Great question, and do I have an answer. In fact, I have many answers. What follows is my top 10 list of what I believe are the best highland games and events in the Pacific Northwest.
(Many thanks to my friend and drumming veteran Billy Thompson of the Sir. John A. MacDonald Pipeband for his input and advice on this column.)
- BC Highland Games. This great event is held the last Saturday of June at Percy Perry Stadium (formerly called the Coquitlam Town Centre) in Coquitlam. (This year, June 26) It’s a very well run event, with something for everyone. Spectators can relax under the big stadium tent, watch from the beer garden or wander around the field checking out the vendors, the food, the whiskey tasting. There’s highland dancing competitions, individual piping and drumming competitions, sheep dog demos, and of course the heavy events (the big lads in kilts, flipping telephone poles (cabers) throwing big rocks, hay bales, transit buses, children, sheep, etc.) The highlight of the day is the band competition. It starts with Grade IV and moves up to the main event, Grade I, where the world champion Simon Fraser University Pipeband takes on its only local competitor, Dowco Triumph Street Pipeband. Often a visiting Grade I pipe band such as Alberta Caledonia travels in for what is very stiff competition. Afterwards everyone gets to relax in the beer garden with BC’s piping talent and rising stars. It is truly a great event and you’d be hard pressed to find a BC piper or drummer who disagrees with this ranking as No. 1. Wear something Scottish. Check out the website for more details.
- Comox Highland Games/Victoria Highland Games: Both of these Vancouver Island events fall on the same weekend, so many pipe bands and spectators make a round trip out of it. This year it’s May 22 in Comox, and May 22 & 23 in Victoria (band competition is Sunday so bands can compete at both games). Many of the highland games are similar and follow a tried and true formula of piping, drumming, dancing, concerts plus band and heavy event competition, along with the vendors, the food and of course whiskey tasting and the ever-popular beer garden. There are usually children activities and plenty of other sights and sounds. More information about the Comox Games can be found here. And for information about the Victoria Games, check out the Games website
- Seattle Highland Games. July 31-Aug. 1. The official name is the Pacific Northwest Scottish Highland Games and Clan Gathering. And it’s actually held in Enumclaw, east of Seattle, although everyone calls it the Seattle Games. I’ve attended several times and not only is it fun, but it’s an eye opener to this boy from the heartland of Scottish culture in Nova Scotia to see how our American friends put on a highland games. Everything’s on display at this massive, and usually desperately hot event that attracts tens of thousands of people – some dressed head to toe in tartan and wool, others with faces painted blue like Braveheart, medieval knights with massive swords, swooning damsels in long flowing dresses and of course lots of pipebands. There’s a camping area beside the field that is a hoot in the evening. Well worth the trip with a group of people, but book your site early. Check out the website for more information.
- Bellingham Scottish Highland Games. June 5-6. These games just across the border make a great Saturday day trip from the Lower Mainland. Because it’s so close, it attracts a lot of Canadian bands (which I feel are superior, of course, given our British heritage).
- BC Legion Highland Gathering. June 19. These games are held the third weekend of June in a different location each year. This year it’s in Squamish. The Royal Canadian Legion is a major sponsor of many pipe bands in Canada, and this is an opportunity for many of those bands to come together and showcase their talent. Throw in the Legion “joie de vivre” and some sporting events in and out of the beer garden, and it all adds up to a pretty good day. Check out the website.
- Rotary May Day Parade, Port Coquitlam, May 8. This is one of the longest running community parades in the Lower Mainland. It attracts a lot of pipe bands and is a great opportunity to see our pipers and drummers on-parade, kilts a swirling and pipe’a whirlin’. It attracts a huge crowd along the parade route. Check out the website for more information.
- Portland Highland Games. July 17. Another big American games. Scottish dancing; piping, drumming, and fiddling competitions; athletic competitions; musical entertainment; traditional food and shopping; children’s activities; clan tents and more! SFU and Triumph Street pipebands are usually on hand. Here’s the website.
- Skagit Valley Highland Games. July 10-11. These games are held in Mount Vernon, Washington on the same weekend at the Kamloops Highland Games. The Valley Games attract more than 10,000 spectators and here you can find the usual Games events. The website has all the information you need.
- Pipes by the Sea, Early June, West Vancouver. The West Vancouver Firefighters Charitable Society organizes this big concert in Ambleside Park. It’s all piping and drumming and pipebands, a gorgeous setting and a great evening of pipe music.
- Calgary Highland Games (Sept 4) & Canmore Highland Games (Sept 5). This is another double-whammy of a summer wrap-up piping weekend. Calgary is home to the Alberta Caledonia Pipeband (a grade I level band) and the two Games attracts all the prairie and Alberta bands to compete. Often BC bands show up for the stiff competition. There are a LOT of Maritimer’s in Calgary and I swear almost every one shows up for these games. There’s a lot of “do you know Willie Hector Hughie, the uncle of Joe John Angus MacDonald?” I’ve met a pile of people from home under this massive beer tent. For information about Calgary, see their site. For information about Canmore, check out this site.
Most of these Games are sanctioned by the British Columbia Pipers Association which means players and bands are judged and the results of each competition is tallied up and an overall “Champion Supreme” is declared at the end of the season in various class levels. The competitions all count towards that tally, and it helps to maintain a high level of competition. As a former individual and pipe band competitive piper, I can tell you it’s tough – but lots of fun. The camaraderie of band competition can be intense, plus a hot day, Highland music, friendly people and an atmosphere that can undeniably stir your Scottish genes.
It all starts in three weeks.