scottish Meat Pie Championship.
“Kevin Haggard is the first American to dare to enter the world meat pie championship and took fifth place last year,” McKenzie said. “He’s going for No. 1 this year!”
Haggard competed against 100 other contestants in the meat pie contest. “I’m one of the few people in the United States that makes them,” he said.
Haggard and his company have been participating for 20 years in the Arizona Highland Celtic Festival in Flagstaff. “It’s grown significantly as one of the greatest family-oriented events that I do. It’s one of the most fun events that I do, and of course just coming to Flagstaff is nice.”
The classic savory pie consists of seasoned beef, oats and spices. To make the pie pastry, including the pastry lid that goes inside the pie and holds the filling in, the baker needs to use a special piece of equipment, a Scottish pie shell press,
Operating out of his 5,000-square-foot bakery at SunBlest Foods, Haggard will be practicing for next year’s contest by baking, in addition to Scottish meat pies, a full menu of pies, including mac and cheese, steak and mushrooms, shepherds and curry lamb pies.
Students at the Jim Thomson United States School of Piping and Drumming in Flagstaff have also benefitted from the sponsorship of NACHS and its scholarships.
The school, which had 50 students this summer, runs through the second week in July at Northern Arizona University, just prior to the Celtic festival.
The school is dedicated to the memory of the school’s founder, Jim “Seamus” Thomson, who began as Flagstaff’s only bagpipe teacher in 1992 out of his Thomson & Son Bagpipes store. Thomson organized and steered the school from its inception until his death in November 2009.
Students have the opportunity to study with top Celtic musicians, including Robert Watt, a master and championship piper from Maghera, Northern Ireland.
In addition to the great Highland bagpipes, Watt plays the bellows-blown Lowland pipes, Border pipes and the Irish Uilleann pipes. He also plays the humble Irish pennywhistle and ends his performances at the Flagstaff festival with an emotional rendition of “Danny Boy” on the whistle.
“I’ve been coming for close on 14 years, I’m guessing,” Watt said of the Flagstaff festival. “It’s great to see how it’s grown from strength to strength and the great help it does for scholarships and the Celtic heritage in general.”
One of his students this summer at the Jim Thomson School was a gifted piper from Las Vegas, Shawn Fowles, 12, who has played bagpipes for four years. He has competed at highland festivals, including the Las Vegas Highland Games and the Arizona Highland Celtic Festival.
“He’s an amazing teacher,” Fowles said of Watts.
McKenzie said the young piper is already being recognized for his talent.
“Shawn has received scholarships from us and got the Jim Thomson award of a full scholarship for this year’s school,” she said.
McKenzie’s hope is that the festival continues for years to come, while enhancing all its educational components. “In my mind, that is what sets us apart.” FBN
By Betsey Bruner, FBN