Last Updated on October 9, 2023
If you’re in Fredericton, New Brunswick during a weekend in late July and think you hear bagpipes, it isn’t your imagination. It’s the sound of laddies and lassies competing in strength, dance and music events at the New Brunswick Highland Games Festival.
The festival is held each summer at Government House, the official residence of the province’s Lieutenant Governor.
The first New Brunswick Highland Games Festival was organized in 1980 by a group dedicated to preserving Scottish culture and heritage. Since then, it has grown into an event attracting athletes, musicians, and dancers from all over Atlantic Canada along with thousands of visitors.
What to see at New Brunswick Highland Games
My husband and I had the privilege of attending the 40th New Brunswick Highland Games Festival. We enjoyed the strength events, music and dancing, but what made the event even more memorable for me was the opportunity to talk with some of the competitors.
I gained a healthy appreciation for the amount of preparation and practice that goes into training and competing in these Games and similar events held in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Our first game stop was the field where the Strength Events were in progress. These events date back to the 12th century and originated during the reign of King Malcolm Canmore.
Athletes compete in preliminary and final events over two days. Points are totaled at the end of the second day, and the competitor with the highest total is declared the winner. We observed competitors participating in the uniquely Scottish competitions that included Ancient Stone Throw, Weight Toss, Scottish Hammer, Weight for Height and Caber Toss events.
Ancient Stone Throw
The Ancient Stone Throw is similar to a modern-day shot-put. Competitors have three chances to toss a 16-pound stone for men – 9-pounds for women – as far as possible. The distance is measured from where the athlete’s feet are when he releases the stone to the edge of the mark where it hits the ground. The best throw is recorded as the competitor’s final score.
I struck up a conversation with Kevin Robinson while he was practicing throws. He lives in Perth Andover, New Brunswick, and has been competing in the New Brunswick Highland Games Festival games for 25 years; 20 years as a pro. He also competes in other highland festivals in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Robinson explained that athletes can use any throwing style as long as they keep the stone cradled in their neck until it’s released and tossed with one hand. Anything over 40-feet is considered a good throw.
In this event, competitors perform a one-hand toss of an iron block attached to a chain. The weight is 28- or 56-pounds, depending on the competitor’s age and skill level. The block can be any shape as long as it doesn’t exceed 18-inches. Competitors get three tosses and their best throw is recorded as the final score.
Like the Weight Toss, the Scottish Hammer is a 22-pound (16 for women) metal ball attached to a wooden handle. Athletes face the opposite direction of the throw, whirl the hammer around their head, release it at its maximum speed throwing it as far as they can.
They may not spin or move their feet until they release the hammer. Again, their best throw is recorded as the final score.
56-Pound Weight for Height
Also referred to as “Weight over the Bar,” this event tests how high competitors can throw a 56-pound weight over a crossbar. Athletes stand with their back to the bar and toss the weight backwards. They can also throw it from a standing position, using only one hand and are allowed three attempts at each height.
The bar continues to be raised, and competitors are eliminated when they fail to clear the bar. The last man standing is the winner.
In the highly unusual Caber Toss, competitors lift, balance, and heave progressively heavier logs. An athlete begins by shouldering a log and cupping the small end with both hands. Once he balances it, he runs forward and heaves it so it flips end-over-end.
I chatted with Liam Kell of Antiganitch, Nova Scotia while he was waiting to compete. He explained that this is the only heavy event not judged by distance. The object is to make the caber land in a straight line.
A judge runs behind the athlete and calls out the result in relation to an imaginary clock-direction. A perfect throw resembles the hands of a clock at 12:00. Competitors don’t receive a score if they don’t flip the caber.
Dances like the Highland Fling, Sword Dance and Seann Triubhas were used to celebrate battle victories and commemorate epic events from Scottish folklore. Men normally performed the dances. Today, the majority of participants in highland dancing competitions are female.
Competitors perform one or multiple dances depending on their age and skill level. Everyone performs the same dance to the same music and is judged in three basic areas – timing, technique and general deportment. Judges award points for appearance, hand and foot position and how well the dancers execute the intricate steps.
While each group performs, the judges focus mainly on the dancers’ feet because poor technique ruins the performance, regardless of their skill in other areas. Judges also observe hand movements, posture and general on-stage presence.
Dancers spend many hours practicing before they become good enough to perform the intricate steps lightly and gracefully. Competitors work their way through the skill levels – Primary, Beginner, Novice, Intermediate and Premier. They advance to the next level only after winning six competitions at a given level.
I spoke to 15-year-old Ashlynn Slack and 13-year-old Edie Cummings as they came off stage after competing in the Highland Fling competition. Both are from Fredericton, New Brunswick and have competed in highland dance for over five years. They have performed at highland games in Nova Scotia, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta and their dream is to become good enough to be chosen to compete in Scotland.
Piping and Drumming
Bagpipers and drummers from around Atlantic Canada flock to the New Brunswick Highland Games Festival to compete in individual piping, drumming, and highland band competitions. We heard the combined bands play favorites like “Highland Laddie,” “Scotland the Brave” and “Highland Cathedral” during the opening and closing ceremonies.
According to the Highland Bagpipes Academy, it’s difficult to master the bagpipes because musicians must do so many things simultaneously and do them all well. Playing most musical instruments requires blowing air, covering holes, or pressing keys to play notes.
Playing the bagpipes, however, requires squeezing air into a bag and then blowing air into the pipes while covering holes. This requires exceptional air control and lung capacity while maintaining proper posture and technique.
Pam Newcomb from Halifax, Nova Scotia has played bagpipes in one of the highland bands. She began at the age of 12 and has been performing for 22-years, mainly in games and festivals throughout Canada, the U.S. and Scotland. Newcomb says it took five years of arduous practice before she was good enough to play in competitions.
Part of the pageantry of a highland band competition is seeing the drummers twirl their mallets while marching. Devin Patterson plays the Scottish Tenor Drum with the Fredericton Society of St. Andrew Pipe Band. He started playing when he was seven years old and explained that it took him a full three or four years to master the art of twirling his mallets.
Around The New Brunswick Highland Games Festival
After you’ve seen the competitions, be sure to check out the exhibits. You’ll find authentic Scottish souvenirs such as kilts (of course), bagpipes, and household items with clan and family crests.
You won’t go hungry since many exhibitors sell Scottish specialties such as shortbread, haggis and cranachan, a dessert made with cream and fresh raspberries served with Scottish oats and whisky.
Whether your name is McLeod, Duncan, Wallace or McDonald, there’s a clan booth where you can explore your Scottish roots and family tree and perhaps even locate a few long-lost relatives.
When you’re finished, head to the Ceilidh party tent to sample locally brewed Picaroons beer and enjoy live music and dancing.
Attending the Festival
The New Brunswick Highland Games Festival doesn’t just attract people of Scottish descent. Anyone who appreciates the amount of practice and dedication that goes into highland dancing, the strength and technique required to hurl a 22-pound stone or flip a 20-foot log end over end or the difficulty entailed playing the bagpipes while marching will have a great time.
If you plan to be in New Brunswick in late July, visit the New Brunswick Highland Games Festival to schedule your visit. Then, don your kilt (optional, of course) and follow the sound of the bagpipes and celebrate being Scottish for a day.