Kick up your heels | August 30, 2013 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - August 30, 2013

Kick up your heels

Enjoy the 148th Scottish Highland Gathering & Games in Pleasanton this weekend

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli

Labor Day weekend in Pleasanton means more than the end of the summer. It's when the city goes Scottish, from bagpipes to dancers to athletes, a time to wear kilts and eat meat pies.

The Caledonian Club of San Francisco is presenting its Scottish Highland Gathering & Games for the 148th year, and it is at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton for the 20th time. In Scotland, gathering and games events can be traced back more than a thousand years.

"Historians believe that some of the Heavy Events originated during Druid times," states the San Francisco Caledonian Club website. "Heavy Events began as tests of strength and conditioning for Scottish troops. A tree trunk would be made into a caber and tossed by the strongest military men. Smooth rocks from river beds would be heaved for distance."

These feats of strength can be seen this weekend from the Pleasanton grandstand, which has often witnessed world records broken in both the men's and women's divisions.

"The first historical references to the Heavy Events were during the reign of King Malcolm III (1057-1093). The Ceres Games of Fife, Scotland, are considered the oldest, continuous Highland Games, beginning in 1314," according to the website.

There were interruptions in the continuity, however, when the English government passed the Act of Proscription, which from 1746-82 banned all Scottish culture, including wearing kilts and playing bagpipes. The Ceres Games of Fife were not held during the two world wars either.

The San Francisco Caledonian Club was founded in 1866, which that same year held its first Gathering & Games, really a family picnic with athletic contests, in a field at 12th and Market streets on Thanksgiving Day. The event has been held every year since, including in 1906 when the city was recovering from the April earthquake, during the Depression and even during the two world wars.

"I imagine they had what we call the Masters, the old athletes," conjectured Floyd Busby, who has published the program for the games since the 1980s.

The athletes and even the dancers were all men in the beginning but more and more women began to take part in the Highland Dancing, as well as in piping and drumming competitions. Shannon Hartnett of Sausalito convinced Heavy Events organizers to allow women to compete, and she has been the U.S. Women's Heavy Events Champion ever since.

The Gathering & Games moved to Petaluma after World War II, then Santa Rosa, before coming to Pleasanton in 1994, where it has been since.

"We were outgrowing the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa," recalled Busby, "and the manager of the fairgrounds was making demands."

He and past Chief David Scott began looking at other venues, including Golden Gate Park, but the Alameda County Fairgrounds seemed to have it all.

"This is better, at the crossroads of two freeways," Busby said. "We much prefer it here."

Pleasanton residents support the Gathering & Games, which draws more than 30,000 people during the two days, he noted.

"A survey was done on attendance, and it's predominantly local," he said.

Last year attendance was up 23%, and Busby said that boost was attributed to the release in June 2012 of the Disney/Pixar movie, "Brave," an animated film about the spirited young Merida, who is skilled with a bow and arrow. Archery at the games, which has an extra charge, also was popular following the release of "Brave."

Busby said that he and other Caledonians go to about 20 events throughout the Bay Area to promote the Gathering & Games, including First Wednesday Street Parties. They emphasize that the event is for the whole family.

"The Pleasanton Games is more than a cultural event for Scottish people; the games are an event for the whole family, regardless of one's roots," said Scottish Games Manager and Chief George McCombe. "Nearly everyone in the U.S. has a drop of Scottish or Irish blood in them, and it can be fully recognized at this event."

This year starts the official march to the Gathering & Games' 150th Sesquicentennial Year, which will be in 2015. Twenty-nine pipe bands from the U.S. and Canada will be in competition, and the famed LA Scots Grade I Pipe Band will perform in a special program.

The 39th U.S. Invitational Heavy Events Championship will include World Champion Matt Vincent of Baton Rouge, La., as well as other world class pro athletes from the U.S., Scotland, England and Canada. In the amateur classes, more than 70 top invited athletes from five countries and 12 states are participating.

The Western States U.S. Open Highland Dancing Championships takes place in the amphitheater with the young dancers performing noted jigs such as the Highland Fling, the Sailor's Hornpipe and the Earl of Erroll.

Four stages will have continuous entertainment ranging from a traditional troubadour singing ballads while strumming a guitar to a trio with beautiful harmony and uplifting music.

Celtic rock groups include Pleasanton regulars Tempest, Scotland's Tribal favorite Albannach and Molly's Revenge as well as a new Celtic rock group called Celtica, which has three members from Austria, one American and two Great Highland Bagpipers from Scotland.

"They shoot fire out of their guitars -- but I have a feeling they won't be allowed to here," Busby said with a laugh.

The Edinburgh Stage will present the Browne Sisters with George Cavanaugh and soloist Peter Daldry. The Glen Stage will showcase traditional Celtic music by the Golden Bough trio and troubadour Neil O'Neill's Scottish tenor.

Celtic Heritage also will have a variety of music on two stages, with fiddlers, Scottish Country Dancing and singing in the ancient Gaelic language.

Other activities are as follows:

* Living History, which takes one back in time to the mid 1500s when Mary Queen of Scots reigned. Members of the St. Andrew's Noble Order of Royal Scots and the Royal Scots Renaissance Faire Guild will recount the customs, dress and culture of the period. There will also be the encampment of the Vikings, highland warriors, craftsmen, archery and swordsmanship.

* The Sheep Dog Trials have professionally trained border collies and their handlers herding sheep into compounds by way of signals between handler and animal, presented by the Northern California Working Sheepdog Association.

* The Birds of Prey area is always open for viewing. At 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m., handlers take the stage with their bird for an informative presentation.

* Glen of the Clans will help those with a bit of Scotch find out more about their heritage.

* Five-A-Side Soccer is an eight-team semi-pro tournament with five-man teams from California and Nevada.

* Rugby and Shinty, an ancient sport from Scotland, very much like field hockey.

* Children's Glen for the wee ones.

* Kilted Mile. Both days, at 10:45 a.m., don a kilt and run the mile horse race track for cash prizes, at the grandstand.

* British Motor Cars and Motorcycles. A 1937 Rolls Royce brings the Chief of the Caledonian Club of San Francisco and his guests to the opening and closing ceremonies.

* More than 100 vendors in five air-conditioned buildings, most representing something British in nature, imported from Scotland, England, Ireland or Wales.

* Food vendors offer meat pies, bangers, Scotch eggs, haggis and an import ale or two.

* "Whisky Live at the Games" offers samples of the best of the best. Also a Whisky Master Class for the true Scotch aficionado. Extra charge.

Puttin' on the plaid

What: 148th Scottish Highland Gathering & Games

When: Aug. 31 and Sept. 1

Where: Alameda County Fairgrounds

Hours: Gates open 8 a.m. Athletics begin 8:30 a.m. Other activities begin 10 a.m. Close 6:30 p.m.

Opening ceremonies: In front of the main grandstands beginning at 12:30 p.m. both days

Grandstand show: Massed Pipe Bands in concert, Western States Drum Major Finals, and more at 3:45 p.m. both days.

Information: or call 1-888-769-2345


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