Scots, Wha Hae!

The Santa Cruz Mountains Celebrate the Return of the Scottish Highland Games

By Julie Horner

A fair breeze tempers the early afternoon warmth, occasional showers of leaves whisper a hint of autumn and the last of the outdoor festivals and refreshing river plunges. The change of season comes sooner for those who live closer to the lee side of Ben Lomond Mountain as midday rides lower along the ridge. The shadows have grown longer, slanted sun puddles drench the valley floor, and the morning air is tinged with the sweet familiar tang of wood smoke.

Indian summer is time suspended, and everything smells dusty and rich and thirsty. It’s a time to celebrate the harvest and follow the urge to linger outdoors while the weather allows.

On Saturday, October 3 under the crackling blue sky, Roaring Camp welcomes the Big Trees Scottish Gathering and Highland Games, a colorful larger-than-life festival of music, sport, dance, food and flavor steeped in Celtic tradition and compelling history.

Scottish and Irish family groups, or “clans,” come together at the Highland Games to discover and celebrate their heritage, often wearing the wool plaid twill “tartan” associated with their family or particular ancestral region. “Everyone wants to belong to something noble,” said long time valley resident, event organizer and Games Chief, Jeff Simpson.

“What I find unique about this type of event, it’s not like any other kind of festival. People come as spectators and leave as participants after visiting their clan tent and finding out they have heritage… and a sense of belonging to something that they never knew about before.”

A spirited Highland festival can take you out of the present and into the living pages of a passionate and hard-lived history. For those who study the ancestry and participate in the Games, Jeff says, “We tend to surround ourselves with people who would rather be in a different era…living in the modern day is only a placeholder until they can get back to where they really belong.”

Jeff, along with former Boulder Creek business owner and Celtic jewelry artist, Garth Duncan, helped bring the games to the valley in the 1990s with the inception of the Loch Lomond Celtic Society. Inspired in part by the legendary “Scottish Days” at Ben Lomond’s Highlands Park back in the 1960s, Jeff said, “We started conceptually in Garth’s shop on Memorial Day 1994, while talking about doing a Games and a Celtic educational venture in the San Lorenzo Valley.”

Jeff has been Chief since 1996, and Garth spearheaded what became the popular Loch Lomond Games at Highlands Park from 1997-2006 before moving his family and his craft to Scotland.

The Loch Lomond Highland Games attracted professional athletes, skilled artisans, internationally renowned Celtic musicians, and thousands of visitors, which, as the festival grew, resulted in traffic difficulties along the Highway 9 corridor. The games were renamed and moved to San Lorenzo Park in Santa Cruz to more readily accommodate the growing crowds, but increasing costs and other factors contributed to the decision to suspend the Games in 2014.

Now with the Big Trees Scottish Gathering and Highland Games, Jeff breathes new life into the celebration of all things Scottish and rekindles the sense of connection to the Santa Cruz Mountains. “The reason we want to have the Games in the valley is because of the rich Scottish heritage.” Place names such as Ben Lomond, Bracken Brae and Bonny Doon; road signs bearing the names of the valley’s Scottish settlers; a stone fountain near Highlands Park marking the location of the long vanished 19th century Rowardennan Hotel, the name referencing an enchanted Scottish flower and the Celtic word for “high woodland.”

The opportunity to host the Games on the green at Roaring Camp offers festival goers a sumptuous natural expanse to marvel over centuries-old athletic competition, living history displays, hand crafted finery for sale, hearty traditional fare, local ale, bagpipes, and live Celtic music and Highland dancing. Jeff says, “For me, it’s all about keeping things local…I love Roaring Camp…so many festivals are at a fairgrounds next to the road…Roaring Camp is under the redwoods in the mountains.” A befitting place where notorious mountain man, Isaac Graham, himself of Scottish decent, established a sawmill and distillery in the 1830s – an encampment so boisterous that it became known as “Roaring Camp.”

“It is with great honor and anticipation that I invite you to join us as the clans once again gather in the highlands of the Santa Cruz Mountains! Bring your family and friends and for a day immerse yourself in the sites, the sounds, and the taste of an ancient culture kept alive in the hearts and by the hands of its proud descendants.” – Jeff Simpson, Chief

Saturday, October 3, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm

Roaring Camp Historic Railroad
5401 Graham Hill Road
Felton, California 95018

Adults: $16-$20
Senior (65+): $12-$15
Juniors (11-17): $12-$15
Children 10 and under free
Discount advance tickets on the Web:

The Big Trees Scottish Gathering and Highland Games share the grounds at Roaring Camp October 3 with The Harvest Fair & Steam Festival.

Julie Horner is an Irish folk musician and writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. Email: On the Web:

More about the history of the Highland Games in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the San Lorenzo Valley Post