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New Mexico’s only Celtic festival runs in Aztec this weekend

Fifty to 60 vendors are expected to participate in the Aztec Highland Games & Celtic Festival Saturday and Sunday in Riverside Park. (Courtesy photo)
Traditional games and music planned at Riverside Park

Expect to see kilt-wearing athletes competing in heavy lifting, vendors galore, traditional Scottish music and dance at the Aztec Highland Games this weekend at Riverside Park in Aztec.

Proudly, Aztec claims New Mexico’s only Celtic festival, among hundreds across the United States.

The two-day festival kicks off at noon with opening ceremonies, a mass band, kids games and beer sales.

Jessica Polatty, seasoned volunteer and event committee chairman, said her 11-year involvement as a volunteer and organizer has taught her the importance of organization, planning and relationships.

“Everything in life is all about the relationships,” Polatty said. “People will have your back when you need it.”

“Last year was pretty great because people were finally coming out of COVID … and I think this year will be good too,” said Polatty.

Organizers expect “beautiful weather” and lower temperatures.

“October is one of the best months around our area so people want to get out and do stuff,” Polatty said.

Fifty to 60 athletes, 25 dancers and about 25 vendors, including clans, have signed up. “We usually do over 500 spectators,” Polatty said.

Athletic events include: sheaf toss, weight for height (or weight over bar), Braemar stone (or stone put), light and heavy Scottish hammer throw, light and heavyweight for distance (or weight throw) and caber toss.

Participants can sign up at aztechighlandgames.com/the-games.

The caber toss, traditionally a log toss, is a crowd favorite, along with the hammer throw. The objective and technique of tossing a caber is “to flip it 360 degrees and land at 12 o’clock noon,” according to Polatty.

Angus Mohr will perform at the Aztec Highland Games and Celtic Festival Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 1-2 by the banks of the Animas River in shady Riverside Park.

The Denver-based band Angus Mohr will enliven with an eclectic sound described as “Rock ’n’ Roll with bagpipes” by lead vocalist and bass player Paul McDaniels.

“The most prevalent sound would be hard rock, but there are definite elements of punk, with a nod to metal and a hint of thrash,” he said. “We can’t forget about country either, as country has plenty of Celtic influence in it. … The common thread is social commentary and the need to get a message across at a basic human level. The exception to that is music that is just too much fun to not play.”

The band formed seven years ago, but three members have performed together since 1980. Angus Mohr arose from a six-piece band called Ricky Fire and the red-hot Voodoo Devils, which played regular rock and blues.

McDaniel’s son Matthew, the latest and fourth member of the band, pumps in the Celtic sound on bagpipes, adding to the band’s diverse range. He may play pipes, guitar, keyboards and pennywhistle – all in a single song. Growing up in Oklahoma with parents as music teachers and farmers with Scottish-Irish roots, McDaniels plans to stay on his current creative path, but dabbles in country and even ambient styles.

“Audience response is what caused us to become Angus Mohr,” McDaniels said. “It is what keeps us going. It is why we do what we do.”

After losing two members from a disagreement about musical style, they forged ahead with a new moniker, Angus Mohr, by taking the name of a 10th century pragmatist who stopped the Vikings attacking his region by marrying the daughter of a Viking king, thus creating a family alliance.

The four-piece group includes drummer Steve Mossholder, who holds the rhythm steady. Michael Aggson adds edgy guitar on covers of songs by Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash and the Ramones.

You might catch them do Ring of Fire or I Wanna Be Sedated with bagpipes.

Polatty said the band has wanted to play this venue for years and “they’re really, really excited.” Three stages will feature a variety of Celtic rooted music featuring bagpipes and drums to inspire dancing performers.

Trophies made from weathered willow, created by local artisan Nathenia Roberts, will create lasting memories for the victors. Asked whether there’s ever been any serious injuries to the athletes or participants, Polatty said, “Not a one.”

For Polatty, recruiting volunteers has increasingly been her biggest challenge. Sporting and diverse activities plus family commitments keep potential volunteers on the go. “You can come up to the front gate, we’ll give you a volunteer T-shirt … and we’ll find some place to put you,” she said.

“We would love to see everybody out and about,” Polatty said, adding that volunteers may call her (505) 419-7526.