This weekend, Sacramento held it’s annual Scottish Highlands Games and Festival. It’s was the 135th Scottish Games and Festival in Sacramento but my first. I can’t wait to go again.
Everywhere you look, Scottish culture was all around. Scottish kilts greeted me as I came in. The sounds of the bagpipes carried onto the streets before I even entered. Before the games and festival began, I felt like I was visiting Scotland.
The first thing I did once I finally entered was look at kilts and watch the bagpipes play. I arrived a few minutes after the gates opened. The crowds weren’t big (yet) but I already had two things on me that I didn’t have when I left home – a smile and goosebumps.
The history of Scotland – in Sacramento
To my knowledge, I don’t have an ounce of Scottish blood in me (from what I know, my family is English and Irish). However, that didn’t matter today. I was proud to be among the Scottish clans and culture today. Yet, I was surprised to see how much of a presence the Scottish people have in Sacramento.
Upon arriving, I made arrangements to meet with the Chief of the Caledonian Club of Sacramento, Randy Russell. As soon as I walked into the gate, he was there to greet me with a kilt, a warm smile, and a handshake.
This year, Sacramento is celebrating the 135th Scottish Highlands Games & Festival – the third oldest in the entire country. I didn’t know of anything that had been around in Sacramento that long, much less a Scottish club.
The Caledonian Club of Sacramento began 15 years after the Civil War started (1876) and has one of the longest running Scottish Highlands Games & Festivals in the country – as well as one of the largest. On Saturday alone, 13,000 – 18,000 people were expected to turn out. And the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. The Scottish people in Sacramento have a rich history and are proud – 68 clans were participating this year and most of those withing a 100 mile radius.
The goal of the Caledonian Club of Sacramento is to promote Scottish culture , traditions, and heritage as well as bring people of Scottish descent together and help out the local community. The big function of the club is the annual Highlands games and festival.
However, this non profit organization also takes part in Tartan Day on April 6 with a picnic, dancers, and bagpipers. Meetings are held once a month with tours, presentations on Scottish animals and weaponry, and other events as part of the fun.
The Caledonian Club isn’t the only one that exists in the northern California area but it is the most inviting to those who aren’t Scottish but appreciate the Scottish culture. One of the members of the board is actually Hispanic and he owns more kilts than anyone in the club.
Other clubs in the area include the St Andrews Club in Sacramento which is a men’s only club. According to Randy, members of the board require so many generations of Scottish blood.
For women, the Daughters of Scotia give women with a love and history of Scottish history a chance to become involved. One of the biggest, and most exclusive Scottish clubs, is the Caledonian Club of San Francisco. Each year, they host one of the biggest Scottish Highlands Games in the country. To be on the board there? You have to be born in Scotland! I met a few of them today – they are indeed Scottish right down to their accents!
In the few minutes I spent talking to Randy, I realized this was a big deal in this area. And I felt so proud and honored to be a part of it.
Highlights of the 135th annual Sacramento Scottish Games Festival
After spending time with Randy, it was time for me to take it all in. My first stop was a look at the kilts, weaponry, and Scottish attire for the event. While I was tempted, I didn’t buy a kilt. With my family line from England and given the history of conflict between England and Scotland, I didn’t want to upset my English ancestors (OK, that’s not true. I just didn’t have the money to buy one).
After leaving the kilts and weapons behind, I stumbled upon a bagpipe competition. In talking to one of the volunteers, 16 contestants were entered in the competition and all had various stages they had to visit to get their assessment from all of the judges. Every one of them looked and sounded the part. There wasn’t a better way to start a Scottish festival than with bagpipes blaring. Each competitor had 5 minutes in front of each judge before moving on to the next one. I’m not an expert but they all sounded good to me (check out my video from one of the bagpipe competitors!)
From there, I made my way through some of the vendor stalls to check out more kilts, information to research your Scottish ancestry and crest, and stalls with plenty of food, souvenirs, and jewelry. As I passed by all of the food vendors, I was pleased to see there was a lot of British food available. However, there wasn’t much Scottish food available and definitely no haggis.
