OF THE ANTIGONISH HIGHLAND GAMES
The Antigonish Highland Society first officially sponsored the Antigonish
Highland Games on October 16th, 1863, although there is evidence of
highland games occurring in Antigonish on an informal basis before that.
Events included foot races, piping, the Highland Fling, and traditional
Scottish Heavy Events. In1868, the competitions were expanded to include
hurdle races, archery, and the Reel and Sword dances. These were
exclusively male pursuits at the time.
In the late 1860’s, when the 78th Highlanders were garrisoning at the
Citadel in Halifax, they participated in the Games and, as such, were the
first pipe band to be present. They had taken the train as far as New
Glasgow, and then marched through the woods with wagons to Antigonish.
The Games traditionally occurred in August after the hay was cut and
initially had an aspect of an agricultural fair as well. This remarkably
paralleled the development of the premier highland games in Scotland which
eventually split to form the Inverness Northern Region and the Royal
Highlands and Islands Agricultural Fair. In Antigonish it gave us the
Antigonish Highland Games and the Eastern Nova Scotia Exhibition.
The Games were held at various locations those early years, including
Apple Tree Island, and on one occasion at least, on the grounds of Dr.
Alexander MacIntosh, one of the regions first practicing physicians. This
latter site is now part of the Games present venue. The Games moved to
Cathedral Hill in the early 1870’s and were staged in conjunction with a
bazaar to raise funds for St. Ninian’s Cathedral, which was then under
construction. The reputation of the Games had grown by that time so that
upwards of three thousand spectators would come together to enjoy spirited
competition featuring athletes, pipers, and dancers.
By 1880, the County of Antigonish had entered into 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 Games, as both attendance and participation
declined during this period. Even with the attraction of Boston Marathon
Champion Ronnie J. MacDonald, a native of Heatherton, Antigonish County,
the 1899 Games attracted a mere 600 spectators. With the outbreak of the
First World War, the Games were suspended, although the records are not
clear regarding the exact number of years of the hiatus.
In 1919, a new and determined Antigonish Highland Society executive and
membership revived the Games, and they have grown in scope and support
ever since. During the 1920’s, the Games witnessed a generation of
exceptional athletes, led by Dan R. Chisholm (later Rev. “Dempsey”
Chisholm) of Ohio, Antigonish County. They were held at the old Elm
Grounds (between St. Andrews St. and the railway right-of-way) and
occasionally at the College Track (near the present Bauer Theatre) during
this period. Following this, they were held at the present Exhibition
Grounds on James St. until the early 1950’s, and then moved to Columbus
Field, the present venue.
The Games, at least until the Second World War, were used as a vehicle to
raise funds for various charitable causes as the Antigonish Highland
Society, as well as a cultural organization, is dedicated to relieving
“distress in indigent Highlanders”. In the late 1940’s, the Concert Under
the Stars began and, as such, is the oldest Scottish concert in Nova
Scotia and to a large degree, has been a pattern for all others which have
followed it. The effect of the Games on the local culture has been quite
wide. In the days of passenger trains, special trains would be laid on
from Sydney, Inverness, and New Glasgow to bring participants from all of
Scottish Nova Scotia to the Games as this was the central focal site.
...and the tradition continues.