They were a study in contrasts, the two pipe majors, as they waited in their kilts yesterday for the start of the annual Scottish Christmas Walk, a festival of tartan-clad clans and pooches -- and more than a few politicians -- that has wrapped Old Town Alexandria in holiday cheer for more than three decades.

Sandy Hain was of the old school. A 75-year-old native Scotsman, he had his two dozen pipers and drummers from Red Hackle Pipes and Drums in tight formation, their tartans identical and crisp, their drum major looking properly austere, their bagpipes heaving in unison. After a seven-hour ride from Cleveland, they were eager to step out, in well-ordered precision.

Tim Batten, on the other hand, found himself leading a depleted troupe of pipers with a single drummer. Their drum major and a few other members of St. Andrews Legion from Richmond couldn't make it. As Batten's reduced corps readied itself, two of his near-novice pipers adjusted their instruments at the last minute.

"We couldn't get everybody up here today, but that's not going to stop us from having fun out here," Batten said. "That's what it's supposed to be about."

And indeed it was. Hain's formal ranks and Batten's informal ones blended in true Scottish tradition in the brilliant but biting cold, as Alexandria toasted its Scottish roots with a parade that annually kicks off the holiday season and raises money for disadvantaged children. The city's first Scottish Walk was in 1969, 300 years after Scotsman John Alexander purchased the land that is now Alexandria and laid plans for a commercial port.

Yesterday's walk was a mix of the serious and the irreverent as thousands of onlookers and participants turned out from near and far, some in authentic highland garb, others in Gore-Tex parkas, some sipping whiskey from flasks, others huddled over steaming lattes.

"This is what a Scot is all about," Gerry Smith, whose great-grandfather immigrated to the United States from Glasgow more than a century ago, said with a wink. "Bagpipers outside during the parade, and then a little whiskey and haggis later inside -- if I can find some."

The walk, sponsored by the Campagna Center, a local nonprofit group that hoped to raise $150,000 yesterday for after-school programs, began at Wilkes and South Pitt streets after a wreath-laying and worship service at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House.

The festivities began Thursday with the sale of greens and heather, stocking stuffers and other gifts at a marketplace at the Campagna Center. The three-day event also features a whiskey tasting and tours of intricately (and expensively) decorated Old Town manses.

But the Saturday walk is always the main attraction. As one might imagine, the city was bedecked in plaid -- on dogs, youngsters, seniors, babies and anything else that moved -- with more than 100 organizations participating in the half-mile parade.

Many parade-watchers took cover from the cold, looking on from neighborhood coffee shops; and some Old Towners along the route opened their homes, a few throwing parties that lasted well into the night.

This being Alexandria, there was no shortage of dogs -- including legions of stubby-legged Scottish terriers and sleek-bodied Scottish deerhounds -- both in the parade and yelping from the sidelines.

"Lots of people, lots of dogs -- that's how it is every year," said Lois Clark, a secretary from Alexandria who has attended the walk, off and on, for 15 years.

And while the drum and pipe bands, some from as far away as the Midwest, marched as if going into battle, there was plenty of rambunctious spirit. When the Hay clan, a rowdy bunch of 20 hailing from across the region, yelled its time-honored battle cry, "A-Hay! A-Hay! A-Hay!" the energized crowd yelled back, "A-Hay!"

"The day's just beginning," said Ron Peeples. "Now it's time to get to the pub."

Mary Ann Walker, left, with family, friends and colleagues outside her Alexandria townhouse, cheers for her "clan" -- Yo -- as the parade passes.Scottish deerhounds and their owners parade in the city, the line separating participants and spectators dissolving.