Who Ever Knew That History Lessons Could Be Fun?
On a recent extraordinarily beautiful Southern California weekend Kim and I did something completely out of the ordinary: we took a weekend Scottish history lesson. Luckily for me, this crash course was not in school. But, as a key verse in the song, "Mesopotamia" by the B-52's goes, "I am no student of ancient culture. But, before I talk, I should read a book." (Opening photo: The Clans appeared in Long Beach, California for the annual Scottish Highlands Festival and Games, set on the Clan Keith Tartan.)
Like ancient castles on the rocky Scottish coast, we were besieged with things to see and do at this annual February festival. Whether you're of Scottish heritage or not, this event is easily something you can take the whole clan to. Everyone can find something that interests them, from watching the colorful parades and ear shattering historic reenactments, to checking out the working dogs in their instinctual sheep herding demonstrations. Heavy athletics events, of which I'll explain later, are quite a sight to see.
For a more musical interlude, treat your ears to the bag piping and drumming competitions going on all weekend throughout the boat and grounds. For those with more than Scottish whisky coursing through your veins, like our editor, it's quite easy to track your ancestry through any of the nearly 60 Scottish clans that attend this event, making it one of the largest Scottish gatherings in the U.S.
Unfortunately, I missed participating in the whisky tasting on Friday night of this three-day event, since I was distracted by my evil friend Jim with a good bottle of tequila. Hence, my initial shortage of functioning brain cells and not wanting to sit in a stuffy classroom doing something boring like learning. In all, each event was not only fun, but if you were not careful, you learned something new without reading a book just because this event is so unique and interesting.
There Will Be No Raining on This Parade
For the first time in at least the last five years, the Norse rain gods didn't pay a visit to the Scottish Festival and Games. Kim and I have regularly been attending this event for years and years, and always thought that the chilly rain was part of the Scottish charm and atmosphere. I thought it was like actually being in Scotland, yet without Nessie doing the backstroke around the loch. We first started attending this event to participate in their British car show that coordinated with the Scottish Festival, but unfortunately due to two new event sponsors being Toyota and Mercedes, I assume, the British car show was dropped from the roster. Now, with this event being dry as a bone, yet a cool 62 degrees, it seemed different regardless of the fact that Long Beach has an average of 357 sunny days per year.
The Black Watch Posts The Colors
Johnny MacDonald led the audience on a detailed play by play description of each drum and bag piping band, parade honorary, athletic games participant and alphabetically organized, crest laden banner carrying clan. The large audience was in for quite a treat since this was the first time that two mass bands, large conglomerates comprised of all drum and bagpipe players in attendance, joined together to play in unison the appropriately fitting, "Scotland the Brave", which was so moving that it sent a chill up my spine. With huge bass drums booming, drummers rat-tat-tatting like machine guns and bagpipes all singing together, the opening festivities were very regal and quite a sight to behold.
Our favorite parade participants, aside from the sheep herding dogs, were the heavy athletes. They, like Mardi Gras parades on Fat Tuesday with beads and doubloons flying, paraded by carrying the massive telephone pole like cabers, and passed out miniature cabers, aka pencils, to the kids. How cute! After mandatory speeches by dignitaries, and congratulations being offered on having the largest collection of bagpipers ever, it was time for the Gordon Highlander military reenactments.
Dressed in period clothing of red uniforms, navy and green kilts, white pith helmets and belts, they reenacted the infamously bloody battle that occurred at predawn on September 13, 1882, during the British and Egyptian War. With 15 millimeter gatling guns capable of spewing out 800 rounds per minute, and rifle carrying marksmen who were able to fire twelve rounds each per minute, the sweet smell of gunpowder fogged up the cool ocean air. The blasts were deafening, especially when the huge cannon fired repeatedly. With 7,500 British soldiers charging in perfect formation with gleaming bayonets, they massacred 600 Egyptian soldiers, leaving rifle and cannon shells and bloodied bodies littering the battlefield. Ok, enough with this portion of the history lesson, I thought. Now, let's go to the dogs.
A Happy Dog Is A Working Dog
The best sheep herding, or working dogs, are Border Collies, Bouvier Des Flandres and Australian Shepherds, no matter what age. Guess what? I didn't know that there are sheep herding dog training schools and associations where dogs, and their owners, compete. Being that Scotland has a lot of sheep which grow a lot of wool for sweaters, etc, naturally, there are a lot of well-trained, tail-wagging herding dogs.
