It was as if Mother Nature thought about a good rain shower, or two, or three, over the weekend, but then looked down and saw the 156th Antigonish Highland Games were going on, and decided to hold off.
The Games, which began unofficially the weekend before with some associated events, were officially opened July 12, where wet weather did force the opening ceremonies indoors and onto the Labatt Ceilidh Stage.
It was there Antigonish Highland Society Chief of Clans and past-president Harley MacCaull announced the Games officially underway, which was followed by Highland dancing and the Concert Under the Stars featuring fiddler Stan Chapman, accompanied by Marion Dewar and Junior Fraser.
“We were fortunate the weather held off the way it did. It threatened to rain both Saturday and Sunday, but it held off and allowed us to enjoy the weekend,” Antigonish Mayor Laurie Boucher said.
“The amount of hours people put in volunteering to make the Games a success is amazing. I really have to praise the efforts of the people here in Antigonish.”
Central Nova MP Sean Fraser described the Games as an “incredible” draw for the area.
“When you see thousands of people descend on Antigonish to celebrate our Celtic heritage; it makes you really proud to be from this part of the world and to share that heritage with so many people from here,” Fraser said.
Five-mile road race
Just prior to the opening ceremonies, Matt MacNeil from the Halifax Road Hammers and local athlete Siona Chisholm, a star student-athlete with the Dr. J.H. Gillis Regional Royals last season, were the top male and female finishers for the traditional five-mile road race, which begins and ends at Columbus Field.
“I’ve been coming here every year for six years now; I won it back in 2015 and have been trying to repeat every year since,” MacNeil said.
“It’s always great competition here; probably one of the deepest races in the Maritimes, for sure, every year. The course is hard but a lot of fun, with the atmosphere and everything else going on.”
Chisholm noted she appreciated the varied-terrain course, which was a change from the tracks, where her focus has been lately.
“It’s a change from the track, and, as well, that I was able to, really, decide my pace at the start but then, as I gradually felt better, I could pick it up,” she said.
Both runners talked about where the race falls on their running schedules.
“Typically for me, I’m not trying to build for much in the summer,” MacNeil said. “Usually, your big races are early spring and middle to late fall; so the summer is just about being consistent and trying to stay fit. It’s always hard to race [in the summer]; today was probably the coolest temperature you could get for the middle of July and it was still really hot, a hard race.”
“Mostly, I’m doing shorter distances on tracks, so I didn’t know how well I would do in an 8-km race,” Chisholm said, again expressing appreciation the race offered up a little something different for her at this time of the year.
Piping and drumming
The big story from the piping, drumming and pipe band competition was the success of local piper Andrea Boyd who captured the Atlantic Canadian Open Piobaireachd Champion title, as well as scoring two third places (open piping strathspey/reel and open piping jig).
For her impressive performance, Boyd earned the Antigonish Highland Society Trophy for best performance by an Antigonish town or county piper.
“It was an excellent weekend of competition; the standard was very high with the soloists and across the bands,” Boyd said.
“The bands are competing at a very high level and consistent across the grades. There are a number of bands here today which will be going to North American championships at the Glengarry Highland Games and I think they will put on a good showing … it was a great weekend,” she added.
Boyd, who lives in Toronto, talked about first performing at the Highland Games in 1993 and competing every year until 2001.
“I’ve returned several times since then and it’s always special to compete here and be surrounded by family and friends and former band maters,” she said. “Competing in Pipers’ Glen feels more like a performance than a competition because there are such great crowds down there.”
Piping and drumming co-chair Danny Gillis talked about the numbers of participants.
“We had 13 bands compete in our Games, which is about par with recent years, but solo competitors were up, especially in the higher grades,” gillis said.
“We had some of the top pipers in the world in our ‘open’ or ‘professional’ grade, which led to some very interesting results. Bruce Gandy of Halifax, one of our Hall of Fame inductees this year, won the Open Piper of the Games award for the 18th time. Bruce won the jig contest and placed in the top three in all four Open contests. Surprisingly, there were four different winners in these contests.”
Gillis noted Boyd’s success, describing it as, “one of the heartwarming stories of the year.”
“It will give Andrea a big lift as she prepares to compete in piobaireachd contests in Scotland this summer,” he said.
Chair Krista McKenna described the Highland dancing competition for the Games as “excellent.”
“We had a full two days that included pre-premier events, the New Scotland Open Championship, the Highland Heart Premiership and two special events. We had dancers and champions from across the country and the best display of dancing talent from the Maritimes,” McKenna said.
She added local dancers really enjoy the competition in their home region.
“The atmosphere at the field is awesome with all the other surrounding events and competitions taking place, everyone had a great weekend,” she said.
Picking up awards for local Highland dancers were Antigonish’s Sam Synishin – the New Zealand Trophy presented to the most promising – pre-premier dancer from Antigonish town of county; and St. Andrews’ Karly Boyle who won the Wilena MacInnis Penny Trophy, presented annually to the premier dancer, from Antigonish town or county, who accumulates the highest number of total points in the premier competitions. It was Karly’s second time winning the trophy.
“It is an honour to win this award when there are so many amazing dancers in Antigonish,” Karly said. “I could not have won it without the support of my teacher Shelley Grant Rovers.”
While last year Scottish heavy weight competition winner was a local athlete, Antigonish’s Matt Doherty, who also claimed the Canadian championship during the event, this year’s champion hails from the U.S. mid-western state of Iowa – Mason City to be exact.
“It was a great weekend,” Nathan Burchett, competing in his second Antigonish Highland Games, said.
He noted it was three years ago he was at Games and it’s special for him to compete here because of the history and tradition.
“The history of this one, being the oldest in North America; so it’s cool to be here experiencing the history and a lot of classic, awesome throwers have competed here in the past,” Burchett said. “Trailblazers in our sport; I just like sharing the same field with the people who set the ground-work for us to be here, while also getting to hang out with a bunch of my best friends …it’s always fun.”
The comradery between the athletes is evident throughout but as Burchett points out, it’s still a very competitive environment on the field.
“We all come here and want to win; it’s competitive but it’s weird competitive,” he said with a chuckle.
“We want each other to do their best, but still beat them. So we’re all friends and help each other out, but we’re still definitely here to win.”
Burchett said he was very pleased with his performance especially with the busy few weeks he has coming up.
“The volume with my throwing and strength levels are hitting their peak here in mid-July,” he said. “It’s nice it’s all, kind of, coming together,” he said, noting he has competitions in Washington State, California and Colorado coming up.
“Those are my next three and then, hopefully, the national championships in September.”