July 6 2016 11:39 AM

Coming to terms with Brexit, ancestral pride and overpriced beard oil at the Scottish Highland Games & Gathering

Photo by Julia Evans

Is it smug to just feel a little bit of schadenfreude over the Brexit decision? Sure, it points to the disturbing trend of anti-globalization, xenophobia and the reality that “no way that could happen” events can happen—but wasn’t it kind of nice to not be the butt of the world’s joke for once? Of course, I’m not going to bring this up to my friend Julia on our way up to the San Diego Scottish Highland Games & Gathering in Vista. Julia was born in Cumbria, a county in Northwestern England and whose family moved to the U.S. when she was 11. It’s the day after the Brexit vote, and I can tell it’s a sore subject for her.

It may seem stereotypically American—i.e. naïve and uneducated—to invite an English girl to a Scottish festival, but Cumbria’s proximity to Scotland has given Julia a robust knowledge of the area, including the English and Scottish border reivers who raided and pillaged the area between the 13th and 17th centuries.

But just try imparting that jolly-good knowledge on two American dudes.

“Is that at all like the movie Highlander?” I ask.

“Remember the bad guy’s laugh in that movie?” asks Nathan, my friend and regular collaborator. He does an impressive reenactment of actor Clancy Brown’s laughter from the backseat. Julia sinks deeper into her British depression.

When we arrive in Vista—my first time—it turns out my worldview is narrower than I thought.

Did we just pass an ERI-bertos?

I think. I’ve never seen that name on a taco shop before. This place is freaking me out.

My interest in the Scottish Festival is distinctly American, i.e. whimsical and appropriating when it suits me best. My mom’s side of the family are direct descendants of the Buchanan clan—a lineage that has meant very little to me until now, when I use it as passionate justification to attend a Scottish festival. I quietly congratulate myself for being the best—a distinctly American act, i.e. cherry-picking the best traits of my heritage to exploit.

The first thing I see upon entering the festival is dude with black-dyed hair, a black Metal Mulisha shirt (preferred brand of motocross and MMA fans), and a black-patterned kilt. His girlfriend, wearing a matching skirt, hangs on him while he checks his phone over her shoulder and sucks on a vape.

“I can’t tell where the goth overlap is,” Nathan says, observing the Hot Topic-esque crowd. “Are they just bored suburban kids and/or do they actually have interest in the Old World?”

He’s right. The crowd seems less like connoisseurs of Scottish tradition and more like alt-right misfits: metalheads, mall-punks and goths—all aching for another excuse to wear a kilt outside of an AC/DC or Flogging Molly concert. Since we’re far from San Diego proper, and this being a celebration of, well, white heritage, there’s a serious white pride vibe to the whole thing. Not that everyone here is a white nationalist, but we do see more skinhead tats than black people.

We stop to watch men—nay, mountains carved into men—play a game that involves pitchforking a bag of hay up and over a football goal post. With each round, the bar is raised higher. We deem our favorite competitor “The LeBron James of the Scottish Bag Thing.” By the end of the day, our LeBron is tossing hay nearly 50 feet high, but the effort makes him stumble, and we get a view up his kilt. He’s wearing bike shorts underneath and we’re simultaneously thankful and disappointed.

We walk among the tents. In case you haven’t worn a kilt, there are plenty opportunities to buy a new one. I think of the delusion that falls over people when they come to events like this. In what other situation would anyone think it’s A-OK to buy a $70 kilt?

We’re not even 10 steps away from the kilt tent— still mocking people for their impulsive purchases—when a solidly built, gnomish man selling beard oil jumps out in front of us. He gives me and Nathan the hard sell, squirting the oil into our hands, dishing out veiled insults regarding the quality of our hitherto unoiled beards, saying things like “the colors are already popping!” and “feels much better, right?” and “no more beard itch, huh?” Of course, I’m nodding along.

I’m nodding when he directs us, zombie-like, to the back of the tent where his assistant asks which flavor of oil we want. I’m still nodding when she runs my card for a $22 bottle of Scottish snake-beard-oil.

We continue along the fairway, trying to play cool by complimenting the “popping colors” in each other’s beards in American fashion—i.e. vaguely sad, proud and unable to admit that the shit we spend money on is stupid. Julia holds back her judgment, but I can tell she’s basking in a little schadenfreude herself upon watching us try to co-opt her culture.

We stop by a sword tent and just, like, fondle swords for a good 10 minutes. Compared to the beard oil, they seem relatively affordable. I calculate that for only twice what I paid for the beard oil, I could’ve bought an instrument of death.

We eat curry lamb pies and haggis while we listen to an awful band butcher hard rock covers of traditional Irish/Scottish songs. After spending $6 on thimbles of Scotch-whiskey, we decide it’s time to go home. In truly American fashion, we’ve played tourists in a culture, but now I’m hot and annoyed that my newly realized Scottish skin is getting burnt in the sun.


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