Rural Missouri Magazine

Brigadoon in the Valley

Each April, Pilot Knob becomes a sea of tartans as it hosts the Arcadia Valley Celtic Festival

by Heather Berry

On Friday night, before the two-day Arcadia Valley Celtic Festival begins, the “Calling of the Clans” is held on the grounds. This moving ceremony is open to the public. Are you a member of a clan? Wear your tartan and join in.

It’s dusk and the strains of a lone bagpipe cross the valley as clans gather under a small grove of trees. An opening torchlight ceremony known as the “Calling of the Clans” is about to begin. Participants, clad in their own tartan (family plaid), carry a torch and proclaim the arrival of their clan.

Each April, the quiet burg of Pilot Knob plays host to thousands of visitors who celebrate their roots at the Arcadia Valley Celtic Festival.

“To think this all began because I play the pipes and couldn’t find a piping teacher in this area,” says Dr. Bill Christmas. “I said ‘We need to give people a reason to come down and do something for the weekend, not just drive down for a day to play the pipes and drums.’”

Roscoe Apps, 4, of Essex, England checks out how he looks in his tartan as his “mum” holds the mirror.

“Doc” as he’s known to most folks in the Arcadia Valley (Pilot Knob, Arcadia and Ironton) is an emergency room physician from New Zealand whose career path led him to Missouri.
“I’m a great believer in the adage, If you build it, they will come,” Doc says, referring to the five-year-old festival.

According to Cody Wiles, another festival committee member, the Celtic festival, held at the Fort Davidson State Historic Site grows by leaps and bounds every year.

“The Department of Natural Resources says 5,000 attended last year,” says Cody. “The festival is a wonderful opportunity for people who want to look at their heritage. Someone might say ‘I think I’m Scottish or Irish’ and I guarantee someone at one of the clan tents will be able to help them find out whether they’re part of a clan or not.”

This two-day festival, held rain or shine the second weekend of April, also allows visitors to experience the music, traditional athletic games and heritage of the Celtic nations, which include Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Galicia, Brittany and the Isle of Man.

A dancer with the talented Dance Caledonia group of St. Louis displays the “Irish Washerwoman” jig.

“There’s a huge Scottish and Irish community around here but they just don’t know or they’ve simply forgotten it,” says Doc.

According to Cody, individual and corporate donations make the event possible. The festival is free for all who attend.

Held on 13 acres among the hills in Iron County, this event offers a wide array of activities to keep everyone occupied, educated and entertained.

Among the choices are Scottish, Irish and English dancing performances held each day. Traditional Scottish and Irish musicians and singers perform with everything from harps to pipes. Bards roam the grounds and tell tales to all who will listen. Some visitors sit for hours and watch with fascination as border collies herd sheep at the command of their masters.

For those who desire more activity, the heavy Scottish athletic competitions allow participants to fling a sheaf (a burlap bag filled with hay) with a fork, throw an 18 to 20-pound stone or toss a caber (a felled tree) end-over-end.

Storytellers and musicians entertain guests at one of the festival’s highlights, the ceilidh, (pronounced “kay-lee”) a Scottish banquet. The dinner, with traditional Scottish fare, is held under a big tent on the grounds.

Cody, owner of the local Arcadian Cafe, hosts traditional Celtic cooking demonstrations each day of the festival. Want to learn how to make Scottish haggis? She’ll teach you. Haggis is a thrifty Scottish dish made from leftover odds and ends such as oatmeal, onions and organ meats stuffed into a sheep’s stomach.

Ron Zytniak shows how his border collie herds sheep with hand signals, whistles and by the body language of the shepherd.

Of course, what would the event be without a piobaireachd, or piping competition, the original reason for the festival. Competitors must be able to play from a specific list of Scottish bagpipe tunes. The contest is open to anyone and prizes range from $200 to $1,000, not a bad return on a $25 entry fee.

For the people who perform at the festival, it’s the desire to preserve their heritage which keeps them coming back. For bard and historian Jeff Campbell, the Arcadia Valley Celtic Festival is great fun.

“I love tellin’ tales,” Jeff says in his lively Scottish brogue. “Other than native Americans, there isn’t another ethnic group which travels to celebrate their heritage.”

Wayne and Pam Davis of St. Louis call the festival a family affair.

“I man the clan Davidson tent while Wayne and our eldest, Maggie, perform and teach combat sword fighting,” says Pam.

Amateurs with experience can sign up to participate in the heavy athletics competition held during the festival.

Wayne also plays the pipes. Last year, he was asked to play at the opening ceremony as well as the “Kirkin’ of the Tartan,” a Sunday morning ceremony in which all clans are represented during a blessing prayer.

Even with thousands attending the festival, Pam says this gathering seems intimate and less commercial than most they attend. “You have time to talk to folks and really connect with them. Arcadia feels like a family reunion to us.”

Doc and the festival committee say “ceud mìle fàilte” (a hundred thousand welcomes to you) and invite you to the Arcadia Valley Celtic Festival on April 10 and 11. For more information or tickets to the Saturday night ceilidh or call Cody Wiles at (573) 546-2432.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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