Like most people, sheep don't enjoy when someone different is too close to them. If so, they panic and scatter, just, like sheep. With a series of shrill whistles, the dog trainer communicates to the dog and it happily springs into action, gently nipping the hind quarters of each straggler sheep to drive the herd. In competition, each dog, whose ages could range from a wee little tot of ten months old to easily beyond ten years old, works a herd of twenty sheep while being 400-800 yards away from its handler. Of those twenty sheep, the seasoned dog exhibits an amazing level of concentration by driving the sheep into metal pens. To further confound most IQ and attention deficit challenged pound puppies like mine, five of the twenty sheep have collars on and must be separated by the dog responding to the trainer's whistles and driven into a separate pen of their own. What if you don't own sheep? Well, these clever canines can drive or fetch a flock of ducks, too.
Scottish Athletics Why Do We Throw Heavy Stuff? Because We Can!
Is anyone interested in "throwing the hammer," or, "heaving the weight for height or distance," or "tossing the caber?" Sorry, these are not new colloquialisms for vomiting; they're sports. If you were either an amateur, professional or master level member of the Scottish American Athletic Association, or SAAA, you'd be well aware of these muscular feats of strength. These sports began many, many moons ago in Scotland when King Malcolm wanted events to entertain guests at his daughter's wedding. Now pipsqueak, let me explain what these athletic challenges are just in case you feel like working up a thirst for a frosty Guinness, or two.
Heaving the weight for height or distance Picture in your mind a pyramid shaped 32 or 64 lb. weight with a large metal ring on the top. Add some talcum powder, an adjustable horizontal pole vault bar and you have yet another way to prove your strength to impress the babes. Taking turns, each athlete hoists this weight with a mighty grunt up in the air hoping to clear the bar and move on to the next round when the horizontal bar will be raised even higher off the ground.
Tossing the caber The mighty kilt wearing athletes from Scotland found yet another fun way to show off, and/or, get a hernia. Holding what looks exactly like a huge telephone pole vertically, each athlete runs and flips the caber up in the air. With a lot of luck, skill, and strength, the caber will flip end over end on the ground and hopefully travel a distance farther than their competitor. And they say golf is the only sport in Scotland? Blarney!
Solo Piping & Bag Pipe Band Competition Worth Blowing About
Being a split second off will cost points, prize money and an eventual trophy. The goal is for all drummers and bagpipers to be playing in unison and on the same beat as they smoothly transition from each song in their medley. Our's, and the crowd's favorite, once again, was the 21 member Los Angeles Scots Pipe and Drum Band. Not only were they a tight, professionally outfitted, and a very talented unit, but they also sounded great, too.
Surprisingly, there were a fair number of young, pierced, tattooed, mohawked, dreadlocked punk rock looking high school young men and women in each of the six bands that we watched during two hours of this competition. We both made a similar social observation being that the younger the female was, the shorter her kilt tended to be. For young Scots proud of their cultural heritage, learning the bagpipe is quite possibly the equivalent to nerdy American kids learning to play the piano or trumpet. Being the next generation, they were obviously letting their hair down, or rather, up.
If It's Not Scottish, It's . . .
Damn my vegetarianism! I passed on the traditionally baked smooth, peppery cooked lamb heart, liver, beef, oatmeal, onion, pepper and water concoction. Liking it to corned beef hash, Kim said that this year's haggis was great since it was not as vinegary as prior years, and would taste great with a nice aged Pinot Noir, Shiraz, or Cabernet. Unfortunately, improvising and being a trooper, she quenched her thirst with a cold Guinness. Since one Guinness a day will keep a person healthy, that's the only way to go, whether you're a Scottish athlete, bag piper, sheep herder, drummer or weekend visitor to the Queen Mary Scottish Festival and Games.
Highland Dancing If It Were Easy,
It Would Be Called Hockey
If a foot slipped and moved a sword while dancing to the song being performed by the solo bagpiper, a dancer was promptly disqualified. Nearby, male and female performers of all ages anxiously awaited their age groups turn while practicing the same right of spring dance steps as we were watching up on stage. Personally, being the owner of two size 13 left feet, the style and grace that these kids displayed to proud picture snapping and video recording parents, was inspiring.
Have you gotten the hint that you missed
a fun cultural excursion?
Life is certainly meant to be enjoyed, especially once you turn off the TV, get off the couch and out of the house. A big part of this is first hand experiencing other traditions, athletic events, foods, music, and people. You can either save airfare and fly to Scotland, or just attend the annual Queen Mary Scottish Festival and Games in Long Beach. Either way, you're going to learn something and have a blast.
By Donald Tatera & Kimberly Tatera, Southern California Jetsetters Magazine Correspondents. Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature "Sunday Champagne Brunch With The Queen," and Ghosts and Legends of the Queen Mary!