A crowd gathered to watch as men in kilts threw heavy stones in shot-put fashion. They threw the heavy stones as far as possible and then their scores were recorded. The men, who traveled from all over the state for the Florida State Highland Heavy Games Championship, competed in games like the Open Stone Throw, Hammer Throw, Sheaf Toss and more.
As more people entered Piper's Valley — the Celtic corner of the Bay Area Renaissance Festival — on the grounds of the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, Highland games emcee Collin King, in character as the Scots-Irish Sorley Boy MacDonnell, who helped fight the English to resist the expulsion of his clan from Ireland, took to the microphone.
"Welcome to the land of big poles and rocks," King said with a thick accent. "That didn't sound quite right. These men will throw stones for you. Why? Because they can."
Collin and his family — spouse Racheal Smith and three children, Liam Smith, 10, Morghan Smith, 11 and Morgan King, 13 — are residents of New Port Richey who perform at the Renaissance festival, which is affectionately referred to as "BARF" by locals.
They portray a Scottish Court, the MacDomhnaills of Antrim, or MacDonnell is it's spelled in modern times, a branch of the primarily Scottish-based Clan Donald in Ireland. The MacDonnells became their own branch in 1558 when Sorley Boy, Collin's character, obtained the lordship of the territory in Ireland from James MacDonald, sixth chief of the Clan MacDonald of Dunnyveg.
Collin emceed the Highland Games on March 3, bundled up in an outfit made of red plaid fabric and fur. The games are said to predate the Grecian Olympics and were used to train soldiers; they regained popularity in the Victorian era and men still compete in Highland games in modern-day Scotland and across the world, including Dunedin.
For a month and a half, weekends are filled with long days of getting into costume and roaming the festival grounds greeting patrons and making snide remarks about the Queen Katherine Parr, King Henry VIII and the English, whom the real MacDonnells despised, under their breath.
"This style of theater is called 'street theater,' " Collin said. "It's improv at its best. You're taking a historically based character and breathing life into them. You're going to find everything from the village idiot to the peasant dancers to visiting royalty, which would actually be ourselves, all the way up to the queen and kind of England all put together in a subversive environment where people can actually speak with historical characters and have a one-on-one experience."
Their costumes, almost entirely handmade by Racheal, are Celtic in motif and add several pounds to each family member. Racheal's is an additional 65 pounds and she needs assistance putting most of it on, especially the corset.
Despite the festival's anachronistic tendencies — characters across different time periods and places — the family tries their best to infuse 16th-century historically accurate dress and speech into their performances.
"You have children who actually learn more about the history just by watching and interacting with the characters there," Racheal said. "If the characters did their homework right they have full immersive knowledge of that time period." Racheal and Collin's own children are able to spout their clan's history and are eager to do so. Racheal is thankful how much BARF teaches them about history and the arts.
Morghan, Liam and Morgan portray Anna, Randall and Maye, children of the MacDonnells. Each can attest to their own character's history and enjoy the performances, despite long days in cold mornings or the hot sun.
"Right now, we only get the children on weekends," Racheal said. "This is something I like to do, something we like to do, something fun to do with the children that doesn't cost as much. How many parents can you say take their children out every weekend and play make-believe with them?"
The Bay Area Renaissance Festival runs weekends through April 7 and includes one more Celtic-themed weekend, "Shamrocks & Shenanigans," March 16 and 17, with another round of Highland Games.
Tickets are $18.95 at the gate for adults and $10.95 for children; senior and student discounts are offered. You can also purchase discounted tickets in advance at www.bayarearenaissancefest.com.