DUNEDIN — On Saturday, the wail of bagpipes may seem even more haunting as the 46th annual Dunedin Highland Games and Spring Clan Gathering gets under way.
This year's event will mark a final farewell to Alexander "Sandy" Keith, a Scotland-born piper who taught bagpiping and drumming to thousands of students in Dunedin's middle and high schools. He was also a longtime leader of the city of Dunedin Pipe Band and president of the Dunedin Highland Games Committee.
His passion and devotion to the Scottish music and heritage of Dunedin was unparalleled.
Keith died unexpectedly on Feb. 2 at the age of 76.
"We're going to make this year's games a tribute to him," said Terry Eldridge, who took over as president of the games committee after Keith died. "We want the weather to cooperate. Right now there's a 50 percent chance of rain. Sandy probably has something to do with that. It would be his sense of humor."
Rain or shine, the event is slated for Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Highlander Park.
The Highland Games began in 1966 to raise funds for the Dunedin's Scottish bands.
Eldridge said the format of this year's games will remain the same as Highlander Park is transformed into a slice of Scotland with hundreds of kilt-wearing athletes, pipers, drummers, dancers and clansmen milling about.
Central to the event are the heavy athletics. Big brawny types — along with a few brave-hearted women — will hurl sheaves of hay, Scottish hammers and mammoth rocks. A real crowd pleaser is the caber toss, where long logs that look something like telephone poles are tossed end over end.
This year, the games will be the site of the Southern Masters Championship.
About three dozen rivaling clans are expected to attend, but Ken Giesow, the honorary Chief of the Day, will make sure to keep them all in check.
Piping, drumming and dancing competitions will abound. There will be sheepherding demonstrations too.
Seven Nations, a feisty Celtic rock band, will perform.
Eldridge said although everyone was shocked to learn about Keith's death, they quickly pulled together for the fest which he predicts will go off without a hitch.
"I still can't believe Sandy is gone," said Eldridge. "I still expect to see him walk into those meetings — and sometimes, when there are 30 people talking, I wish he would."