People refer to the Glengarry Highland Games as a homecoming. For those with Scottish ancestry, the Games represent a chance to delve into your history and to learn about the clans who came before you. They serve as a link to the past, but they also provide a glorious spectacle for the more than 25,000 people who are estimated to attend the Games each year.
For 69 years, people have been flocking to Maxville for the Games, which turned the village into a veritable parking lot on Saturday. By noon, the grandstands were sold out and the parking lots were overflowing. RVs lined the fields surrounding the event areas and army tents were pitched to house more than 150 Armed Forces soldiers from 12 of Canada’s 16 Highlanders detachments. The soldiers came to the Games at their own expense, travelling from as far away as British Columbia to duke it out in the tug-of-war battle. When the two local units made the semi-finals on Saturday, the crowd erupted in cheers. It was the Stormont Dundas and Glengarry (SD&G) Highlanders, of Cornwall versus the Cameron Highlanders, of Ottawa for the final pull of the day. The crowd favourites were clearly the SD&G Highlanders, who put on a good show, but failed to best the smiling men from the Cameron Highlanders, who won the Highlanders Tug-of-War Challenge Cup, besting 11 other teams from across Canada.
A bottle of scotch was brought out following the win and it was shared by the winning team, who drank from the cup they had just won. A few competitors mentioned that next year, perhaps the scotch would be best on ice, rather than heated by the hot afternoon sun.
The Tug-of-War Challenge raised $8,000 for the Soldier On Fund, which supports ill and injured Canadian Armed Forces service members. The Games 2016 Guest of Honour, Jody Mitic, accepted the cheque on behalf of Soldier On. It’s a program that lies close to the heart for Mitic, a retired Canadian Army sniper who lost both of his legs after he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan. During the opening ceremonies, Mitic said that he was proud to support the Games and to stand with the Highlanders. He has promised to return to the Games next year.
The Tug-of-War Challenge was founded a decade ago by Mike Smith and Bill Shields. The two men, both from Highland regiments, were enjoying a beer ten years ago, when Smith says the idea came to them to host a tug-of-war challenge at the Games.
The kilt race that launched this year had a similar start. After coming up with the idea, Shields contacted Smith and asked if he would participate.
Smith ran with the idea. Literally. He showed up at the start of the race riding his Standardbred horse, “MP” and dressed in chainmail. Smith and his horse are both veterans in their own right. Smith is a former paratrooper, turned high-school teacher who competes regularly in medieval jousting competitions. His horse retired from racing to serve with the Sudbury police for a year. Following his own retirement from service, MP joined Smith on the jousting circuit. Together, Smith and MP lead 100 runners to the start of the five kilometre race. After sounding the start of the race, Smith quickly stripped down to his shorts. Running with his sword held in the air before him, he raced after the fleeing runners. Despite his late start, Smith managed to complete the race just a few minutes behind race champion Glen Campbell, of Dalkeith, who finished the race with a time of 18:17:34. He had a 14 second lead over Andrew McCormick. Former Games Director Cathy McLean came in second place among the female competitors, with a time of 24:29:72. She was just a minute and a half behind Michelle Gordon, who won the female division of the race.
It was a great start to the first annual kilt run, which is expected to return next year. Many of the competitors said they will be back. A few of them promised to be faster. Some might even return bearing swords of their own.
Marie Duggan Lemieux is 91-years-old. She began attending the Glengarry Highland Games when they were founded in 1948. She has attended every Games since. She says that her favourite events are the massed pipes and the heavyweight competitions, but she loves everything to do with the event. She says it reminds her of home.
“I’ve been here for 70 years. I came over on the Queen Mary ship from Edinburgh, Scotland as a war bride in 1946,” said Lemieux, who lives in Cornwall. She has been married twice and attends the Games each year with her growing family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. On Saturday, she was recognized by Games organizers, who gave her a necklace donated by Pommier Jewellers.
The sound of more than 1,000 pipes and drums playing in concert during the massed pipes was deafening. It’s a sound that raises goose bumps on your arms, even as it makes the ground underneath you tremble. Hundreds of highland dancers ringed the pipers. In their bright, multi-coloured dresses, the young dancers seemed as though they were flying as they danced in step with the music.
On Saturday afternoon, the 78th Fraser Highlanders won the North American Pipe Band Championship at the Glengarry Highland Games, successfully defending their title and continuing their undefeated streak over the 2016 season. They left the field playing “Laggan Love Song” and they made the way to the beer tent where they put on an impromptu performance.
This impromptu performance is one of the secrets of the Games that only avid fans will tell you about. After every winning the championship title, it is tradition for the top bands in each of the five divisions to perform a song in the beer tent, before lowering their pipes and celebrating with their fellow pipers and drummers.
The sound of piping was like thunder in the beer tent. It was all in good fun and smiles and beers were shared by all.
One of the other little known facts about the Games has to do with a recital that takes place at the Anglican Church in Maxville, on the Friday morning of the Games. Top pipers from across the world gather at the little historic church to compete in solo performances that are open to professional pipers only.
There is something for everyone at the Games. Whether you are drawn to the heavyweight competitions, the Scottish kiosks, or the music, you will find a tradition that draws you back.
Many people don’t realize that the competitions aren’t exclusive to professionals. There are track-and-field races for children during the day and there is also a Junior Heavyweight Competition, where children register the day of the event.
Registration was open to the kilt run right up until the race and pipers were encouraged to join the spontaneous jam sessions in the beer tent.
It’s two days of fun that passes in a drum beat, leaving behind lots of fond memories. Congratulations to the hundreds of volunteers who put on the Glengarry Highland Games this year. We look forward to seeing what you have in store for the 70th anniversary in 2017.