Canada: New Brunswick’s Highland Games

Throwing a hammer at New Brunswick's Highland Games. Heather Sinclair photo.
Throwing the heavy hammer at the New Brunswick Highland Games. Heather Sinclair photos.

Put on Your Kilt for the New Brunswick Highland Games

By Heather Sinclair

“Be a Scot for a weekend” is the slogan of the annual New Brunswick Highland Games Festival. When you think of Highland Games, you may imagine plaid kilts, strong men throwing heavy stones, nimble dancers, and the distinctive wail of bagpipes.Your imagination would be accurate.

Since 1981, Fredericton (the capital of New Brunswick) has hosted a three-day Highland Games Festival that draws competitors from all over neighboring Atlantic Canadian provinces. Besides bagpipe performances and Highland dancing competitions, visitors can take in Scottish-themed workshops and entertainment.

I had the pleasure of attending in all three days of the thirty-third Highland Games Festival, and found out what it’s like to be a Scot for a weekend.

The Fun Begins: Kilted 5K Run

Cabers are these huge logs that are tossed during competition.
Cabers are these huge logs that are tossed during competition.

Running a five kilometer (3.1 mile) race isn’t a traditional Highland Games event, but since 2012 it’s been part of the kickoff for the Fredericton games.It’s called the Kilted 5K, but wearing a kilt isn’t mandatory. Men and women both wore kilt-like  plaid skirts (like I did) or plaid shorts along with the Kilted 5KT-shirt from their race package.

Bagpiper playing at the highland festival.
Bagpiper playing at the highland festival.

The race course followed the footpath beside the St. John River all the way to a statue of Robbie Burns (a famous Scot), then U-turned back to the start.

Along the path a drum band serenaded runners and at the turning point volunteers handed out water in paper cups. The hot afternoon meant the water from my cup mostly ended up on my face instead of in my mouth.

The race welcomed all fitness levels; serious runners finished long before I did, and others walked the course. After crossing the finish line, I helped myself to the water in the coolers and sat under a tree to catch my breath in the shade.

A volunteer masseuse was set up under a neighboring tree, helping other runners recover in a more hands-on way. After cooling off, it was time to act on a benefit of running the Kilted 5K: free entry to the festival kickoff concert in the Ceilidh tent.

Party Time in the Ceilidh Tent

Every outdoor festival has a beer tent and at the New Brunswick Highland Games it’s the Ceilidh Tent. Serving four types of locally brewed Picaroons beer, the tent was where the live music happened (other than the drumming and piping competitions that is).

Pipe bands dressed in kilts with matching socks, and 'sporrans' or pouches worn at the waist.
Pipe bands dressed in kilts with matching socks, and ‘sporrans’ or pouches worn at the waist.

The tent opened on Friday night, and for the entire weekend the music started at 11am and continued until late. The Ceilidh tent housed a performance stage and long tables where friends and strangers sat side by side enjoying the entertainment and tasty, tasty Picaroons beer.

Outside the tent (but within the fenced boundaries of the alcohol-only area)patrons stood to talk or smoke, or sat at the shaded picnic tables.

The live music style in the Ceilidh tent varied, but stayed true to the Highland Games theme: fiddle music, Celtic tunes, and East coast cover songs drifted out from the stage throughout the three days of the festival.

You didn’t have to be inside the tent to enjoy the music, onlookers stopped by the fence to chat with people inside, or hang out and listen to music before heading off to the festival.

For me, the Ceilidh tent was a place to relax between festival events. If being a Scot meant sipping a cold beer in the shade while listening to Celtic music, I was more than happy to be a Scot for the weekend.

Things Get Heavy

When I wasn’t in the Ceilidh tent I spent most of my time at the heavy events, the most exciting (and dangerous) part of the Highland Games. The events included the stone put (shotput with a heavy rock), the Scottish hammer throw (spinning a hammer around and letting it fly), and the caber toss (flipping telephone poles). Spectators in camping chairs lined the boundary ropes to watch the contestants take turns throwing, spinning, and flipping heavy things.

The heavy events had four divisions: junior, amateur, womens and mens. The competitors in the amateur division tried the events for the first time Friday evening, around the same time I was running the Kilted 5K. Seeing the happy and excited competitors almost made me wish I had trained for the heavy events instead.

During the competition, burly contestants shared a microphone, explaining the rules for each event. These announcers introduced the contestants and described how the referee scored the events. I was grateful for the commentary; I didn’t know much about the equipment or scoring the events. The heavy events were more interesting once I understood what was happening.

The events were impressive:not just because the equipment was heavy, but because of the precision achieved. In each event the competitors had several attempts to set a personal record, and strength and technique were clearly required to do well.

The final heavy event was the not-so-traditional beer keg toss (keg provided by Picaroons beer company). Having thrown stones, hammers, and cabers, one contestant declared the keg toss to be the most difficult event. Unlike traditional equipment, the keg was hard to grip and balance for a throw. That didn’t stop the competitors from trying, especially because the winner of the keg toss went home with (what else?) a keg of Picaroons beer.

