The grounds of Douglas Institute in Verdun will be abuzz with the skirl of the bagpipes this weekend — it’s Highland Games time again! The 41st annual edition will be held on the hospital grounds on August 5.
Nine kilted athletes from across Western Canada will compete in six traditional Highland events, including the 56-pound weight throw (throwers are judged on height and distance) and the caber toss, affectionately called the telephone pole throw, where athletes flip the pole end-over-end and are judged on accuracy (a pole flipped at an exact 180-degree angle from where it started receives a perfect score).
However, the Highland Games have always been more than an athletic competition. Pipe band, fiddling and highland dancing shows and competitions are planned at this year’s event, along with a ceilidh (live music party) tent, concerts, children’s activities, a kilted fun run and a charity tug-of-war event where four community teams will compete to raise funds for the Douglas Institute Foundation. There will also be a rugby demonstration, a new event this year, and a meet-and-greet with local Olympic synchronized swimmer Jacqueline Simoneau.
“This is a family fun day that brings everyone [in the Scottish community] together once a year to celebrate our traditions, get together and have fun,” says Marilyn Meikle, first vice-president of the St. Andrew’s Society of Montreal, which organizes the Games. “You don’t have to be Scottish to be part of it. When I’ve walked around the games in recent past years, I’ve seen people from the Scottish and Irish communities, and also a huge upsurge in the number of French- and Spanish-speaking Montrealers who attend.”
This year’s festival will include a new focus on opening the Games themselves to people from outside the Scottish community. Jason Baines, one of two athletes with local roots competing in the Games, organized a clinic on July 28 to introduce local athletes to Highland Games events. “Most [future Highland Games athletes] see the Games and they want to get involved, but it’s harder if there’s not a local group in place,” says Baines, a former competitive hammer thrower who now lives in Hawkesbury, Ont. “It would be a real home run for us if some of these [local athletes] could help us grow the local competition scene.”
Highland Games have been gaining visibility across the province in recent years, with an annual competition in Quebec City and growing interest in an event in Trois-Rivières, according to Baines. “There’s a really vibrant strongman culture in Quebec, so Highland Games are right up the alley of most Quebecers,” he says. “In the next few years, you’ll be seeing a lot more Quebec throwers.”
“Close to half of the athletes have some kind of track and field experience; others are strongmen or have football backgrounds,” he explains. “We see all sorts, from guys who are 6’6” and over 300 pounds…to guys who are smaller,” Baines adds. Many elite Highland Games competitions also have divisions for women and older athletes — developments Baines and Meikle would both be happy to see at future Montreal Highland Games. “Internationally, people from all backgrounds and every continent are part of the Games. Don’t be shy!” says Baines.
With a brief interruption in the 1970s, the Highland Games have been held in some form or other in Montreal since 1855, according to the event website. They have been held in Verdun since 2012, and on the Douglas Institute grounds since last year.
“When my family came here from Scotland, generations ago, they settled in Verdun, and the area has been home to many, many Scots,” says Meikle. “When I was a little girl, I used to go to the Games in St. Lambert and Ormstown; I remember it in many different places, but it’s come home to where the people who first got off the boats settled.”
Highland Games will take place on August 5, starting at 9 am.