The Antigonish Highland Games are the longest running games of their kind held outside Scotland, and they’ve been attracting travellers since their official beginnings in 1863. Each July, hundreds of athletes, musicians and dancers congregate in this small town to celebrate their highland heritage in grand fashion, with parades, concerts and competitions, and if you’re heading to Nova Scotia, you’ll want to be a part of all the excitement.
Caid Mile Failte—One Hundred Thousand Welcomes—that’s perhaps the first tradition you’ll encounter as you’re welcomed in the time-honored Celtic way to the heart of highland Nova Scotia. These people take their cultural heritage seriously, and you’ll immediately feel as if you’ve be transported back to the Scotland of another time. Tartans of every clan and color abound. You’ll see hundreds of people in kilts and hear the language of the Gaels spoken on every street corner. And when they’re not speaking Gaelic, you’ll catch the soft accent of it in their English—it’s what makes the unmistakable ‘down east’ drawl. The poignant strains of the bagpipe will captivate you, too, and the silhouette of a lone piper against the setting sun will provide a stirring memory of your visit to this bastion of Scottish culture.
The festival spans an entire week, and in the days leading up to the games there’s plenty to see and do. The Grand Parade features floats, pipe and drum bands and marching clans in their colorful tartan ensembles—a grand spectacle indeed. Follow this up with the not-to-be-missed Concert Under the Stars. It’s a unique and beautiful experience in the stillness of a Nova Scotia summer’s night.
You’ll get your fill of Scottish tradition at the annual Ceilidh—the Gaelic word for party or gathering—where you’ll dance, clap and stomp your way through an evening of authentic Scottish entertainment. And if you’re a golfer, you can play in the kilted golf tournament; but be warned, you must wear a kilt to participate.
One of the very best festival events, however, is the colorful Massed Pipe Bands. There’s something uplifting in the sight and sound of hundreds of kilted pipers and drummers marching together in formation and playing with all their hearts. It will make your own heart beat faster.
All these festivities are merely the lead up. The traditional heavy event competitions remain the core of the celebration, featuring such feats of strength as the famous caber toss, in which burly men—in kilts, of course—single-handedly toss an eighteen foot long, 120 pound spruce pole. In the hammer throw event, a 40 lb stone affixed to 3 ft handle is flung like a discus. The stone toss will catch your attention as well. Here a 56 pound stone attached to a chain is tossed over a high jump apparatus. It doesn’t get any more traditional than this.
You’ll definitely want to take in the highland dancing competitions, too. They’re a historically significant part of Scottish culture and tradition and thus a huge part of the celebrations. The wee lasses are precious in their traditional dancer’s garb, and the nimble-footed finesse of the ancient dances will simply amaze you.
Above all, don’t forget your camera; there are one-of-a-kind photo opportunities everywhere you go during games week. You’ll definitely want to capture all the color, pageantry and excitement of the true highland spirit of celebration that’s yours to experience at the Antigonish Highland Games here in the Highland Heart of Nova Scotia.