The Victoria Highland Games is the longest running cultural event in the region, stretching back more than 150 years to the founding of our city when Scottish influence was strong in business and culture. Sir James Douglas, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company and Roderick Finlayson, also of the Hudson’s Bay Company were associated with the 1859/60 founding of the St. Andrew’s Society, a Scottish benevolent association.
In November 1863, the Caledonian Benevolent Association was formed and a British Colonist article in November 1864 reported that “We understand it is the intention of the Association to have a Highland gathering on an extensive scale as soon as their accoutrements arrive from Scotland.”
This would perhaps indicate that their first gathering earlier in 1864 was a smallish affair. The Caledonian Society continued to organise an annual Highland Games/Gathering, and in 1869 bought property on Cook Street just north of Yates which became known as Caledonian Park. In 1869/70 the two organisations amalgamated to become the St. Andrew’s and Caledonian Society which organized the Games at Caledonian Park until 1887.
The St. Andrew’s and Caledonian Society then sold that property and bought a full city block in James Bay bordered by what is now Simcoe, St. Andrew’s, Niagara and Government Streets, named it Caledonian Park, and held the Games there for many years.
Early 20th Century
The Sir William Wallace Society was organized in April 1889, and on August 29, 1891 held their first Highland Games in conjunction with the BC Scottish Pipers Association. In 1897, the Sir William Wallace Society and the St. Andrew’s and Caledonian Society started to hold joint Highland Games, possibly until the 1920s.
Little information about the Highland Games from the 1920s and early 1930s has been found with the exception of an article about the Tourist Trade Development Association holding Games in 1935 at the Willows Fair Grounds.
In 1938 the Victoria Highland Games Association was formed and has organised the Victoria Highland Games ever since. The newly formed VHGA sponsored its first Scottish gathering at MacDonald Park. On that 1938 day, over 2000 spectators and competitors saw the Honourable T.D. Pattullo, Premier of British Columbia, perform the official opening with the Honourable James A. Farley, Postmaster-General of the United States of America.
During the war years of 1939 to 1945, the young Victoria Highland Games Association continued its annual highland gatherings with proceeds donated to the Scottish war effort.
After World War II
As the Games became established, they took on a multi-cultural flavour. In 1957, a Yugoslavian-born Vancouver athlete, John Pavelich, excelled. “MacPavelich” was the top man with the greatest number of aggregate points in all events. He threw the shotput a Canadian record distance of 52 feet, one inch.
In those same Games, Betty Chan, a pretty young Saskatoon lass, captured the dancing aggregate for under 11, and today, one only needs to scan the list of competitors to see that interest in highland games is not limited to those of Scottish lineage. There are no national or racial boundaries for the skill and agility required to compete in highland events nor in the enjoyment derived by competitors and spectators alike.
The Games have been held at various venues around Victoria in the last several decades, and moved to Victoria’s Topaz Park in 2008 for a 2-day Victoria Highland Games & Celtic Festival. In 2010, the VHGA hosted the World Heavy Events Championship and in 2013 hosted His Royal Highness, Prince Andrew, as Chieftain of the Games for the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Highland Games.
Today, the Games are a 10 day festival, with Tartan Parade, Kilted Golf Tournament, Tilted Kilt Pubcrawl, concert, formal reception, and clan torchlight ceremony preceding a 3-day Highland Games & Celtic Festival weekend.
The future looks very bright for the association as it continues to enhance the Highland Games & Celtic Festival and achieve its mandate to promote Scottish culture, art and sport through other events during the year. The VHGA holds a long-term lease on the Craigflower Manor, with plans to build a Scottish community centre on the property in the future.