Cleveland Comhrá: Ohio Scottish Games & Festival Feature

Cleveland Comhrá: Barry Conway and the Ohio Scottish Games and Celtic Festival
By Bob Carney

The Ohio Scottish Games and Celtic Festival will be held June 24th and 25th at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds. Established in 1977, it’s a celebration of Scottish and Celtic culture. We were able to speak with Barry Conway about his involvement in the event and why it has such a large appeal to so many.

“It’s called the Ohio Scottish Games and Celtic Festival, because it’s not strictly a Scottish thing. The bagpipes are played in many other countries besides Scotland, although they are the national instrument there. My grandparents came from Co. Mayo and many pipers are of Irish and other ancestry, so it’s a blend of celtic culture. One of the best bands in the world is from Dublin.Barry Conway playing the bagpipes

The essence of the games is competion. We have them in solo bagpipes and pipe bands, between sixteen and eighteen bands will compete from across the region. We’ll have bands from Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, Western Pa. and Philidelphia. There’s also competitions for Highland Dancers, harp, fiddle and there are nine Highland Athletic events. The one most people identify with is the caber toss, a one-hundred and fifty pound pole tossed for distance.

We have some new events this year, such as a keg toss, which is open to anyone, and a haggis throw, which is a woman’s event. We’ll also have the Kilted Mile, a one mile race in kilts, and axe throwing. We have a medieval group that does battle in period armor and will be giving fencing and archery demonstrations.”

Will there be other musical entertainment?
We’re excited to have Seven Nations, New Barleycorn and the Andrew McManus Trio. They will perform in the Entertainment Pavillion and in The Clan Village.

What is that?
A little unique to this type of festival is the Clan Village, where clans set up a booth with the names in the clans, information and history, and where the clans were from in Scotland. It’s a great way to find out more about your heritage on a family level. There will be around thirty clans represented. Friday night is the Calling of the Clans,where all the different clans are introduced to the crowd and share their motto.

On Saturday afternoon there is a parade of all the competitors and the tattoo takes place at 6 p.m., with all the pipe bands playing in unison; approximately three to four hundred pipers.

So we can we shop for a kilt while we’re there?
You can, we’ll have all kinds of vendors, both Scottish and Irish, selling merchandise, and Irish and Scottish food. On the Scot’s side, meat pies are kind of a staple. O’Reilley’s Bakery and Sully’s from Medina, along with many others will be there.

Tell us about the different workshops and sessions?
We have workshops in bagpipes and drumming; Saturday morning is a workshop for fiddle, followed by a fiddle competition. Friday night is the harp workshop at 7 p.m., followed by an open session in the harp building.

Is there a program or listing with all the times for the events?
Go to to purchase tickets, and you will recieve a pretty detailed program with your ticket. You can buy tickets at the gate and programs will be available there as well.

What are some of the other attractions?
We have the children’s games on Saturday; they’re reflective of the Highland Games, but for example, in the caber toss, the caber is made of cardboard. There will be a display of British cars and motorbikes.

We will have a whiskey tasting event, with six single malt Scotch whiskey’s representing the six regions of distinctive tastes in Scotland. When you purchase a ticket for the tasting, you’ll sample all six varieties.

A border collie herding demonstration will be there, along with the Northeast Ohio Irish Wolfhound Group. An exibit of the highland cow will be on hand.

Amanda Epperson, who wrote the book on exploring Scottish geneology will be there, along with a representitve for Irish geneology. The whole idea behind it is to give people a guide to exploring their own family tree.

What are the hours of the festival?
Friday, June 24, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, June 25, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Competition begins at 8 a.m. Saturday morning.

How about you, Barry, when did you become interested in the bagpipes?
When I was ten years old, my father was a member of the Emerald Civic Society. They marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. When I saw and heard the pipe bands, I asked my father what they were. I asked him if I could learn how to play them and my parents found me an instructor;  the rest is history. I’ve been playing ever since, almost fifty years now.

I also teach the pipes; in fact, funds from the games go to the Scottish Arts School, that runs the week after the games at Baldwin Wallace University. We teach the disciplines of bagpipes, snare drum, tenor drum, bass, harp and fiddle. I’m an instructor there, as well as teaching individuals throughout the year.

Tell us about the Great Lakes Pipe Band.
I am the Pipe Major for Great Lakes. We compete regionally and internationally. In 2019, we competed at the championships in Glasgow. We make trips to Canada and California regularly.

One of the things a lot of people aren’t aware of is that the 49ers, the people that headed west for the gold rush, was made up of a large percentage of Scots. As a result, the largest and wealthiest Caledonian society is in San Fransisco. So for a band like Great Lakes, they heavily susidize us to travel there to compete.

How are the financial aspect of travel and lodging taken care of for the members of the band?
Some bands have fundraisers, or play in parades or other events. This year Great Lakes is a featured band at the Dublin Irish Festival in Ohio. We also win prize money when we compete; the higher the level of competion, the more you can win.

Great Lakes is in that higher level. That is primarily how we help fund everything; most travel expenses are self-funded.

How did you become involved in the festival?
I’ve been involved since 1977, when I competed and won my group as a solo bagpiper. I’ve been teaching at the arts school for about a dozen years. A couple of years ago, I sold my business and was able to retire and increased my involvement quite a bit. I’m much more active because I have the time; it’s a labor of love.

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