Philosophers may debate whether a tree falling in the forest makes a noise, but a tossed caber certainly generates sound. There’s the prolonged “aaaaaarrrrrrggggggghhhhhhh” screamed by the caber tosser as he runs across an open field trying to throw a telephone-pole-sized log end-over-end, the clunk of the log falling on the ground and the excited cheers and chants of the audience. At least that’s how it is at the Antigonish Highland Games.
Highland games are quietly noisy events. Their noise isn’t the kind that causes neighbours to call the police, it’s of physical exertion, competition and culture. There is the gentle thump, thump, thump of dancers’ feet as they twirl amid crossed swords lain on the stage. The hum and squeal of bagpipes, the boom and rat-tat-tat of bass and tenor drums, the grunts and groans of the tug-of-rope competition, screams of their supporters and the prolonged yells of a heavy athlete either twirling in a cage to throw the Scottish hammer, a stone or building momentum for the caber toss.
Attending the Antigonish Highland Games taught me so much about these ancient competitions. The Games were like being dropped into a Celtic bubble. Walking Antigonish’s main street I heard people speaking Gaelic. Signs leading to Columbus Field, where the games are held, are in Gaelic. And throughout the town are monuments and plaques to the area’s Scottish heritage.
At Columbus Field I first encountered a dance pavilion where pixie-size competitors in tiny tartans did nymph-like steps in unison across the stage. Their focus, discipline and precision is all the more impressive given their young ages. Next is an all-things Celtic commercial encampment selling everything from tartans, kilts, pipes, odd-looking bagpipe carrying cases, to bumper stickers showing a distinctly Scottish bias: ‘If it’s nay Scottish it’s crrr-ap’; ‘Have pipes will travel’; and ‘On the eighth day God created bagpipes’.
As the oldest such games outside Scotland, Antigonish can be forgiven their bias.
Lining one side of the dirt track, which encompasses the athletic field, tug-of-war-ers engage in what sometimes seems like a semi-static struggle. An announcer shifts from his calm observation, “The hands are beginning to burn now,” to an excited scream, “They’ve done it! They’re moving! It’s a flip!” With this, coaches bark orders to their team, water boys race along the line pouring water on heads and necks, while the pullers’ groaning increases, dust rises and spectators are bent forward in their seats or standing in the bleachers screaming their support quickly switching to cheers and applause when one team finally prevails and leaving the other in the dust.
Every aspect of the games is governed by strict rules and/or strategy. St. Andrews Ladies’ coach, Glen VanVonderen explains that in Tug of War, they use a two-and-three-quarter-inch-thick burlap rope since acrylic rope becomes too slippery for sweaty hands to hold. Rules don’t allow competitors to sit or dig their hands into the ground. He explains, “It’s all in technique. You’ve got to pull low. You can’t be wiggling your feet around. When you first start you gotta pull hard and then just kinda set in on the rope, kinda rest your hands, tuck the rope underneath your arm, and push in on it. You’re watching the other team to see if there’s a girl getting tired or starting to wear out. When that happens you switch and get down and dirty and pull, pull, pull.”
Over in the main field where athletes are competing in the traditional Scottish heavy events, there’s even more technique involved.
Not to take away from the other Games’ participants, but the heavy athletes are sort of the stars. Perhaps it’s because their events are both traditional and quirky.
What’s fascinating about the Games is how true they are to their roots. Whereas other major competitions, like the Olympics, have evolved in to a type of testament to science and invention in developing better equipment or costumes, Scottish heavy athletes, like generations before them, maintain a cultural purity. They compete in kilts, using irregular devices and real muscles, as opposed to gym-trained, designer muscles.
Four times Canadian and four-time World Masters Champion World and Senior Games Caber Champion Dirk Bishop from Perth-Andover explains that unlike other sporting events, Highland games have no uniformity in equipment. At each games a caber will vary in cut, tree type, length (20-to-26 feet long) and weight (100-to-150 pounds). It can range from spruce, fir to ironwood, “which is unbelievably heavy.” Bishop says, “Every caber has a different crook in it, the weight is different, the taper means a lot to it, how big the big end is compared to how small the small end is all mean something.”
Even the stones can vary. At one game they could throw smooth river stones,
at another cement bricks of the correct weight. And there can be lots of injuries from splinters and scrapped skin, to cabers falling on tossers to broken limbs and ribs. For the hammer toss, athletes wear boots with spikes in the front that they dig into the ground for stability. It’s an invitation for injury.
The caber toss, also known as “stick turning” by competitors, is judged on several elements: whether it goes end-over-end, how straight the caber falls and the angle the caber reaches.
Bishop’s technique, which he likens to trying to balance a baseball bat from the narrow end, he learned from his caber mentor, Doug MacDonald from the Annapolis Valley.
Other heavy events include the Braemar, heavy and light stone throws, 16 and 22 lb hammer tosses, a 56 lb weight for height, and 28 and 56 lb weight for distance throws. Highland Games eschew metric. They stick to the old rules and measures.
In a wooded corner off the playing field is Piper’s Glenn. It is bordered by a river where some non-kilted kayakers slowly paddle past the impromptu serenade provided by pipers and drummers who have positioned themselves along the riverbank to practice and warm up before facing a battery of judges for their solo competitions.
History suggests that games evolved from an ancient type of job interview. A clan chief would either host or attend a set of games to see who the fastest runners and strongest and best fighters were. These would become the chieftain’s messengers and bodyguards. The best pipers and dancers would provide his entertainment. More recently they have been a way to keep the culture alive.
Whatever their purpose, they’re a fun experience. And there’s a lot more to them than burly men in heritage drag.
Highland Games also include evening ceilidhs, parades, massed bands, concerts and kilted golf. Some, like PEI’s, include sheepdog herding demos and Scottish country dance. Other communities hosting games include:
For 2017, the Antigonish Highland Games are technically held from July 2 to 9, but the actual competitions are July 7, 8 and 9. The Antigonish Games are the oldest, most authentic in North America. 2017 is their 154th games.
Festival of the Tartans and Highland Games, New Glasgow, July 12 – 16, 2017.
The New Brunswick Highland Games will be held in Fredericton, July 28 – 30, 2017.
Glengary Highland Games are in Maxville, Ontario, August 4th and 5th:
PEI Highland Games and Scottish Festival is scheduled for the Lord Selkirk Provincial Park, August 5th and 6th, 2017.
Margaree Highland Games will be held August 11-13.
The Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games are also August 11-13 in Fergus, Ontario:
The North Lanark Highland Games are held August 26, 2017 in Almonte, Ontario:
The Canmore Highland Games are September 2-3, 2017 in Canmore, Alberta:
The Calgary Highland Games, which are over 100 years old, will be held September 2, 2017:
For future reference, here are other games held in Canada:
The Victoria Highland Games & Celtic Festival, Vancouver Island, BC in May each year:
The BC Highland Games and Scottish Festival are held in mid-June in Coquitlam, BC:
The Manitoba Highland Gathering is held in mid-June in Selkirk:
The Summerside Highland Gathering is late June in Summerside, PEI: