Brian Robertson…. The misty morning of Vista is beginning to break as the San Diego Scottish Highland Games & Gathering of the Clans opens up for its 43rd Annual Celebration of Scottish Heritage in beautiful Brengle Terrace Park. The early morning bag pipers can be heard practicing as soon as you exit your vehicle acting as a beacon, calling you into the festivities. The white tops of the tents with their clans’ flags proudly presented to the on lookers. Arriving early on opening day to enjoy the brisk, 70-degree morning, taking a leisurely stroll to the competition section to let the games and vendors finish the final setting up and preparations. Through the beer gardens – even for a Scotsman it’s a bit too early for a drink – I was able to catch a glimpse of the Bag Piping & Drumming judging. The pipers slowly marching in place to their singular song while the judges perform their singular task. Just a few feet away another participant performing the same duties, albeit a different song and dance, under another watchful eye. With the quick turns, the high knees, the colorful plaids from the different houses, and the drones of the bagpipe sticking up behind the pipers was very reminiscence of certain birds performing mating calls to the attended recipient. The pipers dancing in place belting out mating calls from the bags bellow trying to woo the judges to “pick me, pick me”. The ages ranges from young to old – as long as you can pick up a bag pipe and play. A little further down the path on the other end are the drummers waiting for their turn to be judged, or to entice. The Solo drumming actually involves a drummer and a piper, though only the drummer is judged on the sound, technical ability, and how well the rhythms provided by the drummer are accompanied by the piper.
Photos by Brian Robertson
Continuing down the faint calls, the yips, and hollers of the dog handlers can be heard. Towards the end of Kiwanis Pavilion near the Jim Porter Parkway Entrance, you can stop and take a rest on the grass in what shade you can find and watch as the dogs tear up and down the sloped course keeping the sheep in as close proximity to each other as possible. Originating in the 1870s in Wales when groups of shepherds would congregate to compare who had the best dogs. The course consists of a 400-yard “gather” in which the sheep are located 400 yards from the handler, who then has to communicate to the dog using a shepherd’s whistle and four basic commands. Even from this distance the pipes are heard as the sheep are herded through and around obstacles, gates, around bushes and trees, and into their pens – hopefully staying within the course and together. The high and low whistles from the handlers mimicked by the low stances and quick bursts of speed by the dogs. The long and short whistles, the yips and hollers from the handlers are like musical mores code; the quick changes of direction, the stopping on a dime, and the flanking of sheep from the dog in response. The whole while the handler is stationed at an assigned spot and cannot leave until the dog and sheep has run the course and the sheep are returned to the pen. It is truly something you need to witness first hand – or paw. Rewarded with a round of applause, treats, and pats on the head as one dog and handler leave, the next contestants get ready and sit patiently as the new flock of sheep is prepared. You can catch the sheep dog trials each day at the Games from opening to late afternoon.
A staple at the Highland Games every year is the Children’s activity area ran by the Boy scouts and the Camp Pendleton Young Marines. The Children’s area features caricatures, face painting, storytelling and even their own ‘kid friendly’ version of the Highland Games like Caber Toss, Hammer Toss, Stone Put, and Sheaf Toss – accompanied with grunting and all! The Children’s area, games and activities are run continuous from 10am to late afternoon each day with storytelling happening twice daily. When in the infield near the vendor area, don’t forget to stop by the Child ID program hosted by the Vista Masonic Lodge.
I feel it’s best to use this morning time to enjoy the beautiful sunny day that we are bestowed with while watching the dogs and to give the food vendors time to prepare for the mid-morning masses. The stroll through the park with the cool breeze on your face, the pipes bellowing in the distance accompanied by the rat-a-tat’s of the drums offering you your very own soundtrack, the faint drifts of aroma starting to waif in from the food court; it truly feels like you are walking amongst the highland moors in an epic movie. Back in the food court, and reality, you have your choice of Fish and Chips, Shrimp, or Chicken & Fries, Corn Dog & Fries for the little ones. You can have a fresh scone, or my personal favorites, the meat pies. Steak and Mushroom, chicken, or lamb, there’s the more traditional Scottish, Shepherds, and Cottage meat pies, or English sausage rolls. And I’m pretty sure I spotted a Turkey Leg cooking, but I think I was a bit early for that. Whatever your flavor may be, it will always be accompanied by the soothing sounds of Celtic music from the Main Beer Garden with the Highland Way leading the Beer Pavilion Stage and their cover of “I would walk 500 miles” – though I don’t believe you will be walking that much when you go. Alternating on the Pavilion Stage is a group that is new to the Games this year, and a new personal favorite, The Angry Brians. Celtic rock never sounded or looked so good.
Down on the fields the Athletic Games are starting to take off after the safety and pep talks. These aren’t your kids’ games. These games are continuous each day from opening to late after with competitions in varies traditional games that most modern Olympic games are based off of. The loud grunts and clanking of chains, thumps and thuds of dirt juxtaposed with the rock music from the beer gardens puts a new spin on heavy metal. There’s the Hammer Throw, Stone Put – which was reminiscent of the men tossing an extremely heavy football back and forth to each other – Weight Throw, Weight over Bar, Sheaf Toss (A bundle of straw wrapped in a burlap bag), and as always the Caber Toss. Both male and female compete in heavy weight and light weight divisions. Surrounding the Athletic Games are the vendors where you can get your Scottish Games souvenirs, find the history of your family surname, coat of arms, and the history of your people, purchase kilts, scarfs, and other assorted clothing in your family’s tartan. A favorite and regular spot, Bit O Britain – which I have ran across each and every year at the Games – carries traditional British foods and goods; though I don’t think haggis in a can is traditional. There are numerous venders and artisans ranging from jewelry, music, wood-working, and even custom kilt making. The clan tents take up the second half of the infield with their flags flying high in the breeze, with a different type of Highland Game that even you can play, find your Clan’s tent. Stop in and catch up with your ancestral family or read up on your family’s motto, they are welcoming all the same.
Down alternating on the hour on the Main Stage, between the vendors and the clansmen, Molly’s Revenge performs to an early morning crowd. If you haven’t worn yourself out from dancing, stay and listen to the traditional Gaelic music of Blackwaterside. And what Highland Games would be complete without the Highland Dancing competition where children and young adults compete. Many more competitions and activities are held throughout the two days the games are on. Those that are over 21 can attend the Educational Seminar and Tasting “Single Malt Whisky” hosted by Speyburn Whiskies. There is even a Beard Competition for Adults & Children. Children can pick up supplies – though I didn’t want to ask what – at Information Booth. There’s a Genealogy Seminar, and even a Scottish Country Dancing Demonstration. If you are a Scotsman (or woman), or always wanted to be one, I highly recommend attending the Highland Games next year for their 44th Celebration, I know I will. But if you can’t seem to make it to the Games, there is always the annual Scotsman’s Ball on March 4, 2017 – so go ahead and set your calendars now.