He’s a full-time bagpiper, part-time actor and the man behind the scenes of the BC Highland Games and Scottish Festival, an annual sporting and cultural event celebrated in this province for the last 89 years.
But today, a day when the rain came down hard, Mike Chisholm donned his full Scottish regalia and stepped alone across the stage at Lafarge Lake in Coquitlam, blowing “Bonnie Black Isle” — or as Chisholm put it, “The Lament for the Highland Games.”
“Instead of 250 bagpipers you only get one,” he chuckled.
The musical gesture was a way to remind everyone that on this day, the city, and indeed the whole province, would have been celebrating an age-old Scottish tradition — if it, like all other large gatherings across the province, hadn’t been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Heavy rain thumped down on the open stage and the odd roll of thunder punctuated the mournful wail of the Chisholm’s bagpipes. Still, when he got talking about the games, you would have never thought they were cancelled.
“It’s from the Scottish Highlands — we’re tough. We can take a little rain, we can take a pandemic. We took two world wars.”
But since the pandemic began, Chisholm admits the future of the festival has been thrown into question.
“We’ve lost all of our funding. The Spirit Grant has been taken back…90% is going back to the city,” he said of the nearly $83,000 Coquitlam awarded the games this time last year.
Unlike professional sports, there are no lucrative TV deals at the Highland games. Most of the money it generates comes from entry fees and concessions, so holding an athlete-only event is an impossible proposition.
Add the costs of putting on a show with over 40 moving events and tents — from beer and whiskey gardens to pipe bands, Highland dancing and the traditional Scottish heavy events like the caber toss — and most years, they break even.
With this year cancelled, and Chisholm — the only paid employee — laid off, the organizers are already nervously looking ahead to next year’s event.
That’s because the only way they can host the games next year is for the province to move into stage 4 of its phased reopening plan.
“Stage 4 is the vaccine, and without a vaccine, there are no games,” he said, adding that unless they have a sign from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry by January, next year’s event could be in jeopardy too.
In the meantime, Chisholm says he’ll continue to talk up the games while blowing the pipes at birthdays, weddings and funerals, or what he likes to call “hatch, match and dispatch parties.”
As the rain started to taper off Chisholm collected his pipes under his arm and turned to trudge back to the half-empty parking lot.
When asked what comes next, Chisholm had one word: “Survival.”
“This is something that’s been near and dear to me for many years,” he said.
“I’m not letting it fall apart.”