The Scottish Highlands Games – and professional athletes
As I made my way towards the fairgrounds, I realized the Scottish Highlands games had already started. So I made my way over to the field to watch the many events trying to make sense of the rules and how each event was won. Guys were spread out in groups all over the field competing in various events like the hammer throw, light stone, caber toss, and heavy stone.
There were 5 classes of athletes overall – Class A, B, C, Professional, and women. While it was entertaining to watch each of the groups take part, clearly the class of the competition was the Professional group. I was a little photo happy at the games at first but then I really focused on the big boys – and yes, they were the big boys.
I watched with fascination as the professionals tossed the heavy stone. They were big, strong, and looked like they knew what they were doing. And by far, they were throwing it much further than all the other classes. I saw one man talking to one of the professional athletes and asked him if he knew these guys. This man named Russell had been talking to his son, Rusty – one of the professionals in the Scotland Highlands games.
I spent the next few minutes talking to Russell about the lives of these guys and how they traveled around the country and the world competing in these Highland games.
Most of them worked real jobs during the week and had wives and families. The guys that were there today were school teachers, football coaches, an ER doctor, and salesmen. They hailed from Colorado, Washington, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, and California. All of them had traveled here just for these games.
And while you’ve never heard of these guys (and neither had I), they weren’t nobodies. The reigning world champ of the Scottish Highlands games was competing today as well as another former world champion. Also on hand was the current #1 ranked Scottish Highlangs Games professional in North America.
After talking with Russell, he encouraged me to walk over and talk to these guys. For the next 4 hours, these Scottish games professional athletes were my friends.
Honestly, it was one of the best travel experiences I have had in years. These guys were amazing to hang out with, were very friendly, and loose with me and each other. They welcomed a scrawny (comparatively speaking) travel blogger with a notebook and camera who wasn’t even wearing a kilt into their circle and made me feel like one of the guys.
My experience was so intriguing and interesting that I’ve written about the lives of Scottish Highlands Games professional athletes. Not only were the conversations and camaraderie a lot of fun, I promise it will be one of the most fascinating insights into the lives of professional athletes that will you ever encounter with a sport you know nothing about.
However, here’s a sneak peak at one of the events at the Highlands games:
Scottish clans, dancing, drum majors, and more
While the games were going on, thousands of people were enjoying the festival now. The stands were lined with people watching the games while many others enjoyed various competitions – bands, bagpipes, drum lines, drum majors, and clans.
Around noon, everyone took a break as the opening ceremonies and parade took place. Various groups opened with bagpipes as each clan marched onto the field dressed in their family colors, crests, flags, and banners.
While many enjoyed the parade, others lined up to grab some English, Scottish, and American food.
Throughout the day, there was plenty to keep people entertained. A number of bands played fun and live Scottish folk tunes and songs while many people wandered throughout the various exhibits.
For those interested in history, learn more about Scottish clans history as I learn about the personal stories of clans and culture. For the kids, there were fun activities to entertain them as well as Shetland cattle and ponies, Clydesdales, and various breeds of Scottish dogs. The day ended with a drum major competition and closing ceremonies.
Today was a day I could feel the pride of the Scottish culture and heritage. I’ve never seen so many kilts or heard so many bagpipes in my life. I was thankful for people like Randy Russell, the Caledonian Club of Sacramento, and the rich history of the Scottish people in Sacramento.
The 135th annual Scottish Games and Festival in Sacramento was my first but it won’t be my last. Next year I may even enter the Scottish Highlands games after my experience today and thanks to the camaraderie and encouragement of my new friends.
I’ve been to many places in the world but I’ve never been to Scotland – but I felt like I had today. And without a doubt, one day I will visit Scotland.
Today, I got a taste of Scotland and the rich Scottish culture and heritage. I didn’t take home many souvenirs – except for that smile and the goosebumps I received when I first arrived this morning.