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A Gathering of Scots


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It seemed an inauspicious day to be wearing a kilt: hot and sunny, with highs in the 90s. Yet there stood a bearded young man in a heavy woolen green-patterned tartan kilt, tam-o'-shanter, tweed jacket with white cuffs peeking from the sleeves, thick woolen knee socks with garters, and a swath of plaid cloth pinned to his shoulder and flowing to his knees. He peered out at the summer-dried park through round wire-rimmed glasses and his dark hair was clubbed into a ponytail all of two inches long. The whole ensemble leaned picturesquely upon a black stick. On his left was the gathering place for Clan Hay, its kilted occupants wisely holed up at a table that was shaded by a tarpaulin; on his right, a giant inflated blue-sweatered Spuds McKenzie bobbed against its tethers atop a beer truck. In the background was the omnipresent high-pitched whine of bagpipes and the thudding of drums. The Highland Games had come to North Riverside.

The games are held each year on the grounds of the Scottish Home, a retirement and nursing home operated by the Illinois Saint Andrew Society, and in the next-door forest preserve. All proceeds from this and other Saint Andrew Society functions go to support the red brick home. "We used to have them in Grant Park, which was wonderful," an old lady who says she never misses the games said, "but then suddenly they wouldn't let us anymore. Something political, I suppose."

The crowd was cheerful and neat. There was amazingly little trash, and, for all the beer being swilled, there were no belligerents--not even any raucous laughter. Even the security guards were helpful and friendly. It was the most polite crowd I've ever seen. It would be hard to imagine an ethnic event less like, for example, the various local festivities around Saint Patrick's Day.

Saint Andrew, unlike the Welsh Saint David or the Irish Saint Patrick, was not a local product. One of the original twelve apostles, the Galilean was adopted by the Scots--never the Scotch, a name that is reserved for the alcoholic beverage and terrier dogs for which the country is known--as their patron along with his slanted cross, which may be seen today in the British union jack. But the rampant lion of the Scottish kings, blazing red on a yellow field, dominated the grounds of the Scottish Home. Despite the blaze of sunshine, woolens were everywhere: tams, kilts, socks drawn up to knobby knees. Sometimes a tartan bonnet topped an ensemble of shorts, sandals, and singlet; sometimes the full regalia was worn. Most of those in kilts wore short-sleeved shirts. One man wore a sporran--the pouch a Highlander wears with his kilt--over running shorts and a "Scotland Forever" T-shirt. A blond bodybuilder wore his kilt topless, the faint pink of an incipient sunburn creeping across his muscular shoulders as he paraded, a bit self-consciously, around the perimeter of the pipe bands' playing field. Most of the men were clearly wearing shorts beneath their skirts; shorts spoil the line and the swing of the pleated kilt, but they're safer than being authentic.

The young girls in the dance competition, numbers pinned to the hems of their kilts, raised arms and knees in near unison, occasionally forgetting to smile in their fierce concentration. A glazed-eyed lone piper puffed the same tune over and over, stranded behind the dancers in a corner of the stage. Behind the rope that separated the crowd from the stage, other competitors in various stages of dress watched their rivals, cheered their friends, or practiced beneath a tree. One, a torn gray sweatshirt over her costume, tuned it all out, snapping her fingers to the tunes of her Walkman.

I looked for my family tartan, a favorite of Italian clothing designers when "big shirts" were stylish. My distant relatives were sweating away in their distinctive bright yellow, black, and red tartans at the Clan MacLeod booth near the front gate, a sealed bottle of liquor from the Isle of Skye before them on the table. They were friendly to a long-lost cousin, but they seemed disappointed by my ignorance of specifics about my family history. They invited me to attend the North American gathering of the clan in July anyway: "Ceilidh, Lectures, Tartan Ball, Kirkin' o' the Tartan, Lots of Fun & Fellowship," said a flyer.

Had I wished to adorn myself with the bull's head and "Hold Fast" crest of the MacLeods--a gang of jumped-up Vikings who settled on the islands of northwest Scotland--I could have, for vendors were on hand to sell me everything from a kilt to a bonnet to keychains to tea towels bearing clan maps, thistles, bagpipes, and red lions. There were mugs, stamps to impress one's clan's crest on stationery, bagpipe accessories, assorted T-shirts, plaid underwear (in assorted clan tartans), foodstuffs (shortbread, digestive biscuits, British Mars Bars melting in the heat, marmalade), and bumper stickers ("On the Eighth Day God Created Bagpipes," "Thank God I'm Scottish," "Thank God I'm Irish," "Honk if You Love Bagpipes"). Robert Burns--the poet who, along with the romanticizer Walter Scott, popularized Scotland, its then-backward people, and its dialect--was honored with candles bearing his image, thimbles in the shape of his head, and the usual tea towels. There was music, mostly on cassettes, and LPs at closeout prices, but no compact discs. There were also visors stamped with "Miami Vice" and palm trees.

Past the stands of British kilt makers, suppliers of bagpipe chanters, the clan societies, and the Loch Michigan Scottish Country Dancers was the athletic field. A young redhead walked by in a white tank top and kilt, with a large knife stuck in the top of one of her socks. A gaggle of pipe and drum bands warmed up for the competitions of the afternoon, and around a pen filled with a dozen tiny, shaggy sheep from the sheepherding competition a group of sturdy young men with numbers on their backs slouched around a dusty field, occasionally windarms. Periodically, one would pick up an obviously heavy object resembling a shiny coffee can with a handle on it, whirl about, and toss it, after which a pair of officials in kilts and sweat-darkened shirts scuttled forward with tape measures and clipboards to record the distance. The contestants paced, flailed their arms, and sometimes broke into impromptu wrestling matches. At the other end of the field was an inflatable Budweiser can the size of a silo.

My eye was caught by number 112, a monstrous fellow of an undeterminable age with a once-shaved head that had grown spiky and a beard of the same length. His neck was wider than his head. He wore a headband, a single silver earring, hightopped Nikes over his knee socks, a red "Highland Games" tank top, and an enormous kilt bound by a wide red-white-and-blue belt. His arms were covered with tattoos, and his skin was so darkly tanned that the lightness of his eyes was a shock. Yes, he was having a pretty good day out here, and his name, he said, was Jeff Huber. "Like the brewing company?" I asked. A big grin split his bullet head. "Yeah," he said, "yeah," and went back to pacing and flailing.

It was time for the pipe-band competition to start again, so I crossed to the other side of the road and sat with the family groups, who were patiently camping on their tartan blankets in the shade around the roped-off field. Forty minutes late, the "Tunes of Glory" from Batavia, an aggregation of teenagers and middle-aged men and women, stopped their march along the road to squeeze past a limousine that blocked the entrance of the home. They reformed their circle and played a last warmup of "Scotland the Brave," their chests heaving in the oddly out-of-time way of pipers, who depend on their arms squeezing sheepskin sacks to supply their drones and chanters with air. A hanger-on walked behind them, straightening the tall red cockades they wore on their hats. Then they marched onto the field to applause and formed another circle, the better to hear themselves play. Drums rapped and thudded, and shrill pipes hurled their notes into the dusty sky.

The edge of a green plaid shawl touched my shoulder, and I looked up. It was the young man in the tweed jacket and full Highland regalia, his woolen bonnet still perched jauntily on his head. He was chatting up a female companion and brushing the dusty weeds with his stick as he walked. He wasn't even sweating.

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