Night Crawler

Given the relentless summer heat of Pleasanton, the newly cropped grass outside the Alameda County Fairgrounds seems an unlikely shade of green -- that is, until a few hundred well-placed cars transform the grassy area into a rural parking lot. The crowd that has thronged to the 132nd Annual Scottish Gathering and Games is a resourceful one. In the ticket line that stretches nearly half a mile, a number of stern-looking lads in thick woolen tartans and toorie-topped balmorals (beretlike caps ac-cented with a fuzzy pom-pom, usually worn by members of a marching band) try to keep their cool as some wee muck-raiser sprays them with water from a squirt gun. The young ginger-haired antagonist (not more than 6) giggles and darts out of her brother's reach. Her father -- a pale, barrel-chested man with bright red ears and ill-fitting shorts -- roars, "Catlin Kerr!" The girl zigzags through the crowd until she arrives at the protective thigh of her mother. She rewards herself with a long suck off her water pistol. Her mother spreads a generous glob of sunblock across her shoulders and hums along to the sound of a Scottish strathspey being performed somewhere inside by the San Francisco Scottish Fiddlers.

"A gathering like this," says Bobby Wylie, "can be confusing to an outsider. It's supposed to be a gathering of the clans for the Highland games, right? But the whole affair is run by volunteers, so it kind of looks like anyone can join in." Indeed, the presence of vintage cars, birds of prey, and Ren Faire fanatics seems strange enough -- but add to them the Third Marine Aircraft Wing Band, the Canadian Scottish Regiment, the Gordon Highlanders, and the New York Irish Soldiers Relief Society, and it's as if anyone owning an old gun is instantly Scottish.

"The Scots are a warrior race," says Wylie with a shy smile that looks out of place within the lines of his strong, tanned face. "It's very much a part of our history, right up through the modern age. But we're also good fun." To prove it, Wylie bounds off and offers his passable singing voice to a group of roaming musicians who have stopped beneath a sign that reads: Help Stamp Out Hamburgers -- Eat a British Banger.

As this event has always been sponsored by the Caledonia Club of San Francisco, there are numerous nods to Scotland's ties to Britain. Though the program states emphatically that "[a]lthough politically and economically set in the United Kingdom, Scotland remains a nation in its own right with a distinctive culture," younger, more progressive groups like the Scottish Arts and Cultural Foundation in San Francisco refuse to actively support the Games.

Regarding nationalism, Wylie says, "Oh, I don't know. I'd bust a few heads to see an independent Scotland, but there's no point in pretending that there's no connection [with England]. For now, it's better to just enjoy meeting with your own; better to eat your weight in fish and chips and drink a few pints." Strangely, while there are huge lines for the lemonade stand, the beer carts are largely ignored.

"The caber toss is starting," shouts a youthful friend of Wylie's, running through the crowd toward the athletic fields. A colorful procession of kilt-wearing bagpipers marches past in full blowing glory, on their way to the piping competition.

"Bagpipes didn't come from Scotland," states Wylie, sharing information from a glossy, full-color, 117-page program that had been stuffed in his combat boot. "But [in the 1700s] the English banned 'em, along with kilts and tartan. Said they were instruments of war, signs of Scottish nationalism. They got something right. I'd sure as hell piss myself if I saw a bunch of crazy bagpipers comin' over the top. Psychological warfare, you know."

At the athletic fields, the "Heavy Events" -- which consist of very large athletes tossing very heavy objects (iron sledgehammers, 56-pound weights, and tree trunks) a very long distance -- are in, um, full swing. Events include the "Women's Class" heavy-weight toss (for height), the "Professional Class" heavy-weight toss, the "Amateur A Class" caber (read: large tree trunk) toss, and the "Masters Class" (longtime athletes over 50) caber toss -- all held simultaneously, leaving no time for scorekeeping, much less conversation. Happily, the announcer -- the esteemed David P. Webster, OBE of Irvine, Scotland -- is a fine wit: "We have the best judges that money can buy, the kind that drink straight from the bottle." "I think it would be fair to let the wee guys stand on a box, or at least have the big guys stand in a hole." "Ah, well that was funny. Funny ha-ha, not funny queer."

Though all of the events look excruciating -- and, truth be told, somewhat cumbersome -- the caber toss is by far the most interesting. It is judged not on how far the tree trunk can be heaved, but how plumb it lands -- 12:00 being perfect, 1:00 less so, and so on. This requires not only brute strength but precision, and perhaps -- as demonstrated by the "Masters Class," who often do jigs over their fallen cabers -- a certain amount of humor.

"Dancing competitions are for old codgers," says a grinning Piedmont man named Roy Anderson. "You've got to stick around for the 'Strong Man Walk.' " Not only does Anderson wear a Braveheart T-shirt with pride ("It was a good fuckin' movie"), but he frequently uses "to Braveheart" as a verb (as in "I Bravehearted his ass"). He is not quite drunk, but unlike most people forming the Scottish Games' 400,000-strong crowd, he is diligently working on the problem.

"During the 'Strong Man Walk,' these guys have to carry a 300-pound weight until they drop," gushes Anderson. "It's cool." Piedmont, by the way, is a small residential community in the Oakland Hills that was originally founded by several Scottish families. Curiously, the Andersons were not among them.

By Silke Tudor

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