Scot to Be Interesting

The grace and power of the Scottish Highland Games, and the dangerous joy of Scooter Polo

"I come for the games and stay for the ladies!" bellows Denlow Hunter, a dauntingly large 42-year-old Monte Sereno resident who's wearing the steely gray-blue kilt and mantle of his clan. He pulls a small flask from his goatskin pouch and offers me a draft from the "water of life."

"It's just whiskey," explains Hunter's companion, 38-year-old Greg Keith, who clothes his slender, diminutive frame in the garb of a modern-day Scotsman -- jeans and a faded T-shirt. ("I think my clan tartan is sort of light blue and light green," admits Hunter, "but you won't catch me parading my knobby knees in a kilt.")

"Just whiskey?!" roars Hunter. "Justwhiskey? You churlish troglodyte! There's always been something terribly wrong with you, and now I know." Hunter draws a dirk from a plain leather scabbard at his waist and waves the single-edged blade with intent.

Polo, by the Muni line.
Jillian Northrup
Polo, by the Muni line.

Completely ignoring the ersatz aggression, Keith takes the opportunity to explain Hunter's "fanatical" devotion to his lineage. "Denlow carved that pommel himself," says Keith, referring to the beautiful knotwork on the handle of the heavy blade being brandished a few inches from his chest. "He's really into this whole Scottish thing."

"[Keith's] clan motto is "Truth conquers,'" says Hunter conspiratorially, "but don't you believe him."

Hunter throws his arm around Keith's shoulder, and the unlikely duo disappears down a shaded road on the Dunsmuir Historic Estate. The sound of laughter and the distinctive drone of bagpipes mingle in the emerald light as the Gordon Highlanders "Bydand Forever,"a historical re-enactment organization that replicates the uniforms (down to the .577-450 Martini-Henry rifles) and manners of the First Battalion, which led the charge across the Egyptian desert into the Battle of Tel-El-Kebir in 1882, marches past with stern faces and silly helmets.

The Dunsmuir Estate has been the ideal setting for Oakland's annual Scottish Highland Gamessince 1974, and not simply for its rolling fields, tree-lined lanes, and beautifully composed pond and bridges. Alexander Dunsmuir, heir to the enormous Dunsmuir coal-mining fortune, was son of the Hon. Robert Dunsmuir, an Ayrshire miner descended from a family of Scottish coal masters, who came to the American continent and made good.

"Ceud mile failte do Dunsmuir!" ("One hundred thousand welcomes to Dunsmuir!") might still echo through the halls of the elegant, white-columned mansion had not Alexander Dunsmuir died on the night of his honeymoon, just after the building's completion in 1899. The estate is now run by the nonprofit Dunsmuir House and Gardens Inc., and the Highland Games provide a more than adequate introduction to Scottish ways.

In the makeshift village surrounding the pond (where swans and ducks lounge year round), clans have set up canvas tents under the trees. Maps, crests, tartans, and weapons from Macleod, Mackenzie, Gunn, Macpherson, and the like are lovingly displayed on rugs overseen by clan members not currently carousing with their fellow Scotsmen.

"Failte! Failte!" come the calls from family members long bored of their posts.

"The men are at the games," says a Macdougalwoman looking terribly hot in her floor-length green-and-red tartan wool skirt and velvet vest. "They'll be back soon. At least it's cool here." Across a tiny rivulet largely obscured by tall grass, four dancers are rehearsing for the strathspey, an elegant social dance that is unique to Scotland and much slower than the quick-time reels and jigs popular with most Gaelic cultures. During the Scottish games, social dances as well as the more athletic Highland dances (the high-jumping Highland Fling, which is performed over targes (shields); the intricate Gillie Callum or Sword Dance, which was said to determine the outcome of battle; and the jubilant Seann Truibhas or Old Trousers, which celebrated the airy "freedom" of dancing in a kilt when English forces banned the native apparel) are performed for competition, not as recital. The faces of the dancers reflect the seriousness of the affair, even if the music does not.

"Good dancing affirms your manhood and establishes your place [on the battlefield] as much as the heavy events," says a man whose black-and-red tartan marks him as a member of the Kerr clan.

Kimberly McNeillhikes up her kilt, braces her left hand on her left knee, and heaves a 28-pound weight over her head. It clears a 13-foot-high bar and lands with an earthshaking thud. The crowd goes crazy, and the returning champion grins, peeking over her sunglasses and wagging her blond braids in an energetic bow.

"Kim just did the equivalent of tossing your child over your house one-handed," says announcer, judge, and heavy-weight athlete Sabrina Robinson.

On the open field behind McNeill, Josh Gracelumbers forward, balancing a 19-foot-tall, 105-pound caber against his shoulder. The telephone pole-like caber leans and sways precariously, causing the crowd to groan as Grace suddenly hefts it into the air.

"Too late," comments a woman to my right dressed in 16th-century attire from the Scottish isles. "It's not going over." The caber, which is meant to flip ass-over-tip, digs into the ground, tilts up, and falls back with a resounding thump that sends sod flying.

"That's an 80-degree score," announces Robinson.

Eric Whechterjogs forward, his baseball cap nicely accenting his kilt, and hefts the caber up and over.

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