Tartan Day South has little room to grow, but passion to spare

Posted 3/29/23

There comes a point in organizing a festival when it becomes difficult to add more to it.

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Tartan Day South has little room to grow, but passion to spare


There comes a point in organizing a festival when it becomes difficult to add more to it.

Tartan Day South — the highland games and Celtic festival that has grown from a day at the Historic Columbia Speedway to span four days of events in Cayce, West Columbia, Lexington and Columbia — has been at that point for a minute.

John Banks, a member of the Historic Columbia Speedway group who sparked the idea for the festival and continues to rally it heading into its 11th outing, confirmed to the Chronicle when discussing this year’s event that it’s difficult to figure out ways to grow Tartan Day’s offerings at this point.

Sometimes it’s hard because plans fall through.

When asked if there are any big things being added this year, Banks fixated on a man who was supposed to come do a hands-on cricket demonstration but ultimately had to cancel a little more than a week out.

Sometimes it’s hard because there just isn’t much left to add.

The festival has already gone to the lengths of creating its own official tartan, the plaid cloth patterns that are the banners of Scottish clans, settling on a lattice of green, dark blue and light blue (representing West Columbia, Lexington and Cayce, respectively) and getting it officially registered through Scotland. 

And sometimes it’s hard because there just isn’t enough space.

The festivities are already spread through four venues, cities and days, with events including multiple concerts and a Kirkin’ of the Tartans service by the Congaree River on Sunday. And the real estate on the speedway infield is already crammed full with various highland games (including caber toss, hammer throw, stone put and more) and other activities (including birds of prey and Irish step dance demonstrations) on the festival’s marquee Saturday.

But Banks said that while it’s difficult to innovate, he doesn’t have any trouble mustering the energy to keep putting on this local celebration of Tartan Day, the North American holiday paying homage to Scottish heritage that celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

And it’s not just because the event’s crowds continue to grow, with Banks reporting more than 13,000 people from 29 states attending last year.

“It’s the people,” he said of what keeps him going, reflecting on how much joy he takes in seeing people enjoy the festivities each year. “It’s a labor of love. If I did it by the hour how much I make on this, probably about a quarter an hour. But it is a passion.”

This year, that camaraderie-driven ethos is thrown into even sharper relief as the event toasts the memory of Banks’ co-founder, Donovan Murray, who died in May 2022 after a long battle with cancer.

Banks recalled starting the festival when he and his team were trying to turn the old speedway in Cayce into an event space, and he thought of doing a highland games as a possible centerpiece.

“Donovan had been the music director of Grandfather Mountain, which is the largest [highland games] on the East Coast,” Banks said of Murray’s experience with the event in North Carolina. “I called him and he kind of thought it was crazy, to be honest with you. He said, ‘You want to do this at a speedway, are you kidding?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s really not a speedway. Will you come see it?’ He said, ‘OK, no promises. Yeah, I’ll come see it.’ He came down here and as soon as he walked in, his eyes went, ‘Wow.’”

Tartan Day South will look to honor Murray’s memory by keeping on as it always has — celebrating all things Scottish and fostering community.

“There’s very few things you get to do where you feel like you make a difference,” Banks said. “And when 10,000 people walk through the gate at something you worked your butt off on, and to see smiling people, I love walking around and seeing smiling faces.”


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