The Antigonish Highland Society sponsored the inaugural Antigonish Highland Games October 16th, 1863. There is evidence a highland games was hosted informally, in Antigonish, before 1863. Events included foot races, piping, the Highland Fling competition, as well as traditional Scottish heavy events. In 1868, the competitions were expanded to include hurdle races, archery, and the reel and sword dances. At the time, these were exclusively male pursuits.
In the late 1860’s, when the 78th Highlanders were garrisoning the Citadel in Halifax, they traveled to Antigonish to take part in the highland games. Their participation marked the first occasion a pipe band played the Games. The 78th Highlanders rode the train as far as New Glasgow. They marched the final 65 kilometers to Antigonish through the woods with their gear and instruments pulled in wagons.
The Antigonish Highland Games traditionally occurred in August after the hay was cut. The Games reflected dance and music and heavy events. As the Games developed an agricultural fair evolved parallel to the Games. Remarkably, in Scotland, a highland games was established which eventually split to form the Inverness Northern Region and the Royal Highlands and Islands Agricultural Fair. In Antigonish, our games continued as the Antigonish Highland Games and saw the development of the Eastern Nova Scotia Exhibition.
The Antigonish Highland Games was held at various locations in the early years, including Apple Tree Island, and on one occasion on the grounds of Dr. Alexander MacIntosh, one of the regions first practicing physicians. This latter site is now part of the Antigonish Highland Games’ present venue, Columbus Field. The Antigonish Highland Games moved to Cathedral Hill in the early 1870’s. They were staged in conjunction with a bazaar held to raise funds for St. Ninian’s Cathedral, which was then under construction. The reputation of the Antigonish Highland Games continued to grow often attracting more than three thousand spectators to the premier sports and cultural event held in north eastern Nova Scotia. Spectators and athletes would come together to enjoy the spirited competition.
By 1880, the County of Antigonish entered a prolonged period of recession accompanied by a decline in population. Thousands of young people emigrated to the “Boston States” and to western Canada. The difficult economic conditions and resulting population decline had a deleterious effect on the Antigonish Highland Games. Attendance and participation declined during this period of time. In 1899, Ronnie J. MacDonald, a native of Heatherton, Antigonish County, and reigning Boston Marathon Champion could not attract more than 600 spectators. The First World War saw the Antigonish Highland Games suspended. The records are not clear when the Games resumed. We do have trophies dated from 1919 and the early 1920s, suggesting competitions were held.
In 1919, a new and determined Antigonish Highland Society executive and membership revived the Antigonish Highland Games. During the 1920’s, the Antigonish Highland Games witnessed a generation of exceptional athletes, Dan R. Chisholm (later Rev. “Dempsey” Chisholm) of Ohio, Antigonish County demonstrated exceptional abilities. The renewed Games were held at the old Elm Grounds (between St. Andrews St. and the railway right-of-way). When the Elm grounds were not available the College Track (near the present Bauer Theatre on the campus of St. Francis Xavier University) played host. Following the 1920’s, the Games were staged at what is now the Exhibition Grounds on James St. The Games remained on the Exhibition Grounds site until the early 1950’s. A move to our present site on Columbus Field, Main St. followed.
The Antigonish Highland Games, at least until the Second World War, were used as a vehicle to raise funds for various charitable causes like the Antigonish Highland Society, a cultural organization dedicated to relieving “distress among indigent Highlanders”. In the late 1940’s, another event was added, the Concert Under the Stars which has now become the oldest Scottish concert in Nova Scotia. In the days of passenger trains, special trains would be laid on from Sydney, Inverness, and New Glasgow to bring participants and visitors to the Antigonish Highland Games.
Today the Games has friends and connections to many events associated with the Scots and Scottish culture. Games in Fergus, Ontario; the Glengarry Highland Games in Maxville, Quebec; Fredericton, New Brunswick and world events like the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland have regular participation from Antigonish.
The Games are a tremendous tribute to the pioneers who started the 1863 event and those who carry that legacy.