Category Archives: lost traditions

The Stone Mountain Highland Games and Alex Beaton

Stone Throw

During our time in Georgia, my family would always look forward to October and the Stone Mountain Highland Games near Atlanta. We would watch the highland athletic games and dance competitions, falconry and sheepdog herding demonstrations, and pipe and drum bands competing from all around the country. At least once in your life–on a grassy field in the middle of a beautiful evergreen forest–I hope you get to hear Amazing Grace and Scotland the Brave played by a massed band of hundreds of bagpipers and drummers. The drones will give you goosebumps, and the chanters will bring a tear to your eye, they will.

Massed Bands at the Stone Mountain Highland Games

Deep into the woods, past all the colorful clan tents displaying their crests and tartans, we were always drawn to the music stages. With a canopy of blue sky and pine boughs overhead, and a nip in the October air, Celtic music rang from the likes of Clandestine, Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas . . . and from Alex Beaton.

Alex Beaton at the Stone Mountain Highland Games in 2007

Alex cuts a dashing figure on stage, with his wavy salt and pepper hair, gray mustache, and a broad smile hovering above his white Polo shirt and tartan kilt. When he begins to play, the music flows from his fingers, through the acoustic guitar around his neck, and out to his rapt audience. (For some reason, the first several rows of folding chairs in front of Alex’s stage are always packed with smiling women of all ages.) In between ancient warrior ballads and bawdy pub tunes, Alex often tells stories from olden-day Scotland, like the Massacre at Glencoe in 1692, or the First Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. Those well-told stories always end with a sideways glance at the audience, a grin, and in Alex’s powerful baritone brogue:

“I remember it well!”

The people of Scotland and Ireland share a common Celtic ancestry, and they share a common musical heritage. Born to a Scottish father and an Irish mother, Alex Beaton is a guitar-playing folksinger and storyteller who has been entertaining audiences all around the world for over forty years. I’ve had the pleasure to listen to Alex perform live at the Stone Mountain Highland Games, and to shake his hand and tell him how much I enjoyed his music on several occasions. I listen to one of Alex’s many CDs almost every day, so I still feel a connection with this gregarious Scot.

About a year ago, it was with great sadness that I learned Alex had fallen at his home near Nashville, and suffered a severe spinal cord injury. After a long stay at the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta and more rehab work near Augusta, I understand that Alex has returned to his home and is even doing some traveling, although he’s still confined to a wheelchair and working hard to regain more and more movement. If you feel moved to send Alex a card or note, a few dollars to help with his mounting medical expenses, or drop by his website and buy a CD or two, I know he and his family will deeply appreciate your kindness.

If you enjoy traditional Scottish and Irish folk music as much as I do, here are a few of my other favorite artists:

Do you have a favorite Scottish or Irish folk musician or favorite tune? If I had to pick, mine might be Alex Beaton’s rendition of Maggie. I’d love to hear about your favorites, too. And if you happen to drop Alex a card or a note, please give him my best wishes for a swift return to the stage. I, along with all of his many fans, miss him most dearly.

Rob at the Cal Erin Forge, Stone Mountain Highland Games

Glory Morning

CC BY 2.0 by MarilynJane on Flickr

Stirring first, I eased back the light covers and slowly swung my feet to the warm, wooden floor. A light breeze from the open window above the bed brushed across my bare back, the last vestiges of night air mixed with the warm promise of a perfect August day.

Two salt and pepper shadows trailed me through the living room, past the darkened pane of glass that would only later be allowed to connect me with the fire and brimstone of the outside world. The coffee pot had awakened to its task as I was finishing with my sleep, and the steamy aroma of the rich, black liquid silently drifted across the kitchen. The boys even ate their kibble quietly. No one seemed to want to interrupt the stillness.

Hot cup in hand, I slid the heavy glass door open and stepped down to the terracotta patio that runs across the back of the house. To my bare feet, the irregular tiles were rough and cool, having given up the previous day’s heat to the night air. Barely lit from the left, I could just see shaggy outlines, as the boys trotted to the far edge and hopped down to the narrow strip of recently mowed grass that separates the patio from the garden. Shoulder to shoulder, they disappeared down one of the vegetable-lined paths. Beyond the garden, morning light glinted off the upper windows of the outbuilding, where the end of Dillon’s story waited to be written, vying for my attention with the half-finished harvest table in the workshop below.

