Eleanor Boswell is looking foward to donning her tartan kilt and pinning on her sash on Aug. 2 as she prepares to take part in the 150th P.E.I. Highland Games and Scottish Festival.
It’s not her first time at the annual event, but she expects it could very well be the most moving. In fact, later, as she steps onto the green at the Lord Selkirk Park in Eldon, she might even shed a few tears.
“It will be rather emotional in that we’ve managed to keep (the games) together for so long,” says the president of the Caledonian Club of P.E.I.
“As we stand on the hill and wait to be paraded down to the centre stage area, it will be overwhelming. The clans will all have their flags flying and the lone piper, Matthew MacLean, will be there, leading the parade. Behind him, three flags will be flown, the Canadian maple leaf, the P.E.I. flag and the flag of Scotland, the Saint Andrew’s Cross.”
But, when she walks onto the stage to welcome participants and athletes to this milestone event, minutes before performances by the Belfast Pipe and Drum Band, the NaGaisGich Pipe & Drum Band and the City of New Westminster Pipe Band, her tears will be gone.
“This time I will feel extremely proud,” says Boswell, who is one of the people profoundly moved by this year’s sesquicentennial of the P.E.I. Highland Games.
For Cecil MacPhail, the feelings also run deep.
“It’s an important tradition . . . . It makes us a little prouder of our Scottish background. I know that when I put the kilt on, I walk a little straighter,” says MacPhail, chief of the Caledonian Club of P.E.I., of the event that made its debut on Sept. 17, 1864.
Held on the grounds of Government House in Charlottetown, it featured pipers, poets, Highland dancers and sword dancers, as well as ancient Scottish games, including running and high leap, hurdle and sack races, the caber toss and the throwing of the Braemar stone, states a clipping from the Examiner, a Charlottetown paper.
And, over the years, the event has evolved.
For instance, the move to Eldon was a recent one, as suggested by a search in Island Newspapers.ca and a story in the July 10, 1954, edition of The Guardian, which states: “Adhering to the custom established in the Highlands, the Caledonian Club usually holds its gatherings each year in different parts of the province. In recent years, the games provided top Highland entertainment in such places as Caledonia, New Perth, Kinross, Strathgartney and Montague.”
By the time Lawson Drake started attending the games in the early 1960s and ’70s, the venue was, as it is now, in Eldon.
“Once the Selkirk Park was set up, it was an ideal location. First, because there were a number of members from that area. And secondly because it was very close, if not on the exact ground, to where Lord Selkirk landed his people aboard the Polly in 1803.
“It was a good place to be and a natural amphitheatre. So we stayed there,” says the Meadow Bank resident as he shares his recollections.
In those days, there were very few pipe bands on P.E.I.
“So we counted ourselves very fortunate if we ever got a band to come over from the mainland,” says Drake.
However, they did hold solo bagpiping competitions with young pipers competing and older pipers judging. But there were only a few athletic events.
“It was a one-day affair that centred on dancing and piping. The idea of concerts and a two-day event with the games that we have now evolved from that. In the ’70s, it was a much simpler affair.”
At the time, all the dancing was done to live music. The piper was Tom Burke of Charlottetown, who stood in the blistering sun, dressed in a kilt, and performed the music for the Highland fling, the sword dance and the Seann triubhas for class after class after class.
“At that time we didn’t have recorded music, so I just played and played and played. We would start at 9 a.m. and play until they ran out of dancers,” says Burke, a Charlottetown musician who participated in the games from the ’60s to the ’80s.
Jeannie MacKenzie Carrey was one of those dancers.
And she has fond memories of competing in the Highland dance competitions.
“As a young girl, it was the highlight of the summer for me. I would spend the whole weekend there.
“I don’t think I was that competitive. I just enjoyed getting up with all the girls and dressing up for it. For me, it was about fun and wearing the kilt,” she says.
Her brother, Doug MacKenzie, laughs as he remembers his sister’s performances in the 1960s.
“I can remember Jeannie dancing. But, as a young kid, I wasn’t interested in watching the girls dance. It was the big tents occupied by the Women’s Institutes who were cooking meals, as well as the games that interested me.
“It was the biggest day in our lives, except for Christmas, to go down to the Highland Games,” says MacKenzie who credits the current sports committee chair for returning the games to its earlier splendour.
“Since Roddie MacLean came in 2003, he has done an excellent job setting up the sports. We now have a very active competition. It holds the crowd until the end of the day.”
MacLean says it was his passion for the games that got him involved.
“It’s wonderful to be part of something that never ends because Scottish activities will continue on forever,” he says.
“It’s a wonderful privilege to be president of the club at this time and to join in with all the celebrations that we have planned. It’s also a lot of hard work. We hope that people will join us in this celebration. It’s an important event to celebrate, especially if you have Scottish roots.”
Just the facts:
If you are going
What: P.E.I. Highland Games.
When and where: Aug. 2-3 at Lord Selkirk Park in Eldon.
Admission: Daily, adults, $10, students, $5, under 12, free. Two day pass is $15.
Transportation: To the tent is available upon request. Call 902-892-2181, 902-368-7378 or 902-394-0669.
For more details: Go to www.caledonianclubofpei.ca