Each Labor Day weekend, tartan and kilted-clad folks descend on the Alameda County Fairgrounds for the annual Scottish Highland Gathering and Games. Labor Day 2019 marked the 154th year of celebrating Scottish heritage in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Caledonian Club of San Francisco has continuously run the annual games since its founding on November 24, 1866. From their humble beginnings as a picnic with a few athletic events, the games have marched through the years with never a break. Two world wars and the 1906 earthquake could not stop the dedication of the club to celebrate their heritage. The Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, California, has been the home of the games since 1994. It is one of the largest ethnic festivals in the United States.
My grandson Jackson and I began our visit soaring above the crowds on the sky ride to get our bearings and catch a glimpse of the festival from a birds-eye view.
Colorful canopies and chairs lined the area where the pipe bands gathered for practice ahead of their competitions.
The concentration of 30 or more bands created a cacophony of sound that was actually more soothing than expected. The addition of drums that accompanied the pipes sent vibrations through my chest, stirring memories of standing on the curb watching parade marching bands pass by.
Food vendors offered American and Scottish dishes as well as the typical festival fare like funnel cakes, kettle korn, beignets, and waffles. Fancy a bit of alcohol? Step right up to the World of Beer stand, grab a pint of Guinness, or enjoy a sampling of some of the finest scotches, bourbons and whiskeys.
I opted for a Shepherd’s Pie for my lunch. Jackson ordered Teriyaki chicken. After a few bites he said he couldn’t eat any more Asian-type food, so he fed his meal to the trash can instead of his tummy. Maybe he was still full from the french toast at breakfast.
It was overwhelming to look at the schedule and choose which activities to take in so I let Jackson lead the way. Our first stop was the Living History section. We sat in on a presentation by Mead and Meadow Crafters Guild where we learned about the plants and herbs that treat itching, migraines, and fever; how the lowly snail helps reduce scars while healing and that sphagnum moss is a natural antibiotic that can be used to pack wounds.
Other groups demonstrated different weapons used to either protect the queen and her entourage or guard against invading marauders.
This fellow demonstrated using a chain like a whip. I never knew a chain could mack a sound like a whip until the man swirled the chain around and around over his head and snapped it so hard it made a loud crack. Imagine the ripping of flesh as the chain slices through an arm, a leg, or a face. Yikes! Grab me some sphagnum moss to mop up the blood.
One group gave lessons on sword fighting and another group offered archery lessons, for extra fees, of course. We found a shady spot to watch the sword-fighting lessons for a bit.
Then we ventured over to the Sheep Dog Trials. We both found it fascinating to watch how the handler and the dog worked together to corral the sheep. Most of the time the three sheep stuck together like Velcro, but occasionally one of them would go rogue and rush back to the safety of her pen, her 60 other friends, and food.
Jackson takes a break under the misting canopy.
Mary Queen of Scots was in attendance with her entourage, brought to you by St. Andrew’s Noble Order of Royal Scots along with a group of nobles, the Royal Scots, stating their allegiance to the Queen. They also take strolls through the grounds throughout the day.
When the sun and heat reached a level that was too hot for comfort, visitors moseyed on over to one of the 6 stages where live bands played traditional and Celtic music, inviting guests to dance.
Highland dancing was another favorite of visitors. Oh, my. Such energy they had as they stomped their feet in complicated steps and swung their partners around in a circle, all while belting out the words of a song.
The Gathering of the Clans was another place for visitors to keep cool and learn about their Scottish heritage at one of the 100 booths. The shady walnut trees provided plenty of respite from the sun.
While walking to the Gathering of the Clans booths, one must stop and gawk at the British automobiles.
Although not a large collection of vehicles, I found the Morgan +4 and its baby of interest. The Morgan Motor Company began operations in 1909 and still makes the +4 today along with three other models.
The three-wheeler in the following photo was also produced by the Morgan Motor Company from 1932 to 1952. A new model is also in production.
Another alternative to cooling off is to explore the commercial buildings where all manner of Scottish goods are available for sale.
Need an outfit to wear? The selection ranges from the fancy dresses for royals to everyday wear for the merchants and servants. Wool kilts, sweaters, scarves and all the paraphernalia that goes along with the costume. Or maybe pirate attire is more to your liking. Craving shortbread cookies for that taste of the old country? Vendors had plenty of choices to select from.
And what would a gathering and games be without the games? Weight for distance consisted of 14, 28, 42, or 56-pound metal ball at the end of a ring and chain with the goal of flinging it the farthest.
Putting the stone is similar to American shot put events. Men use a stone that weighs 26.6 pounds while women use a 16-pound stone.
Eight teams competed this year in the five-a-side soccer event.
Other athletic events included weight for height, the Scottish hammer, and tossing the caber. Highland dancing competitions were also held.
The Scottish Gathering and Games truly has something for everyone from young to old no matter their passions or ancestry. For a fun time, visit a Scottish Gathering and Games near you.