The epiglottal wheeze and moan of bagpipes coupled with the occasional whiff of regurgitated stout are to be expected, even celebrated, at the St. Andrew's Society of Detroit's Highland Games. Celebrating their 158th anniversary, the games feature (latter-day) warrior-athletes flaunting their bulk and brawn, rowdy Celtic musicians decked in tartan kilts, and throngs of Scots from around the country. Nearly 10,000 visitors attend each year.
The games, as well as the ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee), or dance, the night before, are put on by the St. Andrew's Society of Detroit, a Scottish-American fraternal organization dedicated to keeping the music, dance, customs and sports of the "old country" alive and kicking this side of the pond.
Games include stone put much like shot put, but with a river stone, and other such weight-tossing events.
"Under British rule, (the Scots) weren't allowed to use weapons, but they were very innovative," says Franklin Dohanyos, vice president of St. Andrew's Society. "They would use things like tree trunks and stones to keep themselves strong."
The caber toss, for instance, involved a spruce log that measured about 20 feet in length and weighed about 120 pounds.
"If they wanted to go over a stream, they had to toss the caber from one bank to another to run across and kill the British," Dohanyos chuckles. "Or, run away from them, of course."
But the games, of course, are only a part of the fun. (Who wouldn't love to watch a barrel-chested, red-headed bruiser hurl a telephone pole?) You'll also want to browse the dozens of stalls where merchants hawk football jerseys from Glasgow, Celtic knot everything, and historical goodies that connect the past with the present. A CD tent sells discs from across the Celtic world; folk and contemporary music from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Brittany and even Nova Scotia.
The Highland Games have featured many notable acts in Scottish music, from the Glengarry Bhoys to Seven Nations. There are traditional groups centered around the unmistakable Highland bagpipes, singer-songwriters with a distinctly Scottish flavor, and many groups that mix Celtic sounds with rambunctious rock and folk rock.
This year's lineup features Red McWilliams, a lone man with a guitar who epitomizes the rebellious spirit of the games. The main stage will also spotlight young group Prydein, whose Celtic rock sound features two blazing bagpipes.
There's a vast selection of beer and plenty to eat (the Scots will deep-fry anything). It should be stated again that the Highland Games are a family affair, and youngsters will be just as entertained as their lager-swilling parents.
Many of the families that attend are of Scottish ancestry, but with thousands and thousands turning up each year, you can bet that the Highland Games bring out everyone and bring out the Scot in everyone.
At Greenmead Historical Village, 20501 Newburgh Rd., Livonia. The Ceilidh kicks off the weekend on Friday, Aug. 3, and the Games go all day Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 4-5. To learn more, see highlandgames.com.
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