Thousands of Scots by birth, heritage or inclination enjoyed music, dancing, athletic events, food and Celtic traditions Saturday at the 26th annual Scottish Festival and Highland Games in Itasca.
"We welcome everyone who enjoys Scottish culture," said Gus Noble, president of the Illinois St. Andrew Society's Chicago Scots, which hosts the two-day event. "The games itself is how we celebrate our identity as Scots in Chicago."
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The second day of the festival's second year in Itasca was expected to attract between 12,000 and 15,000 people, many of them repeat customers who make the Highland Games an early summer tradition. Organizers announced during the opening ceremony -- a "Parade of Tartans" featuring members of different Scottish clans wearing traditional plaid kilts -- that the festival will call the Hamilton Lakes business park in Itasca home for at least the next three years after the recent signing of a lease.
Visitors' favorite aspects of the festival ranged from whiskey to weapons to gathering with family and friends.
The chance to connect in person with friends from a Scottish online forum brought Mike and Nita Kinney of Lombard to the festival.
"I'm a member of an online group, X Marks the Scot," Mike Kinney said. "We meet up at the games."
While he spends time with friends, Kinney's wife said she most enjoys the festival's Celtic rock and whiskey tasting tent.
"The music is good and the whiskey tasting is always fun," she said. "It gives you a chance to taste really fine brands without paying a fortune to do it."
The Staskon family of Naperville has been attending the festival the past 12 years to gather with extended family and view displays of strength and traditional military tools.
"I like the games and the weapons," said 8-year-old Matt Staskon, whose family is Scottish by heritage.
The games he enjoyed are known as heavy athletics and feature events challenging contestants to throw hammers, stones and weights of different shapes and poundages as far as they can.
"The iconic thing in the Highland Games is the Caber Toss," in which participants hoist wood cylinders as tall as telephone poles and try to flip them so the opposite end hits the ground, Noble said.
Another favorite aspect of the event is its concluding ceremony, when 1,000 drummers and bagpipers play Amazing Grace to remember relatives who have died.
"It really is an awesome thing to behold both from a visual and sonic perspective," Noble said.
The song begins with one soloist, then grows to include the entire group of musicians.
"It's very impressive; it gives you chills," Anne Staskon of Naperville said. "It's amazing when they have all the bagpipes on the field."