JUST about every other summer weekend, 11-year-old Alison Dunshire of Pleasanton puts on a man’s skirt before she goes out to play.
It’s a cultural thing.
Alison is a bagpipe player. Her skirt is a traditional kilt, normally worn by Scottish men.
In the summer, the Dunshire family jumps in the family RV and heads out for a vacation with stops at local Scottish contests.
The family are members of the Scottish Buchanan clan and have celebrated their ancestry as long as Alison can remember.
It used to be that Alison’s father, Bob, a Silicon Valley executive, played the bagpipes at the regular gatherings of Scots across the country, while Alison, younger sister Elizabeth and mother Diana danced. But a year ago, Alison switched from dancing to bagpipe playing, becoming the youngest competing female bagpiper in Northern California. In 11 competitions this year, she has won four awards and, in one contest, tied for first in her division.
Alison’s next performances are Labor Day weekend at the Alameda County Fairgrounds during the 130th annual Scottish Gathering and Games. The games were moved to Pleasanton last year after 32 years in Santa Rosa. The crowds grew so large the sponsoring Caledonian Club of San Francisco moved them permanently to Pleasanton.
ALISON HAS been practicing the bagpipes at home with nary a complaint from the neighbors. She likes the wailing music, particularly ”College of Piping, Summerside P.E.I.”
”It’s really fun to play,” Alison said. ”It’s sort of complicated but not so complicated that I can’t play it. It’s fun and you can dance to it.”
Alison, an accomplished pianist, model student and cultural star, looks at competition as a way to improve.
”I do the whole thing for fun. I did the dance thing for fun. (After playing the bagpipes,) the judges give you a critique. It’s like an extra lesson,” she said.
Alison is well known at school for her dancing and bagpipe-playing. She often performs at assemblies.
”Most of my friends have pretty much grown up with me. They know it’s going to happen,” she said.
She was unable to say just what kind of music her friends listen to. At home, her music of choice is bagpipes.
”I like the music,” Alison said. ”I listen to bagpipes most of the time because I want to hear good bagpipes.”
She’s practicing almost every day for the big games.
Last year, an estimated 60,000 people jammed into the Alameda County Fairgrounds to eat bangers, shepherd’s pie and shortbread, buy family crests, listen to bagpipes and watch great Scots toss cabers, hammers and stones.
At the games, you can even buy a kilt.
The kilts – short, pleated skirts that are suitable for climbing the rough hills of Scotland, were worn by Highlanders because they were poor and that’s all the material they could afford. The more-affluent Lowlanders wore trousers.
IN THE old days, the clans gathered and athletes squared off in sporting competitions. Bagpipers and Highland dancers added color and interest to the gatherings.
Originally, only men competed. In recent years, more women have joined in, even competing in the men’s contests of strength and endurance. There are now categories for women.
Women regularly wear kilts, but, in the minds of some people, kilts are still a male thing.
Earlier this year, when Alison was playing the bagpipes in competition in Southern California, she was reminded of this.
”I walked into the ladies room and a woman said, ‘Excuse me, this is the ladies room.’ ”