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Issue 67 - All the Fun of the Games

Scotland Magazine Issue 67
February 2013

 

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All the Fun of the Games

Liza Weisstuch packs her kilt and bagpipes and heads to the Highland games in California

The residents in the neighbourhood bordering the Alameda County Fair Grounds in northern California could be forgiven if they thought there was a tremendous emergency late last August. The hundreds of bagpipes that sounded throughout the two days of the epic Scottish Highland Games and Gathering could easily be mistaken for sirens by an unknowing bystander.

The annual festival drew 30,000 attendees. That’s a dramatic increase from when the Caledonian Club of San Francisco moved its event to the expansive location in 1994. They distributed 400 promotional flyers that year. Before long, they were handing out 120,000 of them. The games are part of a 147 year old Celtic tradition. The California version started as a casual family picnic style affair. Today it draws dozens of clans who set up tents in perfect formation to help clan members, long active and newly discovering, learn more about their lineage and heritage. Elsewhere on the fairgrounds are musicians, competitive dancers, caber tossers, artists, ethnic food vendors, elaborately costumed historical re-enactment practitioners, and energised guests too worried to even blink for fear they’ll miss something.

As a first timer, I was among those strolling the grounds in sensory overdrive. Of course, there was Whisky Magazine’s Whisky Live, a downsized version of its urban whisky festival, set up in a high-ceilinged gymnasium that became extremely congested when the Irish Pipers of San Francisco dropped in for a exhilarating few numbers. Children were hoisted on parents’ shoulders, a hootenanny ensued.

Fortified by a few drams, I headed outside. I was torn: head under the bright yellow tent to see what the animal squawking was all about? Go in the direction of one of a nearby stage to where high energy, punk-steeped folk fiddle tunes were blasting? Or follow my nose to the savoury aromas floating out of a red tent with a minimalist sign that simply announced “Heritage Pies?” The line to that stand stretched out for nearly two city blocks, so I wandered to the stage to catch Molly’s Revenge. Think: the Pogues, with a vengeance.

Back at the animal pavilion, young children, some in Renaissance period costume, stood rapt while their Renaissance period costume-clad parents tapped away on iPhones. Shadow, an Arctic Falcon, was perched on Jana Barkley’s arm like an accessory. She coddled the regal creature. Another bird, Webster, strutted for the throng. Barkley isn’t only a practitioner for 20 years, she’s also a falconeering historian.

“It’s a hunting sport. It’s about 10,000 years old, based on tablets found in Sumerian. In the Chinese tradition it’s about 5,000 years old,” she expounded. “Falconry is about feeding your family. Before there was gunpowder, people had to feed their family. It was easier to eat game than rodents. World War II brought it back to the US. Today there are about 6,000 falconers in North America, 3,000 in the US, 600 in California.”

“Hi, baby girl,” Kate Marden, Barkley’s mentor, cooed to Shadow. Then she addressed me. “Webster is going to fly during the closing ceremony.” Then she addressed Barkley. “He wants to fly, he’s ready to rock and roll. You can tell by his posture.”

The Heritage Pies queue had not diminished. I was tempted to try the grilled corn from the Texas BBQ truck, but an absence of lines suggested it wasn’t worth it. Thus, I took my place in line. The industrious meat pie staff appeared miniature in the distance. That afforded plenty of time to learn about the esoteric art of dressing like a Renaissance hipster from Kirk, my queue-mate. He sported a lush purple Hobbit-era coat. He explained his DIY outfit (“Other than the sword and rings, I made everything”), which involved 80 hours of lacing leather patches together.

Pie acquired, I found a picnic table occupied by Bill Everett and his son Brandon, 18, who he brings each year.

“It’s important to understand your roots. I like it because it hasn’t changed too much. I love the Queen’s pipe and drum band. It’s wonderful to see the connection between the Marines and the pipe bands,” he said, noting the double bill act at the closing ceremony.

But Brandon had other designs.
“I like the cabers. I like watching when they go weight for weight,” he said, waving his Coke into the air. “The year before last is when I got my sword. When I first got it, it was dragging to the ground.

We toasted soft drinks as tartan-clad assemblies of pipers clustered nearby. Now was my opportunity to find out who, exactly, comprised these dozens of American bands. Surely they weren’t all expats.

A teenage Asian boy was sitting off to the side: instrument on the ground, pen in hand, head buried in a book While his gangly friend chatted on the phone with his mother, I introduced myself to Kevin Chang, a high school junior in Los Angeles. He was doing calculus homework.

“It’s Labor Day weekend, and if we get home on Monday and it isn’t done, then we’re done,” he said. If you’ve never thought of a pipe band as a United Nations of musicians, think again.

Little wonder the Highland Games appeal to a student like Kevin, who’s in Advance Placement Calculus, an exacting subject, to be sure.

“I like Scottish games,” he declared. “It takes forever to dress up. You have to stand at attention. Judges look at your outfit, how straight it is, spotless, neat. Last night I went home and ironed for four hours. Cleaned socks, dried socks.

Everything is so detailed!”

They were judged individually against people from all sorts of experience, like San Francisco based Colin Berta, who’s played with Prince Charles’s band. He also has a World Pipe Band Championship title to speak of.

Any multi-day event is an exercise in complex logistics. The orchestrator must be a crack strategist. When I found Alan Purves, a past chief and present chair of the grandstand show, he was sorting final details to help organise the thousands of pipers.

“It’s hard to coordinate the pipe bands and the Marine Band, which came in on midnight on Friday,” he said, explaining his being distracted by text messages. “The two types of bands usually play in different keys. To play together, they had to bring different chanters, the flute that plugs into the airbag.”


His phone rang. “Floyd, it’s a 1949 Bentley. If it shows up, we can put three people in three cars,” he said. Planning was in full force. But then again, it’s always that way.

“We try to balance traditional things that people expect with making it different so people don’t think: why did I come back again?”