Now that her granddaughter Isla is big enough, Liz Michaelson couldn't wait for the 2-year-old to hear the bagpipes for the first time at this year's Minnesota Scottish Fair and Highland Games event, held last Saturday in Eagan.

For Michaelson, the event's marketing coordinator, the annual event is a chance to celebrate her Scottish heritage, even though as a "Minnesota kid" she's actually more Scandinavian and German than anything else.

At the fair, no one cares how much Scots blood you have. It's simply a low-key, fun way to connect with the country for a day.

But for many Minnesotans of Scottish ancestry, it is the main cultural event of the year, said Andy McCracken, a vice president of the organizing board.

Attendees come to watch athletes throw heavy things in the Highland Games, see the Scottish Highland Dance competition, observe a sheepdog's herding skills, or drink a brown ale at McCracken's Pub.

The event was held at Macalester College (team nickname: The Scots) for three decades.

But because of the expense and difficulty getting volunteers, the college bowed out 12 years ago, said Don Cogswell, president of the board.

The fair has a Dakota County location not because the area is teeming with Scots but because there was space available, organizers say.

This year, the event moved from the Dakota County Fairgrounds in Farmington to Faithful Shepherd Catholic School in Eagan.

Organizers say the closer-in location, along with moving it from May to July, contributed to this year's higher attendance: at least 3,500 people.

After Macalester, some of the original organizers formed a nonprofit, which has run the fair for 11 consecutive years. "We thought, 'Maybe we should take this on,' " said Cogswell. "It could benefit the Scottish community."

The fair is modeled after fairs held in Scotland, like county fairs. One of the best compliments organizers hear from native Scots is: "Yours is the most like the fairs at home," Michaelson said.

Minnesota has never been a particularly Scottish place, and the number of people claiming Scottish ancestry is dwindling as demographics change, said Michaelson.

In the south metro, percentages claiming Scotch-Irish or Scottish ancestry on the most recent census range from just 2 to 3 percent, with the highest concentration in Farmington.

"We're not like the Norwegians in Minnesota," said McCracken, whose parents are Scottish immigrants. "There's not as many of us."

There have been several waves of Scottish immigrants here, said Michaelson. Some came in the 1800s, another set came after World War II and a few more have arrived in just the past two decades.

The latter emigrated because of job transfers or married Minnesotans, Michaelson said, and you "can hear their voices" at the fair.

Two clubs formed by Scottish immigrants to preserve their culture still exist here, though their numbers are stagnant or decreasing, said Cogswell.

"They're starting to fade," Cogswell said. "We don't like that."

The Twin Cities Scottish Club is populated by more recent immigrants, and the St. Andrew's Society is made up of third-, fourth- and fifth-generation Scots rediscovering their roots, McCracken said.

Often, children of immigrants "are more passionate about Scotland than the Scots," McCracken said. "They're really into it."

But the fair is important for others, too, including "people who have a Scottish connection but haven't found it yet," said Michaelson.

A competitive spirit

Coordinating the event is a labor of love for board members like McCracken, who runs McCracken's Pub, modeled after party or "Ceilidh" tents in Scotland. It's a beer tent that also hosts entertainment.

The list of fair attractions is lengthy, and new things are often added, said Cogswell. But the event is known for its competitions, which draw people from other states and Canada.

There's the heavy games, eight traditional events in which male and female athletes compete by throwing various objects, from hammers and stones to the caber, a 20-foot piece of wood that looks like a telephone pole.

The games are open to all, not just those of Celtic ancestry, and are more than a fun pastime, said Jeff Bryan, a vice president on the board and athletic director. "They're coming to win," he said.

There are bagpipe contests and the Scottish Highland dance competition, too.

In addition, there are genealogy tents sponsored by different clans, sheepherding demonstrations, kid's games and re-enactors who perform scenes from Scottish history.

Organizers have a long-term goal: to start a Scottish cultural center, similar to Celtic Junction, a hub for Irish performers in St. Paul, with the fair's profits. But that's years away, McCracken said.

For now, a core group stays busy planning the fair, which Bryan said is "very, very well done" in comparison to those elsewhere.

"It's almost a reassuring thing for the Scots that are here," McCracken said. "They just love to show other people what we're all about."