Itasca's Highland Games brings together all things Scottish
Two things are certain about bagpipes: you don't see them very often, and when you do, they are hard to ignore.
So it is no surprise that the instruments will be a big -- and loud -- deal this Friday and Saturday when the Scottish Festival and Highland Games returns to Itasca.
A celebration of Scottish culture and heritage, the fest features the largest bagpiping competition in the country, Chicago Scots President Gus Noble said.
"A couple of years ago, we grew the bagpiping event," Noble said. "We've become the go-to bagpiping competition in America."
The solo piping competition opens the festival at 1 p.m. Friday at Hamilton Lakes, 300 Park Blvd.
The solo competition is followed by a multifaceted party of all things Scottish, including heavy athletics, music, a car show, a dog show and whisky (Scottish spelling) tasting.
"We've begun to look at the Highland Games as a living, breathing person," Noble said.
Now in its 33rd year, the fest is presented by the Chicago Scots. At age 175, it is the state's oldest nonprofit organization. The group uses proceeds from the fest to help fund the Caledonia Senior Living and Memory Care facility in North Riverside.
"We're doing it for a great cause, where community, care and culture all come together," Noble said. "We create home, we establish family, we relieve stress and we reimagine tradition."
But back to the bagpipes -- musicians in bands will compete in the Midwest Pipe Band Championship from 1-5:30 p.m. Saturday.
"They march in unison onto the main fields. The transcendent nature of the event really becomes apparent then," Noble said. "That sense of being part of tradition and connection to generations that have gone before -- it is powerful."
The heavy athletics will include caber-tossing, where athletes chuck large wooden poles; sheaf-tossing, an event involving pitchforks and straw-filled burlap bags; and the throwing of other weighted objects, including haggis. There also will be a haggis eating contest.
"These are great athletes. This year, we have probably the most decorated field we've ever assembled," Noble said. "At least one world-title holder will be on the field. It's a lesson in how to be Scottish and a definition of what it is to be Scottish in today's world."
The Celtic rock stage will feature The Bandicoots, The Rogues and Cleghorn, a Celtic rock band from Texas, on Friday, sandwiched between the Heather Queen contest and coronation.
Saturday's lineup brings back all of Friday's performers and adds a show from the winning pipe band, a knobbly knees contest and a show from John Ballantyne's Crazy Heart. Noble plays in Ballantyne's band.
According to Noble, a native of Scotland who attained his American citizenship last year, they grew up together in his homeland. Both fans of American musician John Prine, they formed a band to create their own blended sound.
"Traditional Scottish music is at the root of American country music," Noble said.
Several clans and organizations will attend the festival and participate in a parade of the tartans at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
Also on Saturday, there will be a shortbread contest at 2:30 p.m., a British car show from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Scottish dog agility shows at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. The festival will also feature highland dancers, rugby games and a master class in the whiskey and spirits tent.
Children's activities will include mini-golf, temporary tattoos, balloon animals, train rides, face painting, crafts and scaled-down versions of heavy athletics.
"We welcome everyone who's Scottish by birth, by family and certainly by inclination," Noble said.