Sports: 'It's exhilarating': Glengarry Highland Games latest big event to return from pandemic hiatus

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For the first time since 2019, the North Glengarry, Ont., air was filled with the sounds of pipes and drums this weekend as the Glengarry Highland Games made its return.

Through a sea of tartans, you could find Mike Villeneuve smiling over the grounds he's looked after for more than 30 years.

Seeing those grounds full with fans, competitors and friends for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic filled him with joy.

It's exhilarating, it's wonderful," said Villeneuve, grounds chairman for the games.

"The crowds are excellent. We were surprised, we didn't really think they'd all be back. But ... the numbers seem as the good as the best days we've ever had."

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Grounds chairman Mike Villeneuve says the return of the Glengarry Highland Games is good for the venue too, as more revenue helps with repairs and upgrades. © Natalia Goodwin/CBC Grounds chairman Mike Villeneuve says the return of the Glengarry Highland Games is good for the venue too, as more revenue helps with repairs and upgrades.

The games have been running since 1948, and organizers estimate they have welcomed millions of visitors over the years — but not in 2020 or 2021, when COVID-19 forced them, like many other festivals, to go on hiatus.

While usually about 50 pipe bands attend, there are only about 30 this year, Villeneuve said — in part because it was hard for some bands to get up and running again after the break.

Villeneuve said drawing any amount of fans to the annual games is a good thing, as it will allow them to make repairs and upgrades to their Maxville, Ont., venue.

Even more important, he added, is the homecoming element.

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"A lot of these people that have families that are in the Williamstown area, Cornwall — they don't see their kids that often. But everybody seems to come down to Maxville for the long weekend," Villeneuve said.

Competitors like Kayleigh Johnstone, who came all the way from Aurora, Ont., to play with the St. Andrews College Pipe Band, seem to agree.

"I've grown up with a lot of these people, so it's kind of like they're a second family to us," said Johnstone. "It's kind of nice to be able to actually see them now."

Colin and Kayleigh Johnstone are both happy to be back playing in person with their band. © Natalia Goodwin/CBC Colin and Kayleigh Johnstone are both happy to be back playing in person with their band.

Johnstone said returning to competition has been physically difficult after taking time off during the pandemic, but she and her brother Colin were grateful for the in-person experience again.

"[It] definitely feels great to be back at the games," Colin Johnstone said. "I wasn't really a fan of doing the whole online thing, so yeah, much prefer doing it in person."

Over on the sports field Saturday, kilted men and women tossed sheaves and heavy logs known as cabers. A tug-of-war pitted clan against clan, while teams also lined up for rugby matches.

It's all a welcome sight for Rhona McCrae, who travelled from the Peterborough, Ont., area. She also used to compete at these games.

"Having the junior events was fabulous. So my nephew and my granddaughter competed in those, and they had a great time," she recalled.

"This is one of the biggest Highland Games, so it's yeah, it's special to be here again."

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