It’s difficult to imagine a better setting for the provincial New Brunswick Highland Games Festival. Government House in Fredericton, with its imposing building, sweeping lawns, and centuries-old trees soaring overhead, is at once awe-inspiring and relaxing.
Highland games are a celebration of Scottish culture, and they’re held throughout the world. The New Brunswick Highland Games is a comprehensive affair with competitions in bagpiping, drumming, heavy events (more on this later), and highland dancing alongside a Scottish festival featuring entertainment, clan booths, and a variety of workshops (Gaelic for beginners, a beer-tasting workshop, and a heavy events workshop where you could try your hand at turning a caber were among this year’s highlights). Throw in some food vendors and a kid’s corner, and you’ve got something for everyone.
Athletics: the Heavy Events
My husband and I were looking forward to the heavy events more than anything else, but with an active 3-year-old in tow, we had limited success. (Next year!) The heavy events are traditional Scottish athletics, dating back to the 12th Century, and in layman’s terms, basically involve throwing about a bunch of improbably large things. The caber, for example, resembles nothing so much as a telephone pole:
And the goal of the caber toss is to toss it in the air and flip it over end-over-end.
Sure, no problem.
Inexplicably, this did not astonish and delight our daughter. It did, however, inspire her, and she instantly wanted to toss sticks and rocks about – a dangerous past-time in large crowds.
The Music: Bagpipes and Drums
The piping and drumming was an easier sell, and so we moved on and settled in to the bleachers to watch the opening ceremonies. These included the “massed bands” which is exactly what it sounds like: all the piping and drumming bands competing at the games massed together, playing as one. This alone was worth the price of admission!
After the opening ceremonies, the band competitions began. I’ve always enjoyed the bagpipes, and never really understood the common joke that it sounds like cats being tortured… until we wandered around the grounds before the pipe band competitions. Dozens of bagpipes tuning up and then playing independently of one another while each band practised simultaneously was physically exhausting to listen to, as much as I enjoy the bagpipes! I’m impressed that they hold their focus to practise in the middle of that.
Amelia again wanted to play (this time with the drums) although she did enjoy listening to the bagpipes too.
When we returned on Sunday, the solo music competitions were underway, and this was a completely different experience. The bagpipers and drummers were spread out throughout the grounds practising, so that everywhere you wandered you heard music, but it wasn’t so much in competition with other musicians.
In fact, Sunday morning was fantastic. It was overcast and cool, the crowds were smaller and the music was spread throughout the grounds. We could wander around at will and enjoy the beautiful setting.
The highland dancing competitions were a hit with our daughter (who again, wanted to participate, but dancing on a lawn is far less likely to end in injury than tossing about sticks). They take place inside a tent, which makes sense for weather reasons but made it difficult to see and take photos.
Scottish Cultural Festival
In addition to the Highland Games, there’s a full cultural festival that includes clan tents, workshops (we didn’t have a chance to check these out, unfortunately), some vendors (if you need a kilt, now’s your chance!) and food stands. The food was mostly generic – think fries and hot dogs – but there was a Scottish stand.
Naz, a local businessman who hails from Trinidad and runs Caribbean Flavas restaurant in downtown Fredericton, was on hand with haggis samosas. I was deeply skeptical, but he talked me into trying one and they were pretty good!
I ate three.
Behind the food vendors was a kid’s tent, with some young volunteers doing face painting, and a variety of craft items available for kids to play with. There’s also a washer toss and a mini-putt set up. There’s nothing directed here, it’s all self-serve, but the kids seemed to be having fun.
I’d love to see something in this area that teaches the kids, in a fun way, about Scottish culture. I’d really love to see an area where kids could try out the various games – highland dancing, bang on a drum, check out a set of bagpipes, try the heavy events (maybe with a pool noodle instead of a caber, though!). Based on what we saw with our daughter, this could be a huge hit with the kids.
Nine tips for a great New Brunswick Highland Games experience
- The New Brunswick Highland Games Festival website recommends that you bring lawn chairs (we just brought a blanket), and my first pro tip: bring a lawn chair. Also, stake out your spot in the shade early. These are well-attended games! (Although the lawns are so spacious there’s always space – it just might not be shaded)
- As is so often the case in athletics, the women’s heavy athletic events seem to draw less of a crowd, but they’re just as impressive as the men’s. So if you’re anti-crowd, try checking those out.
- Bring cash. The food vendors, at least, work on cash only.
- Wear a hat and sunscreen.
- Leave lots of time to just hang out. There’s lots to see and do here, and you can easily make a full day of it (or a weekend).
- Make sure you catch the massed bands at least once.
- If you’re coming from out of town, Government House is right on the riverfront trail system, which makes it a handy and scenic walk from/to other places downtown, and there’s a wading pool right across the road in case the kids get hot.
- I realized afterwards that you can actually tour Government House. So why not do two touristy things at once, and check it out while you’re there?
- Arrive early. Parking at the grounds runs out fast, and you’ll have to go further afield. Not the end of the world, but if you have young kids and want access to your car for extra sunscreen/clothes/toys/whatever it’s much easier to park right at the site.
The final word
This festival was on my must-do list this year, and it didn’t disappoint. We’re already looking forward to next year!