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Let the Games Begin

When I think of Scotland I think of four things (not necessarily in this order) Scotch Whiskey, Bagpipes, Kilts and that gorgeous opening sequence from the movie Braveheart of the Scottish Highlands (and no—I am NOT a big golfer). You may have your own favorite thoughts of Scotland, like the Bay City Rollers or the movie So I Married an Axe Murder; “We have a piper down!!! You may have also seen the newest Pixar movie Brave over the summer. All things (well most things) Scotland, with the exception of the views of the Highlands and the Loch Ness Monster, can be enjoyed at the 147th annual Scottish Highland Games over the Labor Day weekend on September 1st and 2nd at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton. In fact artists from Pixar visited the games last year to help them in their preparation and artwork for their movie Brave. Unfortunately I have never had the chance to visit Scotland and perhaps you have not either, so this might be a perfect time to soak in some of the culture, sights, sounds and food for all of us living along the San Francisco Bay Area.

My first thought, I have to admit, when exploring these games was; “has it really been going on for 147 years?” and I discovered that yes it has! The Caledonian Club of San Francisco put on the first games in 1866 (the year after the civil war ended) in San Francisco in a field at the corner of 12th and Market, along with a picnic for its members on Thanksgiving Day – 5 days after the club was formed by the 17 original members. The Caledonian Club, if you are unfamiliar, of course is a Scottish Heritage Club along the lines of the Sons of Italy. The second year it was held over 4,000 people showed up and the rest shall we say is history. Even the 1906 earthquake that decimated the city, the great depression or two World Wars could not stop the Clans from gathering. Today the games and pageantry are much larger than their humble roots – well over 25,000 people come out to enjoy the weekend’s events and it is considered one of the largest games in the world. The “Games” themselves have a long and rich history that is hard to pinpoint the exact start of them but many look back as far as the 11th century. So, now then – what exactly are the “Games” and what should you, gentle reader, expect to see there? While there are many attractions to see and experience there (the whiskey tasting is holding a certain appeal for me) the main highlights of the game are the piping and drumming bands, the Scottish Highland dancing and of course the heavy athletics.

The pipe bands and traditional Scottish Highland dancers should hold some familiarity with many of you. At the games there will be competitions in both of these areas. Almost 30 pipe bands competed last year and there were literally dozens of dancers competing. The competition in both of these will be stiff as the participants travel from near and far and are well seasoned. They will compete in these games as well as others across the county for not only prestige and honor but for prize money as well. Some of those performing will be the best in the world and it will be a unique opportunity to watch them perform live and together – more on that later.

The heavy athletics have many similarities to our modern day track and field events. The events that comprise the athletics are: Putting the Stone, Weight for Distance, Scottish Hammer, Weight for Height and Tossing the Caber. These are world class athletes that compete and they travel from around the world to participate. They compete in each of the games and the combined score over the two days determines the winner. Putting the Stone and the Hammer Toss are very similar to their modern day track and field counterparts. The Weight for Distance and Height also involve tossing heavy objects but, as their name implies, one is for distance and one for height. While all of the games are physically challenging the tossing of the Caber is one of the most challenging as well as visually interesting – after all they are tossing what will look like to many as a telephone pole! The Caber itself is a tree trunk that is almost 20 feet in length and weighs in about 175 pounds. The object of the Caber toss is not one of pure brute strength but rather finesse as one has to get the end of the pole the farthest distance but do so by having it first land and then tip over. It is also judged on if it turned full over during the toss and the angle during the toss as well. Therefore the trick in the toss (as if there could be a trick in tossing a 175 pound pole) is to get it to land and then fall forward or away from the person who tossed it. The pole is quite likely to fall either backwards or to the side which would make for a less than ideal throw. The games include both men and women, both young and old and in a variety of classes organized by age, sex and skill level. One could spend their entire time on just these three “main” attractions but they would be missing most of the event!!

So, what else should you expect to see at the games? Lots!! There are sheep dog trials, Clydesdale horses, birds of prey, traditional as well as modern Scottish musicians, rugby, soccer, Scottish “Shinty” games, arts and crafts for sale, Scottish foods and the list goes on and on. They even have a “Haggis” Toss and if you don’t know what Haggis is, well that might be for the best. There will be those dressed in medieval Scottish attire as well in a sort of Renaissance festival experience. All of this is really not something to be taken in one day but experienced over the entire weekend. Before and after the event as well there are other “special events” that you can partake in starting on Friday night with a concert held at the Marriott in San Ramon. On Saturday evening after the event “closes” down for the evening another free concert takes place at the fairgrounds. There is so much going on and to take in that families plan their vacation around this event each year so that they can enjoy all the pageantry of the entire games.

You though, as was I, may be unsure if you could devote the entire weekend to the games and you may be wondering what should not be missed there. Well wonder no more my friends because it is the closing ceremony each evening. The closing ceremony is simply not the lowering of a flag and a few tunes by a solo piper but an extravaganza of music and dance that starts at 3:45 sharp on both Saturday and Sunday and lasts until the bands march off at 6:30 – almost 3 hours later! This is a tremendous display that features ALL of the pipe bands playing together, the Scottish Dancers as well as the United States Marine Corp Band out of San Diego. Watching the 25 plus pipe bands as well as the Marine Corps Band playing Amazing Grace together should bring a tear to anyone’s eye. This is more like a parade with the bands marching in and out along the horse track in full view of the grandstands. Local Happenings plans to be at the games this year and we will be posting a video of the closing ceremonies and other events from the games so that you can relive it or experience it for the first time on our web site.

If you do make it down this year the gates will open each day at 9:00 a.m. and the event ends when the final pipe band marches off from the closing ceremony at 6:30 each night (don’t forget about the free concert that takes place on Saturday night though). Tickets are $20 for an adult one day and $27 for a two day at the gate – if you get them early and online (http://www.thescottishgames.com) they are only $15 and $22. Seniors, children 11-17 and handicap tickets are only $12 at the gate or $10 online. Children 11 and younger as well as military with ID are FREE – who can beat that? Make sure to pack the camera, sunscreen, the kids and your best Scottish accent and enjoy this wonderful event.

Not able to make it over Labor Day this year to these historic games but still which to channel your inner Braveheart? Well do not fret my friends because there are several of these festivals here in our Golden State (though the Pleasanton Games is one of the largest in the world). Who would have thought that there was this many Scots here? There are two smaller games that are upcoming:

The Highland Gathering and Games in Fresno, September 15th at Kearney Park

The Dixon Scottish Games, September 29th at the Dixon May Fairgrounds

Here are some that have past to keep in mind for next year:

The Monterey Games takes place each July at the Monterey Fairgrounds

The Modesto Games takes place in June at the Tuolumne River Park

The Loch Lomand Highland Games also takes place in June at the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds

The Sacramento Valley Scottish Games and Festival takes place in April at the Yolo County Fairgrounds

The Tartan Day Family Gathering in Fremont also takes place in April at the Ardenwood Historic Farm

The Kern County Scottish Highland Games also takes place in April at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield

Games also take place in San Diego (June), Ventura (October) and Costa Mesa (May).

Robert Briseño – Is a father of three little ones who finds constant joy when they dance & sing but not so much when they throw things…maybe they will be tossing the caber one day.