The growth of Highland Games in North America

Screen-Shot-2015-05-06-at-08.30.37The most visible change in Scottish associational activities in North America was the proliferation of Caledonian Games from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. And it was Caledonian societies and clubs who were chiefly responsible for their organization, triggered by the general popularization of Scottish sports. The seminal study of the emergence and evolution of Highland Games comes from Grant Jarvie, who has traced the Games’ folk origins and their proliferation during the Victorian era—a result too of growing royal patronage—through to the modern Games of the twentieth century. With the first Games in Scotland having taken place at St Fillans in 1819, it is interesting to see references to events in Canada also in that year, when the Highland Society in Glengarry, Ontario hosted activities. While it is contested whether the Society hosted Highland Games proper or only a piping contest, it is fair to say that the activities common to Highland Games had made it across the Atlantic quickly. Other early references can be found for New York in 1836, when the Highland Society of New York organized Games, and they were also held in Boston by the early 1850s. In New York the tradition consolidated with the formation, in 1856, of the New York Caledonian Club, which held Games each year until 1933.

It was, however, only after the Civil War that the Games really grew: their number increased and they generally found a more permanent footing throughout North America. Zarnowski suggests that, by 1875, there were a minimum of 80 Scottish associations holding annual Games across the United States. This expansion went hand in hand with a growth in spectator numbers.  While early events may have attracted a few hundred, by the 1870s the Games held by the Brooklyn Caledonian Club witnessed the arrival of 5,000 spectators, Detroit at some point had 6,000, Boston 8,000, Toronto 15,000 and New York a whopping 20,000.



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