Each year during spring and summer, you can find clans gathering to celebrate their heritage through a variety of cultural events. Scottish highland games have become synonymous with Scottish and Celtic culture. It’s true that the largest games still take place in Scotland, but the Bay Area is host to the largest highland games in the Northern Hemisphere, the Scottish Highland Gathering and Games in nearby Pleasanton, Labor Day Weekend, September 3 & 4.
The Caledonian Club of San Francisco has been hosting the games since 1866, which is held every Labor Day at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton. The two-day festival was started over 150 years ago to keep Scottish traditions and games alive. While the games have become emblematic of kilts and heavy athletics, there are actually a large variety of activities for everyone to enjoy whether you can trace your ancestry to a Scottish clan or not.
It’s true that highland games would not be complete without traditional games. Sometimes referred to as “heavy games,” the events include the caber toss (a long pole that has to be lifted and tossed end over end), and the stone put, which is like the shot put but done with a large stone. These and other field events test competitors’ strength and skill. Not limited just to the men, each event has a class for women, which is just as exciting to watch.
Music, including bagpipes, is also an important part of the games. Piping and drumming competitions include drumming and solo and piping bands. At the close of each day all the pipers and bands gather in front of the grandstand in the massed band show. This is a chance to see more than 700 pipers and drummers marching in formation and playing traditional piping tunes. Highly recommended. In addition to bagpipers there are numerous venues throughout the fairground hosting a variety of Celtic bands.
My personal favorite is the sheep dog trials. This is a wonderful chance to see highly trained border collies doing what they love to do—herd sheep. Owners and their dogs test their ability to communicate their way through a set of tasks that involves herding several sheep through obstacles and into a pen. In addition to the dogs, there are exhibits for falconry, highland cattle, and an area for Scottish living history.
For the true fan of Scottish culture, there’s also an event here in Solano County: the 16th annual Dixon Scottish Highland Games & Gathering. Although the Dixon event is smaller, there are many activities planned including athletic competitions, music, dancing, food, exhibits and more, from 9am to 5pm, Saturday, September 24.
If you are of Scottish descent, you will enjoy learning about Scottish clans and traditions. If you are not, you will have a great time learning about the many interesting aspect of Scottish culture—and besides, it’s the perfect opportunity to wear that kilt that you always wanted to wear.