Although not an ancient Highland Games event,the keg toss was the fan favorite of the heavy events at the Fredericton festival.

Highland Dancers from all levels of the competition came together to perform the Highland Fling at the closing ceremonies of the Highland Games.
Highland Dancers from all levels of the competition came together to perform the Highland Fling at the closing ceremonies of the Highland Games.

Dancing Queens of Highland Dancing

The heavy events competitors combined weight with precision, but the Highland dancers took precision to another level. From their detailed costumes to the way they held their fingers, the Highland dancers were meticulous about every feature of their dance.

I found the Highland dance competition to be the most colorful event at the games.Unlike the heavy events, Highland dancing is a girls-only event, each contestant’s costume was a different color plaid kilt that matched plaid socks and a fitted jacket. Every dancer had her hair tied up in a tight bun. The whirling costumes caught my eye every time I walked near the competition.

The Highland dancing took place on a stage covered by a tent, with judges sitting at a table directly in front of the stage.

A Highland Dance costume consists of: tartan sock and kilt, velvet jacket with a lace insert, or a sleeveless velvet vest worn over a white blouse.
A Highland Dance costume consists of: tartan sock and kilt, velvet jacket with a lace insert, or a sleeveless velvet vest worn over a white blouse.

Two dances – the Highland fling and the sword dance – played from speakers near the dance competition stage all day long for two whole days. Two. Whole. Days. The judges might not mind, but listening to two songs over and over for two days would drive me nuts. Earphones for some might be a good idea!

Groups of dancers took to the stage in heats, for either the Highland fling, the sword dance, or (for some contestants) both. Though they danced at the same time, judges scored dancers individually. The number pinned to each competitor’s skirt made judging easier.

The dancers’ postures entering and exiting the stage were as precise as the dancing itself: competitors walked with their arms held a certain way, and bowed to the judges in unison before and after dancing. It looked uncomfortable to keep their arms, hands, head, and legs in precise positions before, during, and after the dance. Those dancers earned their awards.

Sounds of the Games

Even when I wasn’t anywhere near the Highland dancing or the Ceilidh tent, music was in the air at the Highland Games. Between the bagpipe, drumming, and pipeband competitions, I could hear the festival before I got to the entrance.

In the individual bagpipe competition, a piper played for a single judge. The piper played a piece by memory, and marched in front of the table where the judge sat. Judges scored the player not just on the sound, but on the piper’s presentation and his or her movements.

The sound of bagpipes never really stopped during the Highland Games. When they weren’t competing individually, pipers joined drummers in the pipeband competition.The bands competed in a field large enough for rows of musicians to march up and down in formation.

Each band had a different color kilt; hats, socks, and jackets completed their uniforms.Onlookers cheered from the stands on the side of the field as judges scrutinized the performance from a long table at the end of the green space. This is one place where you better like bagpipe music, that’s for sure.

Playing music from memory while marching together as a group doesn’t seem easy, but the pipebands made it look like it was. Especially when the drummers spun their drumsticks around their wrists between beats. Showmanship was a part of this competition as much as the music.

Government House was built in 1828, and was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1958. Foreign dignitaries (including the Royal Family) often stay at Government House when visiting Fredericton. It was hard to miss the pipeband competition: it had the largest number of contestants, and it was definitely the loudest competition at the Highland Games.

The weight throw is accomplished with only one hand. Any type of technique can be used to throw the farthest.
The weight throw is accomplished with only one hand. Any type of technique can be used to throw the farthest.

Take a Piece of the Games Home

Besides the Ceilidh tent, there were other places to spend your money at the festival. Vendors alley had Scottish items for purchase: kilts (naturally), bagpipes, clothing, tartans, and family trees. To remember your visit to the games all year long, T-shirts were available in all sizes – small enough for a toddler and large enough for the heavy events contestants.

Spending the entire day at the festival made me hungry. Fortunately, food vendors were set up in booths: I could choose good ol’ BBQ hot dogs and hamburgers, or if I was feeling more adventurous, a haggis samosa. Yes, fusion food made it to the Highland Games, and it was delicious.

Why go?

The New Brunswick Highland Games aren’t just for people with Scottish heritage: anyone can appreciate the difficulty of playing the bagpipes while marching in formation, the practice and dedication that goes into Highland dancing, and the muscle and technique needed to flip an 18ft log end over end.

Where is it?

The games take place in New Brunswick’s capital city: Fredericton. The province’s Lieutenant Governor is kind enough to volunteer the grounds of his personal residence – Government House – for the three-day games every year.

When is it?

The games are held in late July, falling on a Friday to Sunday. The Friday events take place in the evening, with the official kickoff for the games on Saturday morning. Check the New Brunswick Highland Games website for more detailed information.

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Heather Sinclair is a former engineer who’s found her passion in writing and travel; when she isn’t housesitting, she calls Nova Scotia home.


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