MOUNT DORA, Fla. – Celebrating Scottish heritage, the city of Mount Dora is hosting the 10th annual Scottish Highland Festival.
You can expect bagpipes, Irish dancing and traditional Scottish cuisine, but there’s also a big competition called the Highland Games showcasing strength and fitness through a variety of challenges.
“The Caber Toss is one of the events in the competition. They are skinny logs and vary in length and weight. I practice with an 18 foot caber that weighs about 90 pounds,” said Dustin Hamzhloui, a Highland Games athlete. “You can to pick it up and toss it, making sure it makes a full rotation before it hits the ground. The score is based on the clock face known as the perfect score. Everybody’s style for picking up the caber and getting it off the ground is a little bit different. I squeeze the caber with my palms to pick it. Some dig their hands underneath to pick up.”
For Hamzhloui, the Highland Games are all about tradition.
“My family came from Scotland. They sailed over to South Carolina and migrated towards Tampa. Our family’s clan is Clan Cameron,” Hamzhloui said.
His clan is represented in the tartan, plaid design, on his Scottish kilt. Hamzehloui has been competing in the Highland Games for five years. He’s training for the next big event at the Mount Dora Scottish Highland Festival.
“We’re really competing to see how far we can push ourselves to improve,” Hamzhloui said.
News 6 Insider Guide Crystal Moyer watched as Hamzehloui practiced on his Lake County farm with fellow athlete Tara Holcomb.
“I’m not Scottish, but I wear the firefighter colors. This is the firefighter tartan and so that makes me feel more a part of it,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb is a Mount Dora lieutenant paramedic firefighter who got into the sport while on the job at a Highland Festival in 2016.
“I was working an event as a firefighter and they were pulling our fire truck and the guy said, ‘Hey do you want to pull your own truck?’ I was like, ‘Yes I do.’ So I did the truck pull and beat out one of the guys by a couple seconds and they said I should be a highland athlete, so started throwing that year and doing it ever since,” Holcomb said.
Athletes at the Highland Games are split up into divisions based on age and experience. Another event includes throwing large chunks of metal and rock for distance.
“There is a barrier on the ground called a trig. It’s basically the starting point where they measure the distance from, and if you step over or fall over it, it’s a foul,” Holcomb said.
If you’re wondering, yes, all of the athletic competitions are done in traditional Scottish kilts.
“It feels a little weird at first, but honestly you get used to it because they’re flowy, you get a lot of movement actually,” Holcomb said.
“It’s pretty breezy. It’s real nice when it’s cool in the morning, It keeps the legs cool you know,” Hamzhloui said.
There’s also, what’s called a “tower” at the Highland Games. It’s two poles with a metal bar connecting both.
“There are two events that require the tower which is the weight-over-bar and the sheaf toss,” Hamzhloui said.
The bar is set to a certain height based on the division. You grab a weighted bag with a fork ... yes, a pitch fork.
“The object of the game is to get it over the bar. You can do a spin or throw from a stationary stance,” Hamzhloui said.
It may seem simple, but it takes a lot of skill to get it right.
Although it’s a competition, the Highland Games promote comradery.
“As soon as you become a highland athlete you’re part of the family. It doesn’t matter if you’re Scottish or not,” Holcomb said. “I find that you can pretty much go out on the field and see every body type, every age. It’s pretty cool that it’s tapered to your ability and you get to learn and grow as you go.”
And as Holcomb found out, there are some unique prizes.
“I won a sword once and I was thinking ‘what the heck and I goin to do with that,’” Holcomb said.
It’s just a small part of the annual Mount Dora Scottish Highland Festival, a celebration of Scottish culture with Celtic music, traditional food, Irish dance performances, demonstrations and more.
“It really is a family-friendly event. You can sample some traditional Scottish foods and there will be different vendors with kilts and coresets and other traditional garb,” Hamzhloui said.
The Mount Dora Scottish Highland Festival takes place at Donnelly Park (530 N. Donnelly Street) in Mount Dora Feb. 18-19. Purchase tickets prior to Saturday, Feb. 18, online to receive a discounted rate of $12. Tickets will be $15 at the gate.
News 6 will be at the event, streaming the Tartan Parade and opening ceremonies Saturday starting at Noon on News 6+. The app for your television is available on most streaming services including Roku, Apple TV, Firestick TV and Android TV. Just search ‘News 6+’ in the app store to download to your smart TV.
Check out the Florida Foodie podcast. You can find every episode in the media player below: