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Fergus Scottish Festival Coordinator Elizabeth Bender talks about Wee Digital Ceilidh

Today we're chatting with Fergus Scottish Festival Coordinator, Elizabeth Bender about the upcoming digital Fergus Scottish Festival & Highland Games.

This year would have marked 75 years of tradition in Centre Wellington, but Elizabeth calls this year “74.5

In this episode, we chat about the recent tough decisions, what it means for the future of the Festival, plus we get insight into what to expect at this year’s digital celebration, the Wee Digital Ceilidh (pronounced “Kay-lee”)

If you ask Google “What’s a Scottish Ceilidh?” you discover it’s a traditional social gathering.

I asked twice and was told, “...simply means a social visit.

The Festival Scottish Festival and Highland Games present this year’s Wee Digital Ceilidh to their faithful patrons, guests, and over four hundred volunteers who contribute their hard work and time year-after-year.

The result of their efforts has given our community an amazing gift that brings over 24,000 people to Centre Wellington in a single weekend.

This year they hope to do the same-- albeit virtually.

Trusted traditions, modernized.

Let’s jump in on this conversation with Elizabeth Bender, the Fergus Scottish Festival Coordinator for the Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games

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Fergus Scottish Festival Links

Did you see this post: We put a GoPro on top of a Caber-- and tossed it.

Audio Transcription

Elizabeth Bender: Do you know, we have around 400 volunteers. So we, and that includes a range from our board of directors who are all volunteer to our venue chairs. Like those leads in each area, um, right. To the people who on the weekends are on the ground doing the hard work, but the fun work. And, uh, so yeah, 400 ish.

Ryan Joyce: Yeah. That's a lot of volunteers and it's required because normally on a, I mean, this would have been the 75th, the big, a big year. Normally you see over 20,000, right? What's what is the attendance usually? Like, what was it last year?

Elizabeth Bender: Last year was like 20, 22,000 people. And it felt like they all came Saturday. Maybe it was, but over the course of the weekend, yet that is easy for us to hit those those targets. Well, what is your official title then? So my official title is Festival coordinator. Okay.

Ryan Joyce: And how long have you been with the Festival?

Elizabeth Bender: This would have been my fifth festival. So I've been with the Festival bout six years. I'm not always in this capacity, always as the coordinator, but it started, um, a little more part time and it's grown and so, yeah, six year, but fifth Festival this year.

Ryan Joyce: Wow. And how many have you been to, how many festivals have you been to? Can you,

Elizabeth Bender: Oh my goodness. Probably before I started with the Festival probably at least 10 or 12, I was going to, um, it just, I lived in the community for about that long and a little bit longer than that. So it was just something I that's what you did. Um, it was Festival time.

Ryan Joyce: It certainly is a kind of a big deal in this area. It's usually, I mean, and of course, given the circumstance, now we were in different times, of course, but for you, where did you come from? Ferguson?

Elizabeth Bender: So I grew up in a little town close to Woodstock and then moved to Toronto. So I moved to Fergus from Toronto and it was actually, there were, was a buy one, get one free coupon in the welcome wagon bag that was delivered to my house. And, uh, so I went and I was so old from that point on it, uh, I mean, you know what, we still do those coupons just as a thought it was hell. And so that's how it started. And, um, it was horrible. Weather froze through an entire tattoo, but the rest of the weekend was beautiful. And, uh, yeah, like I said, I been sold ever since, and I just am lucky enough to now work with the Festival. Wow.

Ryan Joyce: And so how, how did that come to be? How did it go? Just, did you start volunteering first and

Elizabeth Bender: Actually, no, I was working with the township of Centre Wellington and, uh, the Festival, um, was at a point in their lifespan where they needed a little extra help. And so they approached the town and said, we need someone to kinda help pull together and help us. Uh, and, uh, so that was me. And, uh, so I did both jobs for a while and now I've I'm with the Festival full time. Um, so that's how it all started is just helping out a little bit through, uh, through my other job.

Ryan Joyce: And it is, I would imagine a big deal I toured for forever. And we had seven people with us at the height of it. S and I know what a little workload that was. I can't imagine what 400 volunteers is like, what is a weekend look like for you normally, like not a normal weekend? I mean, a Highland game weekend.

Elizabeth Bender: Yes. So a Highland Games weekend starts about July 1st. So it's, it's funny, we plan all year for these three days. Um, but it gets really crazy starting may and June, but hit July 1st, right after Canada day, then we are running full speed. So lots of the planning is done, but that's when we're kind of on the ground really doing things. Um, so Festival weekend is just literally running, running, running it. Um, I sometimes acquaint myself to a fire person where I'm like, Nope, fires all over the place. Um, but also just, you know, a GoTo person and making sure that everything is going well and checking in and making sure everyone has what they need. Things are following schedule, um, revising, revamping, all that kind of coordinating piece. And we're really lucky with the Festival like our volunteers, uh, are so passionate and so full of energy and really that weekend means a lot to them. So it's, it's not just me. There are leads in every single area who have put a lot of hours, um, and sweat equity and energy and time into pulling off the so really kudos to all of them and our board of directors for providing that direction and making sure we're and we're kind of on an even keel. Um, I just try and keep the boat afloat.

Ryan Joyce: Can't imagine to be honest with you, what your life would be like, do you have any idea how many steps you get in a day over the weekend?

Elizabeth Bender: What I don't, but it is one of the best weight loss plans ever.

Ryan Joyce: I would be curious in the future, we we've got a, we've got a log, that information, I would imagine you get a ton of steps. Well, it certainly is something that our community has staked its entire reputation on. Yeah. It's a big part of our, like our culture and our heritage here Scottish culture. So everyone has a lot of respect for what the Festival has done for the community. And so I, I, I really, I know what the workload would be like. So my hat goes off to you and the team is someone who can hopefully appreciate what

Elizabeth Bender: Yes. Well, and we joke in the office leading up, we have a humongous like wall size white board and it is all the days for June, July into August of all the, to do list and they all get checked off. We've got a coding system and it's not unusual to be standing in that office. And I have every summer, we have some great summer students who join us, good to have 20 people in there talking to you all at the same time, all about different things and the energy. I love that energy. Um, by comparison sitting at the dining room table has been very loneliness. The energy leading up is amazing and it certainly requires that giant to do list, um, to keep us organized. But it's, uh, it's pretty fascinating how we can work through that. Where's the office located? So we are typically all year long. We're usually at the chamber of commerce. We have an office in there, but starting in July, we moved up to the sports Plex, which is our Festival ground. So the community sports bikes, and we take one of the boardrooms and we turn it into command central quite literally. And that's where everything happens out of, out of that zone meeting up. And then on the weekend we rarely get in there, but on the, on the lead up, it's very it's that happened in place.

Ryan Joyce: Yeah. Wow. I w I couldn't recall seeing the office anywhere, so. Okay. I see. So you're, you're tucked up over there now, cause that's a perfect location because it is sort of head central. I remember when it used to be down at the seniors area, down in the center of town. Again, I agree with that is that I imagine

Elizabeth Bender: Yes. Esentially and, uh, you know, even when you look at the sports plaque, that's a huge property, but we are also starting to grow that, which is exciting. Um, just takes lots of good because

Ryan Joyce: The other aspect that I guess a lot of the locals might not consider myself included. I've learned along this process. Is there a camping aspect of this? Yeah, that's a huge part of it. I never really understood before. And I see now that I think, what did I hear? 600 camper,

Elizabeth Bender: There are 300 and I think 24 camp sites or something for 300 plus camp sites. And then on those camp sites, you've got all of those people. So we literally have our Festival grounds where all of these activities and the Games and the competitions take place. And then adjacent to that, we have a huge camping area and people come and spend the weekend and, and decorate their camp sites. It's all very Scottish and it's a, it's a great place. So people can spend the entire weekend with us and enjoy everything that's going on. Um, a lot of our competitors stay there are, uh, and, uh, so it's very convenient.

Ryan Joyce: There's, I mean, I've learned along a lot along this process. Um, it's really much secret, but there's going to be content coming out for you this weekend. I was thrilled to be a part of. So, um, and I've learned a ton and you guys base your structure on about five different events at the Games right? Is that right?

Elizabeth Bender: Yeah. Four key pillars. Yes. And lots of other great things that go on, but our four key pillars are the heavy events, the Highland dance, the pipes and drums and our clans and heritage area. So that's been a really big focus for our online event this weekend. And then also we've got, you know, our McKinney's area and our performing tent and our concessionaires and vendors. So our featured guests, all of those are additions to those, those four pillars.

Ryan Joyce: Do you have any stories about people traveling far distance? I'm sure people come from all over the world because we're touted as among the largest second largest is what I say on stage. Am I going to get corrected here? Are we

Elizabeth Bender: No, I know in North America, I think for the largest continuously running Highland Games

Ryan Joyce: Okay. Cause I onstage, like I built this into my show and not that I will be on stage much anymore in the future, but, and that's kind of my intro, as I say, we're the second largest guys Festival uh, and people always yell out Fergus

Elizabeth Bender: And everybody seems to know Fergus, which is amazing. And yet we, we have people come from all over the world. So, and if you think in terms of even just our competitors and our performers loads from Scotland, um, but lots coming from that direction. But also we've got a lot of like our heavy events competition, uh, in 2021, which was supposed to be this year. And we're very pleased that we're able to host it next year. Um, but yeah, we have like your as a competitor, I think from the Czech Republic and like people are coming from all over the world to compete, but also to attend. So it's great. We love it. And um, for those more local we call it Scotland's out. The airfare is our tagline, so that, uh, you know, they know, um, that they get that little worldwide experience without having to leave Ontario or Canada, but yeah, definitely worldwide.

Ryan Joyce: So obviously this year is different. This was different. I liked, I don't know you were the one that told me the joke, so I'm not sure who it was, but you said 74.5, is that

Elizabeth Bender: Yes. Right off the hop, we were so excited about the 75th anniversary. And, um, when the decision was made that we were going to have to, um, cancel this year's event, uh, we decided immediately, and it was unanimous across the board. We were going to postpone, um, postpone our 75th anniversary to 2021. So this year is happening. Um, but next year is our 75th anniversary.

Ryan Joyce: Yeah. Oh boy. What a time? I, it certainly is. There's not much to say about it. I mean, who could have predicted any of this? And so in the interim you have been working around the clock to get next week. Well, this week, gosh, can you believe that it's this week? Okay.

Did you hear this episode:

Elizabeth Bender: No, it always goes so fast. Yeah. It's been very busy. Like when I think back in the timeline, it was the beginning of March where we both the board and I were kind of like, Hmm, there's a little something here. We should probably pay attention too and start thinking about, and then within a week we were having emergency meetings and was continued, um, until a decision was made. And now it seems like no time has passed and we're here and we, um, are able to produce this. We digital Kaylee. Um, and we're lucky we're going to have, um, be able to still have a bit of fun in our community. Cause that really the goal of this weekend is a give back because we are overwhelmed by the support that as a Festival we received, um, you know, anxious to put out a notice that we weren't going to be able to go forward, but outpouring from so many people about how sad and they were and great memories that they have.

So we thought that this was the right thing to do was to put something out there as our thank you to our supporters. Um, maybe garner some new fans and supporters, uh, and just, you know, what we're used to being busy and planning and Festival, so it made sense to do this. So we'll be able to do the online Kaylee. Are we digital Kaylee? Uh, but also we've got a house business and volunteer decorating contest that's going on. So the community will be, we're calling it paint, the Tam tartan. Uh, the newspaper has jumped on board. They've got a huge four page spread that they're putting in. So there'll be activities and fun things to do. And we're still gonna have a little presence downtown. So there will, you're going to hear Pipers on weekend that for 74 years, you've heard Vipers downtown. You're still gonna hear pipe down, down. Um, and it's, and there's going to be some Highland dancers. Uh, obviously we're being really careful around the restrictions that are in place, but it's just not Festival weekend without the sound of pipe.

Ryan Joyce: And we'll see a lot of tartan face masks too.

Elizabeth Bender: Yes. Hoping. So actually we will have some that will have downtown. If anyone is interested, I'm popping by our booth.

Ryan Joyce: That's super, I got to see some of them this week. Cause we have been dancing around the community in our masks, uh, and filming a bunch of things. Uh, and I mean, I am excited to see the rest of the kind of intent. I've only gotten this chance to see like the stuff that we've collaborated together on. So I can't imagine all the rest of it, but what a yeah. And it's all, um, it's all for those listening. It's, it's fun. Bite-sized stuff. It's not this w we together and tried to make this like really engaging content. That was something you would want to watch and, and blast through everything. So we see everything from dance to heavy events, uh, and we took a camera and put it on the top of.

Elizabeth Bender: I did gave her jaws. That was a goal even before all this happened. So I got to check off the bucket list.

Ryan Joyce: Oh gosh. And that's, if those was watching, that's going to be in the last day. It's the ending credits you've got to, you got to check that out. You're going to check.

Elizabeth Bender: Yeah. It's kind of hilarious.

Ryan Joyce: And so, so much, uh, I enjoyed all of the filming and being part of all of this. It was so nice to meet so many people. The one thing I enjoyed, if I had to pick one thing that was perhaps the most moving, I think it was the, the, her wedding ceremony was, was amazing. Can we share any hints on that? On the,

Elizabeth Bender: Yeah. If I can get through it without being totally choked up and it really hurts lighting. Um, and you know, since I've worked with Festival, I haven't actually been able to see her fighting cause usually I'm scurrying around, but the Hertz lighting always happens on the Friday evening at our tattoo. And it is a very moving ceremony and the clans line up and they light the Hertz and it's very much, um, you know, it's that, that moment, uh, friends and family and loved ones and gathering and going back and tradition, it was the idea of when someone moved, you would take a coal from your Hearst for your new home, and then you're friends and loved ones would bring a coal from their Hertz. So it's very much my goosebumps, very much about that companionship and, and gathering together and supporting. Um, so it seems a perfect thing to do. So we were man Abel, um, no restrictions were really tight at the time, but we were able to do that with our board of directors and uh, in the heart of downtown Fergus and it is gorgeous. Um, it really is gorgeous. And,

Ryan Joyce: And we did it one, take two and see the video buddy. I mean, we had to establish in our mind, we're going to probably do this twice. Yeah. Run through it the first time. And then boom, just beginning down. And it's about a six minutes

Elizabeth Bender: It's video and four minutes, four minutes. I think it is. I guess it's very moving and very much a tribute to, um, you know, what has happened this year. It's our tribute to the people who've worked so hard to get us through Kobe, to the people who've lost, loved ones through COVID to our Festival family. Every year, we have so many changes and we've lost some dear people in the past year. Um, so it's our tribute to them. It's our tribute to those of us who are still here to be healthy and strong and continue to be supportive and that we will gather again. And, um, it, it honestly turns out better than I had ever imagined. It's gorgeous.

Ryan Joyce: And was it I'm thrilled. And I, when I put the piece of music that we selected, I get chills when I heard it. Like I saw the visuals together. So everyone will get a chance to see this Friday, this coming Friday. So this is really exciting. I'm anxious about it. I can't imagine how you are in the bar.

Elizabeth Bender: Yeah. Oh, I think everyone's really excited. And I think, um, this year, when we first started talking about it, you know, the idea was all, well, we'll just do a bunch of videos on our phones and we'll put them on the website and it has turned into something beyond anyone's wildest dreams, certainly beyond expectations. And we're calling it, you know, an extraordinary Festival for an extraordinary time. Um, I truly believe it's so much new content, so I know I've had lots of people say to me, Oh, so you're just, you know, playing favorite videos from the past. No, this is brand new content and our venues and our four pillars all pulled together to produce things, um, within restrictions safely, but fun and engaging and touching. And, um, it really, and we've produced these new videos with you. Ryan it's it really is. You asked about what it's like this, my phone is ringing.

Ryan Joyce: And so I can't imagine it's crunch time and here you are a gifting me to some of your time. I appreciate it. I appreciate it.

Elizabeth Bender: But yeah, lots of new content, but when I kind of look had a chance to maybe see a few things, I feel like this is a memory making year for many reasons, not just because of COVID, but because of some of the content that we have, it's different than what you would get at the Festival. So there's learning components in interviews and really up close and personal. And like, I now know more about heavy events than I ever have just by getting to spend some time with those guys.