I sat at the round, mahogany table and gingerly set my cup down, still trying not to make a sound. My eyes drifted closed, and other senses took in the gifts of a peaceful country morning. Sunlight filtered through the trees across the field to the east and bathed the side of my face with a hint of warmth. My fingers traced the smooth edge of the table, softly rounded with my router years before. The air moved and brought cut grass, coffee, and green smells from the garden, pleasant reminders of so many summers now past.

In the stillness, my good ear strained to hear the first faint sound of the day. As it grew to a familiar whisper, only my eyelids moved, rising ever so slowly. An arm’s length away, a beautiful hummingbird hovered in the air, studying my careful smile. Her ruby head and green body were iridescent in the magical morning light, her beating wings almost invisible. My tiny visitor stopped time for an all-too-brief moment, and then she was gone.

As if on cue, the boys raced out of the garden and bounded onto the patio, demanding their morning treats in a chorus of barks and whines. With the silence duly shattered, a perfect August day was fully at hand.


Now that I’ve shared what my Glory Morning would look like, I’d love to hear from you. In your heart of hearts, how would you choose to start each day?


Passing Along Manual Life Skills – Another Lost Tradition?

Sighting down the edge of a board for bow, crown, twist, and warp is a skill all carpenters should be able to do. How many of today’s carpenter’s know which way to orient the crown of the studs when framing up a wall?

Passing along skills from generation to generation is a strong theme in An Irish Miracle. As a ten-year-old boy on an Ohio family farm in 1955, Alex is excited to learn how to weld from his father, Jake, so he can fix a broken plow. An older Alastar passes along the skills of caring for horses to the younger men at Glencoe Stables.

The tradition of passing along manual skills takes many routes, a few of which are:

  • Father to son
  • Mother to daughter
  • Journeyman to apprentice
  • Mentor to fatherless child
  • Shop class

Sadly, many high schools across America have discontinued shop classes, as more and more students prepare to become “knowledge workers”. (Search eBay for woodworking and other machine tools, and you’ll find many for sale from schools.) As Matthew Crawford points out in Shop Class as Soulcraft, the separation of thinking and doing is a misguided notion. Encyclopedic knowledge and critical thinking guide the hands of plumbers, carpenters, and motorcycle mechanics, to name only a few of the highly skilled and noble trades.

Bought with his own money, my son and I dragged his first car home with a chain and slowly worked together to rebuild it and make it road-worthy again. From the rebuilt carb to the new exhaust system, repacked wheel bearings with new ten-hole rims, and of course, a new head unit complete with amp and subwoofer, he was proud of that little Mustang and proud of his newly acquired skills. Much credit goes to my wife for pointing out that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pass some skills along, father to son.

Take a few moments and list the manual skills one of your parents or a favorite uncle had, and then circle the ones you don’t possess. Here’s a short list about my dad. He hated to pay someone else to do anything he even might be able to do himself.

  • Welding (at work and at home)
  • Butchering (as in the family meat-packing business)
  • Carpentry (he built the house I grew up in, and several others)
  • Woodworking (he made a lot of our furniture)
  • Hunting (mostly bird, when he was younger)
  • Gardening (usually started with a pick-up truck load of chicken manure)
  • Car restoration and maintenance (he and my brother restored a 1966 Corvette)
  • Mechanical work (he fixed appliances and built us go-carts and mini-bikes)
  • Schnauzer grooming (the apple seldom falls far from the tree)
  • Knitting (yup, and he taught my mother, too)

Pop building a storage shed out near the garden. For some reason, we always called it “The Cottage”.

I could take a pretty good turn at most of these, although my welding and butchering would be pretty ugly, and I’m afraid I never found much call for knitting myself. (I personally don’t hunt for sport, but if it ever comes down to Bambi or my family going hungry, Bambi’s a goner.)

Craftsmanship is both the execution of a skill, and the desire to do something well for its own sake. Producing something physical, with hands guided by the mind, is extremely satisfying, particularly in a world where life is seemingly lived more and more passively . . . and more and more dependently.

What new manual skills would you like to learn? Even more important, what manual skills will you pass along?