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Bring out the bagpipes

Everyone is Scottish this weekend -- at the 147th Highland Gathering & Games

Don your plaid -- if not a kilt -- and head to the Fairgrounds this weekend for an adventure in everything Scottish, from bagpipes to whisky.

It's the 147th year for the Scottish Highland Gathering & Games, which was presented by the Caledonian Club of San Francisco for the first time in 1866.

"We've never missed a year, even during the wars or after the earthquake," said media chairman Floyd Busby. "It was held in San Francisco for the first two years, then the third year it was on the beach in Sausalito."

The event moved to the Alameda County Fairgrounds in 1994, and through the years it has added one feature after another until it fills every nook and cranny of the spacious grounds.

"It's basically reached its capacity," Busby said. "There's not must else we can throw in. It's gotten so big, probably there's only one other games bigger in North America, in Canada -- it has the North American Pipe Band Championships."

The bagpipe bands also compete in Pleasanton and are a big draw. The local Gathering & Games also hosts the world championships for two of the eight athletic disciplines: the weight-for-height throw, and the caber toss.

In the weight-for-height throw, the weight has a ring attached to it, which the athlete swings then heaves over a bar that keeps getting raised.

The caber toss is a crowd favorite as the large wooden pole (typically 19 feet 6 inches and weighing 175 pounds for the men) is balanced in the athlete's hands as he or she runs and then hurls it, with the goal being for the caber to land with the "top" end nearest to the thrower.

"Several years from now, when we have the 150th Games, we will hold the world championships for everything," Busby said.

The Scottish Highland Gathering & Games has something for everyone so it can be hard for first-timers to decide what to explore first.

"It would depend on their interest," Busby said. "A lot of people love the bagpipe so I would suggest they watch the bagpipe competition. I would roam around, watch the athletics -- six of the eight disciplines are held on the soccer field, where they have the children's carnival during the Fair, near the Pleasanton Avenue entrance.

"Then go and sit down and watch any entertainment, from easy music like folk music, to Celtic rock and roll, to Albannach from Scotland, which is more tribal," he added.

Seven stages will have continuous entertainment, with two hosting the Celtic Heritage performances of the Scottish Fiddlers Rally, Celtic Harpers, Scottish Country Dancing, balladeer John Kelly and Kirsty Fitch entertaining with Gaelic singing.

"There's also living history," Busby said, "with Mary, Queen of Scots. There are Romans and Vikings, which of course invaded Scotland, reenactments of battles and different events that take place, ceremonies and knightings."

He also recommended seeing the sheep dog trials and the birds of prey on display.

"The handlers will get up with their bird and explain about them," Busby said. "It's really quite fascinating."

He also suggested a visit to the Gathering of the Clans, with almost 100 different clan tents, to see if you might have some Scottish blood. Clans have "septs" within them whose names are lesser known.

"A lot don't sound Scottish and a lot of people are fascinated to find they have connections to a clan," Busby said. "They find they have a tartan and a crest that, if they wish, belongs to them."

The Caledonian Club's special website, www.thescottishgames.com, lists everything that will be happening this weekend at the Gathering & Games and has a map of where activities are taking place.

"Plus there will be two information booths," Busby said. "They have maps, and if you buy a program, the center spread is a map."

Busby strongly advised visitors not to miss the closing ceremonies, which are held both Saturday and Sunday.

Beginning at 4:15 p.m., the 30 competing pipe bands from the United States and Canada march onto the field in front of the grandstand, each led by a drum major, and go into formation. They include the U.S. Marine Band San Diego and the L.A. Scots Grade I Pipe Band, performing together.

"We are the only Games in the world that has a U.S. military band and a Grade 1 Military Pipe Band that march together and play together," Busby said.

"The lone piper comes up on stage and starts playing Amazing Grace, then the drum major raises the big staff and 650-700 pipes and drums come into it," Busby said.

"It's very stirring," he added, recalling that he's seen a tear rolling down the cheeks of a friend that isn't even Scottish at more than one closing ceremony.

Seats for the closing ceremonies cost $5 but a standing area in front is free. A trackside terrace on the first landing offers a ringside seat with tables and chairs, in addition to a catered lunch, for $39.50.

"We only started doing this three to four years ago," Busby said.

The 36 organizing committees of the Caledonian Club meet throughout the year to brainstorm ways to improve and plan this annual extravaganza, which is put on completely by volunteers.

"There are people that plan their vacation around this," Busby said. "Some come from out of state, and Southern California. Our operations crew starts on Tuesday, assembling the stages, then more and more come through the week. They put everything together, then they've got to stay when games are over and tear everything down.

"A lot are not members of the club and are not Scottish," he continued. "One couple comes from Virginia, one from Colorado, others from other distances, and then there are those that are local. This is their vacation but they love doing it, this is an adventure to them.

"They are all volunteer but they get lodging; we put them in different hotels."

This weekend at the Scottish festival, kids can also access their inner Scot in the Children's Glen, which has games and prizes. And there is an abundance of British foods such as steak pies, bangers, shepherd's pie, scotch eggs, haggis, pasties and Celtic rolls and. of course, ales.

Whisky Live at the Games is returning by popular demand, where, for an additional fee, one can sample the better single malts from Scotland and learn the finer points of the art of fine distilling from a Master.

The gathering and games open at 8 a.m. both days with the heavy event athletics beginning at 8:30 a.m. All other venues begin at 10 a.m. Closing time is 6:30 p.m. Tickets at the gate are $20 per adult for one day and $27 for both days; youths 12-17 and seniors are $12. Ages 11 and under and military with ID are free.

Scottish preview at Concert in the Park

The U.S. Marines 11-member brass band, part of the full marching band that will take part in the Scottish Gathering & Games this weekend, will perform from 6:30-6:55 p.m. at tonight's weekly Concert in the Park at Lion Wayside Park on the corner of First and Neal streets in Pleasanton. This musical interlude replaces the March Under the Arch that was presented prior to the Scottish Games in past years.

After their stint in downtown Pleasanton, the Marine musicians will return to the Marriott San Ramon to take part in the Friday Night Concert along with the L.A. Scots Grade I Pipe Band and New Zealand's top solo performer, Steve McDonald.

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