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400 pipers and drummers mark start of Victoria Highland Games

Festival continues Sunday at Topaz Park in Victoria, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Close to 400 pipers and drummers played in formation for the opening ceremony of the 161st annual Victoria Highland Games and Celtic Festival on Saturday.

“We’re getting quite a reputation,” said Jim Maxwell, president of the Victoria Highland Games Association, which puts on an event that’s one of the longest-running festivals in North America.

“It’s probably our biggest massed bands that we’ll ever have,” he said, adding that bands from as far as Edmonton and Utah were present. “We’ve almost grown out of Topaz Park.”

Carl Jensen, who has organized the heavy events at the Highland Games for the past 19 years — a competition gauntlet of strength, agility, accuracy and stamina that includes caber-tossing, stone throwing and hammer throws — still remembers the heavy game’s humble beginnings in Victoria.

“We were in Bullen Park, we were a one day, it was like a backyard game,” he said of the first heavy game competition in 2005.

It’s since become one of the premier heavy events in North America, said Jensen.

A heavy games world record set by Jessica Bridenthal in the 2017 Victoria Highland Games still stands today.

Jensen attributes the success of the heavy events to his organizing committee, all of whom are participants in the games.

The group trains regularly in a field near the University of Victoria, after the Scottish Cultural Centre was built over their old throwing field last year.

The group doesn’t train on school playing fields because the sheer impact of throwing tapered logs, blacksmith weights and other implements used in the heavy games can create dents in the ground.

“When my daughter’s soccer team started to fall in the divots, I had to find a new field because I was beating it up too much,” Jensen said, recalling his initial forays in the sport.

Locally, the sport is increasingly attracting female participants, he said, adding that there was an event for beginners two weeks ago that had a 3:1 women-to-men participant ratio.

Victoria Mayor Marianne Alto, who was part of the opening ceremony, said the Highland Games have long been an important part of Victoria. It was great to see people who continue to stay connected with their history and heritage, she told the Times Colonist.

Alto has Scottish heritage through her mother — but she points out that the McGees were Lowland Scots and not Highlanders. “They were indentured serfs, farmers, very much on the lower echelons of society, but [with] a very colourful past,” she said. “I actually had a chance to go back to Scotland and see where she was from, and it was fascinating.”

The first Highland Games were held in Scotland during the 11th century as a contest to find the fittest and strongest men in the land to deliver messages for King Malcolm III.

Highland games are now staged all over the world, including Hong Kong, New Zealand and Hungary.

The 161st annual Victoria Highland Games and Celtic Festival continues today with events and competitions from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

A single-day adult ticket costs $20 at the gate, while youths and seniors can get in with $15. Kids under 12 can enter for free.

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