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8 Things I Hallucinated at the Scottish Highland Games

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Photography & Story By Vita Hewitt

The 156th Scottish Highland Gathering and Games happened at the Alameda County Fairgrounds (Pleasanton, CA) on September 3rd and 4th. As there was a mind-altering heat wave occurring, I thought that it would be a good idea to visit. This is a lovely festival if you are Scottish, adore whiskey, or simply want to enjoy people in kilts yelling things that you don’t quite comprehend. I am of course, speaking as an outsider. There are a lot of people who are “in the know” and have been visiting every year of their lives with their families. They are mostly friendly and are more than willing to let you in on some of their kilt-y secrets.

Athletes from Scotland, Belgium, Holland, Canada, Czech Republic and the United States competed in eight heavyweight events.

The Games and Gathering happen over the course of two days but I was only able to visit on Saturday. It ranges all over the fairgrounds and you will quickly see that even if you aren’t Scottish you will most definitely find something to delight and enthrall you. Here are eight things that I observed.

The largest group of humans in kilts I’ve ever seen ran by

You simply must arrive early for the Kilted Mile. This is the only kilted running event in California and should not be missed. It happens at 10:00 am each day of the games. It is open to everyone as long as you are wearing a kilt. It’s good to start the Games surrounded by a sweaty, mass of people who are terrifyingly fit. You can get a solid hit from their post-work-out endorphins. I’m pretty sure it covers your own fitness needs for the day.

Bagpipers will find you everywhere

From the main stages where bands like Albannach and Celtica will encircle you with their happy, war-like music to families practicing their drumbeats on the tables, you cannot escape it. There was a point where there was a group of bagpipers in every direction I turned. I still don’t know if this is one of the best or worst things to ever happen to me.

In total there were 22 bagpipe bands including a guest band from Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Division E Pipe Band,  and the First Marine Division Band.

The Highland Fling was not what I imagined

If you have ever wondered what a Highland Fling is, this is your chance to find out. Please note, it might not be what you imagine. It was a bitter pill to swallow to realize that it did not include anyone named Jamie. In other news, the sword dance was fantastic.

Everyone needs to stare down an owl in the daylight at some point.

The Birds of Prey Exhibition, presented by volunteer California falconers was full to the brim of people admiring raptors. Falconry was practiced in Scotland for thousands of years. The California Falconers work to promote conservation of birds of prey through falconry. If you have ever harbored a secret wish to bond with lovely, large birds, this is your chance.

Whiskey will aid you

Whiskey tasting happens twice a day and tickets must be purchased in addition to your general admission. It is an informative experience. This is a great place to smell the whisky in its special glass, observe it and add water drop by drop so that you have an excuse to keep sniffing it. At some point, you can drink it and nod knowingly to the person next to you. It is a glorious bonding experience for all.

There were women running around with telephone poles

“We are delighted to be hosting the 2022 Men’s Professional Scottish Highland Games Heavy Events World Championships, as well as introducing a new Women’s Elite Class of competition,” comments Rob Tysinger, Chief of the Caledonian Club of San Francisco.

The women’s caber toss made me want to take up a new hobby. These friendly ladies assured me that you can begin at any age. It is pretty awe-inspiring to watch women run with, and then throw, the equivalent of a small telephone pole into the air. I learned that the caber needs to fall away from the tosser in the 12:00 position. Honestly, I think that the crowd cheered equally hard each and every time a caber was tossed. It’s that impressive.

Really strong men threw heavy handbags

The men’s Sheaf Toss also was cause for applause. It’s a traditional Scottish agricultural sport where each competitor throws a weight (they look a little like a lady’s handbag) over an increasingly raised, horizontal bar above their head. I was impressed with the heights the competitors were able to throw their weights. I was also amazed at how many people train all year to do this. It takes a lot of dedication.

I was shouted at and bladed things were wielded, yet everyone smiled

Is a festival really a festival without people in costume running around in fancy formations? These people with their impressive bladed weaponry are the Scottish Halberdiers based in Sacramento California. There was much delightful yelling, halberds glinting in the sun, dirks waving, and all in unison. They knew what they were doing and that was enough for me. An added bonus to this are the people in ornate costumes who watch and criticize the hard-working Halberdiers. It is its own traveling dramatic ecosystem, like a Portuguese man of war, but less deadly.

Don’t miss the 157th Scottish Highland Gathering and Games, coming Labor Day weekend 2023…

Website: thescottishgames.com

Facebook: TheScottishGames

Sports: scottishheavyathleticsgames.com

Trailer: TheScottishGames/videos/


Check out more Vita Hewitt Photography on her Instagram here.


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