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Scot to Be Interesting 

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

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001
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"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. "Just whiskey? 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.

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 Games since 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 Macdougal woman 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 McNeill hikes 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 Grace lumbers 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 Whechter jogs forward, his baseball cap nicely accenting his kilt, and hefts the caber up and over.

"That's a 12:15," shouts Robinson, "with a perfect score being 12 o'clock."

The crowd claps appreciatively at what will, undoubtedly, be the winning score.

All athletes must compete in each of seven events -- including heavy games like Hammer Throwing and Putting the Stone -- so the participants regularly rotate fields. The women's amateur "A" class moves to the Open Stone, an event similar to Olympic shot put in which a 16- to 18-pound stone is hurled for distance. The men's master class (50- to 59-year-olds) takes over caber tossing and two athletes -- Bill Butler and Mike Qutermous -- earn perfect 12 o'clock scores with 75-pound cabers. At one moment, much to the amusement of the announcer, nearly the entire Grace family is on the field competing -- with Josh Grace hefting the weight, his father Mike Grace tossing the caber, his wife Janette Grace putting the stone, and his baby Caitlin Grace hefting her pacifier over the edge of her crib.

"It's a family affair," says Darren Maxwell, a misguided bagpiper on his way to a sword-fighting demonstration by the Legioni X Fretensis, IV Cohort, a group that reconstructs the lives of Legionary soldiers serving Rome when the Empire included much of Alba (Gaelic for Scotland).

"The Celtic Picts came from the North and drove the [Romans] back," says Maxwell. "The Pict warriors were so fierce they would go into battle naked and dancing. The Romans were brutal but the Picts were more brutal still. Of course, the English were the most brutal of all."

Maxwell goes on to lament the crushing of his forefather's culture in 1746 when the Jacobite cause died at the Battle of Culloden, and the English banned kilts, proscribed Gaelic, and, worse, outlawed bagpipes. "They thought themselves civilized," spits Maxwell as he admires three young Scottish children trying to heave child-size cabers at three other children near the carriage house.


"Would you care for some tea?" asks a ruddy man in a pith helmet and jodhpurs. Complete tea service is set out between the back wall of the Church Street Safeway and a small retaining wall. "We wouldn't want people to think us uncivilized, now would we?"

Having extended courtesies, the gentleman returns to the playing field (the bike lane running along the N Judah Muni track) and mounts his horse (a small silver kick-scooter with a toy-horse head duct-taped to it). He and three other teammates, comprising the Rajahs, lower their mallets (beer cans filled with cement and shoved on the end of broom handles) and face their opponents, the formidable Losers, for another cutthroat chukker (seven-minute interval) of Scooter Polo. The tennis ball is bowled between the two teams by a licensed Scooter Polo umpire and the teams are off, scooting and wobbling toward each other at breakneck speed until they meet in a horrifying jumble of legs, wheels, and swinging cans. Onlookers clap appreciatively from lawn chairs on the sidelines as they sip tea and open beers for those players who have acquired penalties.

A Loser in a Viking helmet joins forces with a teammate who is playing blindfolded to "bump" the pith-helmeted Rajah to the ground, leaving a slight gap in the Rajahs' defense, which allows a wild-flying goal. Sadly, Davor, the more officious umpire, wearing a bandleader's jacket and a megaphone, disqualifies the shot because the Loser did not have one foot on his horse. The blindfolded man and a Rajah line up for a penalty shot.

"Nicely done," says an onlooker as a Loser crawls from underneath the pile of scooters and players to the opposing goal line, where he pulls a ball from his pocket and hurls it. The small crowd that has gathered at the corner of the grocery store applauds.

"You must have one foot on your horse at all times!" shouts Davor through his megaphone. "Standing on the neck of your horse does not count. Get back on your horses! If you don't keep one foot on your horse at all times, we will chew it off."

Thirty-four-year-old Kelly Gastman -- the only player with any polo experience -- is forced to shotgun a penalty beer for rolling over a penalty box drawn on the cement in chalk.

"I've never done this before," she says, tilting her head back as the beer runs down her throat.

"This is nothing like real polo at all," she says after wiping foam from her mouth. "Except maybe for the drinking, and the very real danger of physical injury."

The teams set up for another chukker and one of the Rajahs yells, "For the Empire!"

Before two minutes have elapsed, players and horses lie strewn across the field. No one is left standing. A vagrant wanders onto the field (that is, down the alley) and joins in the sport by lying down in the fetal position.

"I suppose it's time for a drink break, then," suggests one of the players, "for the Empire."

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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