The unmistakeable sound of bagpipes rose up and I joined the crowd to watch the pipers and drummers, decked out in kilts and sporrans, play the rousing standard Amazing Grace. Behind me was a whisky bar and a stall selling haggis. The mock street signs read Cowgate and Princes Street, leading to a field where, later, I would watch a caber-tossing competition.
But this Princes Street wasn’t in Edinburgh, and I wasn’t in Scotland at all. Instead, my location was the small village of Abtwil on the outskirts of St Gallen in eastern Switzerland – a village that, for the past 10 years, has been obsessed with Scotland.
This was the Appowila Highland Games, created in 2009 by a group of Scotland-loving locals who named their event after the medieval name for Abtwil. Leading the group – clan chief, you might say – was Martin Tschirren, president of the Appowila Association he created to organise the games after he fell in love with Scotland 23 years ago.
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Aged 20, Tschirren was dragged on holiday to Scotland by a Swiss friend who promised him a better experience than the rain and bad food he expected. For the first few days his scepticism was proved right because it rained – a lot. But on the fourth day the rain stopped, the clouds cleared and the pair climbed a hill in the Highlands and sat with a bottle of whisky looking out over the wilderness. It was an experience that “really touched me,” Tschirren said. “We were sitting the whole afternoon on that hill, saying nearly nothing to each other, only enjoying this imposing nature.”
Entranced by the landscape and the sense of space he feels is lacking in Switzerland – which is half the size of Scotland with more than three million additional people – Tschirren was further won over by the pub culture and the friendly locals eager to chat to strangers over a pint. That wouldn’t happen in Switzerland, according to Tschirren, since “people are really reserved. If you don’t know the person, you don’t go to them and speak.” He returned home with a newfound passion for Scotland, stoked further by Braveheart’s 1995 arrival in cinemas.
Wind forward several years and many more trips to Scotland, and Tschirren convinced his friends to help him create a Highland Games in their hometown of Abtwil. They hoped around 800 people would show up to the first one in 2009, but they got 5,500.
“We only had one grill, one beer stand. For the parking we had nothing organised,” he said.
They learned quickly, and the second edition two years later was much more professional. A decade later, this year’s edition of the biennial Appowila Highland Games, which ran from 30 August to 1 September, attracted 13,000 visitors, with competitors coming from all over Switzerland – and even Germany – to show off their skills in “stoneput” (like shotput but with a heavy stone), hammer throw, weight over the bar and other traditional disciplines. Clearly, Tschirren isn’t the only Swiss person to appreciate Scottish culture.
Nikki Zünd, a Scot who married a Swiss and settled in Switzerland many years ago, feels there are certain similarities that give the two nations an affinity for one other. She joined the Appowila Association out of nostalgia for her home country and, when we spoke, was about to help run the caber-tossing competition. “Switzerland is also a small country with a big neighbour,” she said, a nod to the proudly neutral nation’s geographical location next to EU heavyweights, France and Germany. “And I think both countries like their traditions.”
This part of eastern Switzerland also shares the Scots’ dry sense of humour, she said, which was certainly necessary two years ago when it rained during much of the Games. “We made a playlist of songs with rain in them and the judges were out there in the field doing a Singin’ in the Rain dance,” Zünd said.
Thankfully it was dry and hot this year, making it a much more convivial, if less traditionally Scottish, experience for spectators. I joined them at the competition field to watch “clans” of locals compete in caber-tossing. The emphasis was on fun; one clan was a stag group with the groom-to-be wearing a mankini under his kilt.
Finally, it was left to the “professionals” to demonstrate how it should be done. Appowila wasn’t, in fact, the first Highland Games in Switzerland, but it has certainly contributed to their growing popularity in the country over the past decade, so much so that Switzerland now has Highland Games leagues for both men and women, with competitors touring a handful of events around the country. Watching these seasoned pros throw a 9kg stone or toss a 5m-long caber was a truly impressive sight. One man of imposing stature hurled a 25kg weight over a 4.6m high bar with the nonchalance of throwing a stick to a dog.
As I watched, it struck me how similar these Scottish games are to Switzerland’s own traditions based on physical brawn. There’s Swiss wrestling – called Schwingen – whose top competitors are real stars in the country; and stone throwing, epitomised by the Unspunnen Festival, where participants throw stones weighing up to 83.5kg. It’s hardly surprising the Swiss would enjoy the Scottish equivalents.
Switzerland also has a penchant for pipes and drums, evident in the Guggenmusik marching bands that feature in every carnival around the country each spring, so it’s easy to see why bagpipes would also appeal to the Swiss. As I watched three invited Scottish judges rate bagpipe bands from all over Switzerland and Germany on their attire, discipline and playing, it didn’t seem so incongruous after all.
What’s different, according to Tschirren, is that Scotland has a longer tradition of celebrating these things. “I really admire how the Scots celebrate their culture and history,” he said. “It’s coming back in Switzerland, but 20 years ago our traditions were not so popular.”
As the competitions came to an end, I explored the rest of the festival. In the medieval market, I found a local man sewing kilts from Scottish tartans and a Swiss woman selling bespoke handmade sporrans. Elsewhere, kids were tossing mini cabers in the children’s Highland Games; adults were trying their hand at axe throwing; and the temporary “pub” called The Last Drop was packed with people drinking Scotland’s Brewdog beer and dancing to a band playing Celtic tunes.
Elements of Swissness seeped in: a stall grilling Bratwurst, a Swiss festival staple, which seemed as popular as those selling haggis and fish and chips; while the buses taking people to and from the festival ran with expected efficiency, albeit with Scottish flags fluttering from their antennae.
But there remained one last test of Scottishness. Was Tschirren wearing anything under his kilt? “Yes,” he said, a glint in his eyes, “Socks and shoes.”
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