Ryan Joyce: And I feel the same. And I guess one of my favorite pieces to w I am not sure if this was your idea of where this came from, but it was amazing is that the teaching session, and we won't give too much away on this, but it's a very young Scottish dancer and, and a teacher or a dance teacher, and it was just priceless the visual, Oh, I love that moment.

Elizabeth Bender: So many great things and things you just don't think about from footwear. Yeah. To dance steps to the Hearst, what the meaning behind the hurts. Even just some of the interviews with our boards of directors, it's fascinating to see everyone's different perspective and where they come from. So it's a bit of a behind the scenes. And then the other really touching part is we have so many Festival favorites, especially with our performers who usually are entertaining us all weekend, right? They are getting geared up right now to camp and be on our main stage and in the Highland pub, um, and singing and dancing and playing all weekend long. And the touching words and tributes from some of them, uh, really amazing too. Like the Festival is well and truly loved, but the people who attend and our supporters are also truly loved. So that, that was really great as well.

Ryan Joyce: It really is going to be a trend setting, digital Kaylee. I don't think there's going to be any other, I don't know. I'm proud of it. That's all I'll say. I think, I think you guys are doing an incredible thing and I was thrilled.

Elizabeth Bender: Yeah, I agree. I, um, I'm really proud of all of the folks and this happens every year. So this is not a new trend this year, but people step up to the plate to deliver the best that we can deliver. And so that world class Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games, and that is probably one of the most emotional parts for me is whether things are going great or things are falling apart, which no one knows because we try to make it look. I can say that in those moments, you, everyone counts on each other and the relationships, um, to bring this to the masses, it's it really is incredible. And this year is no exception. You truly, around the clock I'm working on, you think online was easier. It is. There's a lot involved with doing an online Festival and then adding some of the community components as well.

Ryan Joyce: Well, you had 20 plus 24 plus thousand last year. Let's see if virtually we can get a whole bunch more this year.

Elizabeth Bender: I hope so. I think that people will be able to enjoy this from the comfort of their living rooms and feel like they're still there. It's neat in that we've set it up like a Festival grounds. You want to go, I hope I'm not telling too much, but if you want to go to the heaviest tent and see what's going on, you can, and then you can go over to Pike's and John, and then you can travel through the festival grounds. Um, you can do it at your leisure. So if you want to do something with morning coffee, you can, and then come back and catch a great concert or show in the afternoon. Uh, it really it's made for everybody. I hope it pours like crazy. not too hard that the hydro goes there for this year.

Ryan Joyce: That is absolutely awesome. And let's see what happens. I will be checking the weather cause I know you have a ritual where you don't look at the weather. I know that's a thing.

Elizabeth Bender: Yeah. I don't. I used to be really obsessive about it at the beginning. And you obviously you have to know a little bit, but um, I like to pre prepared for whatever's going to happen. So, um, and I think the Festival team does a great job with that. So we kind of have our plans from everything from extreme heat to tornadoes, because we've seen it all in my five years, we have seen it all. Um, so beyond that, you can't even imagine. So yeah, we just were ready. We were ready to go. Whenever people will arrive and whatever happens, weather wise or other where we're ready for it.

Ryan Joyce: And how do people follow? How do people tune in? And

Elizabeth Bender: Yes. So definitely check out our website, which is Fergus, Scottish, but also all of our social media channels. So if you haven't liked us yet on Facebook, this is a great chance to do so. We also honored website have a newsletter, so you could sign up for our newsletter and you will get constant updates and reminders all year long about great things that are going on with Festival and death. So good going into next year, too. You'll find out about what's happening and take it

Ryan Joyce: One of the best ways to keep in touch is the newsletter.

Elizabeth Bender: Yeah, absolutely. So I would recommend highly people sign up for that, but yeah, we will be all over that website and all over those social media channels and you know what like S and share us and, and spread the, spread the word.

Ryan Joyce: If you see something that you enjoy, share it with the rest of the world, that's absolutely. I am excited and anxious, so we'll have to do another, we'll do another follow up. I'd like to chat with some of the board as well on, on the wrap and yourself as well for a little follow up to see how it goes. So thank you. Elizabeth I really appreciate the time you took today. Cause I know how busy you are.

Elizabeth Bender: It is my pleasure. And this is my favorite thing to talk about.

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