Big changes for upcoming St. Andrew’s Highland Games: New season, home, attractions

Overcoming a two-year absence, the Central Valley Highland Games & Celtic Festival is returning at a new time of year and in a new city.

The St. Andrew’s Society of Modesto event, now in its 36th year, will be held Saturday, Oct. 19, at the Stanislaus County Fairground in Turlock. Though once held at Graceada Park in Modesto, the games for most of their history have been at Tuolumne River Regional Park.

And previously a springtime event, the gathering of the clans will experience a boon by being held in fall. The highland games are the last of the year, so will be the state championships for heavy athletics, said St. Andrew’s Society Sergeant-at-Arms David Wolff. Those feats of strength and skill include putting the stone, the hammer throw, the caber toss and throwing weights for height and distance.

A new event joins the games for their return: the sheaf toss, which is similar to throwing weight for height. According to the St. Andrew’s Society website, “A bundle of straw (the sheaf) weighing 20 pounds for the men and 10 pounds for the women and wrapped in a burlap bag is tossed vertically with a pitchfork over a raised bar much like that used in pole vaulting.”

In addition to the championships, the heavy athletics will be open to members of the public who’d like to get in on the action. “If you think you’re big enough to go out and do this, you can try,” Wolff said. Children can learn to toss the caber, he said, and even take part in a kid-size competition if they want.

“The caber toss isn’t just toss it and watch it fly,” Wolff said. “There’s a pattern to it, it has to do a complete 360, and then if it’s done well, it has to be in a straight alignment ahead of the tosser.”

Being at the fairgrounds comes with some big pluses, said Wolff and his wife, Vicky, who’s steward and bard of the St. Andrew’s Society. The event was “kind of hemmed in at the park,” Wolff said. At the Turlock location, the athletes doing their putting, tossing and hurling needn’t be concerned “if something takes off the wrong direction, because there’s plenty of room,” he said.

The fairgrounds also gave the St. Andrew’s Society space to add a rugby demonstration, with two or three teams of both men and women going nonstop during festival hours, Wolff said.

Other elements at the daylong celebration will be three stages of entertainment, including music by Golden Bough, Cooking with Turf and Michael Mullen’s Trio of One, and performances by the Village Dancers, Red Thistle Dancers and Piedmont Highland Dance. Merloch Silvermaine, aka Ken Silverman, will “work his wizardly tricks. There will be bagpiping groups and a competition of individual pipers, and a more unusual attraction, Fowl Play — Scottish dogs herding ducks into a pen.

There will be a marketplace and food vendors, a wine and beer garden, and a children’s glen with face painters and more.

Though the move to the fairgrounds has at least one more plus beyond space for the games — plenty of secure parking, at $5 per vehicle — it’s more costly to the St. Andrew’s Society than holding it at Tuolumne River Regional Park. Attendance had been running about 1,200 people at the park, Wolff said, but to do well financially this year, “we would love it to death if we could get 2,000.”

The last time the games were held, in 2016, attendance was dramatically down because the weather forecasts for the June date were as high as 108 degrees. As it turned out, the high that day in Modesto was 95 degrees, according to Modesto Irrigation District weather records. But the damage was done: People made other plans or didn’t want to chance the heat.

Then, “We were not able to have our games in 2017 due to the excessive rain, which caused great damage to the park,” Wolff said. And last year, the park still wasn’t in good enough shape that Modesto wanted to rent it out for the games, he said.

The Oct. 19 games and festival will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the fairgrounds, 900 N. Broadway. Admission is $15 general, $10 for society members, veterans and seniors, 60 and older. Kids 12 and under get in free. Prices online and at the gate are the same.

To learn more, call 209-529-9430, 209-526-8812 or 209-622-0740.

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Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.