The Highland Games are one of Scotland’s great sporting traditions, and there are many chances to catch this quintessentially Scottish event across the country between May and September. With the first Highland Games events for the year soon to get underway, we take you through what you can expect to see at a Highland Games and why attending one is a must.
If you’re planning on seeing the Highland Games in action this year, take a look at our full collection of Scotland cottages to find the perfect base for all of your Scottish adventures.
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Highland Games sports
Alongside the wealth of centuries-old traditions being kept alive, another reason why the Highland Games remain so popular are the sports themselves. Many of these sporting events only take place at the Highland Games, making the uniqueness of the activities reason alone to attend an event. The Highland Games often involve competitors' throwing ability or brute strength – or sometimes both! Here are some of the sporting events you are likely to see at most Highland Games across Scotland.
Perhaps the signature event of the Highland Games is the caber toss, where competitors toss a 20-foot-long caber (a large log), which normally weighs around 150lb, as far as possible. The caber toss is also a good test of stability as the athlete has to balance the caber in their hands and perform a run-up before they toss it. Athletes’ throws are also judged on their straightness; a perfect toss sees the small end of the caber facing away from the thrower, at a '12 o’clock' angle.
The hammer throw is also an Olympic event, although the hammer thrown in the Highland Games is quite different to what you'd usually find in your tool shed. It consists of a metal ball, which can weigh up to 22lbs, connected to a wooden handle. Also, unlike in the Olympic Games, athletes are not allowed to spin while throwing the hammer. Instead, they stand with their back facing the field and swing the hammer over their heads, before they twist 180 degrees and launch it as far as they can. The athletes also wear special boots, with long blades fixed to the bottom, in order to make sure they stay fixed to that spot in the ground.
The stone put event is much like shot put, however the athletes instead throw a stone, weighing around 18lb, picked from a nearby river. Competitors throw the stone from behind a board known as a trig and have three attempts to launch it as far as possible.
An Olympic event until 1910, tug o’war is still a popular sport throughout Scotland, pitting teams of 15 against each other in a hotly contested test of strength and tactics. In order to win, a team must pull their opponents forward by 6 feet using the rope, with the teams pitted against each other in a best of three.
Hill races see runners trying to get to the top of a local hill as quickly as possible, any way they choose. This can test even seasoned runners due to the uneven terrain and the steepness of many of the hills.
Weight for height
This event is a real test of brute strength and tests how high the athletes can throw a 56lb weight over a crossbar. The catch is that they may only throw it with one hand, from a standing position, with three attempts to throw the weight over the bar at that height. The bar continues to be raised, with the athletes having to launch the weight higher and higher, until it’s the last man standing.
Highland Games traditions
Besides the gruelling sports events, there are many centuries-old traditions to take in as well as plenty to keep the crowds entertained.
Highland dancing is always an important element of any Highland Games and is often competitive, with solo dancers and groups hoping to dazzle the crowds with their fancy footwork. They dance in traditional dress with signature moves including the sword dance and the Highland fling. The Cowal Highland Gathering is one of the best places to see Highland dancing as it hosts the World Championships.
Kilts are still a key symbol of Scottish culture and also feature heavily in the Highland Games. Rules set out by the Scottish Highland Games Association state that all those who take part in open heavy events must wear kilts while competing. Many Highland Games are also part of wider clan celebrations, so you may see people wearing their clan’s specific tartan pattern on their kilts.
Drums and bagpipes
Just like the Highland dancing, traditional Highland music also plays a big role in the Highland Games, creating a memorable atmosphere. At a Highland Games, you’ll be sure to hear drums, fiddles, clarsachs (Gaelic harps) and, of course, bagpipes. Musical performances range from enormous band marches to solo piping competitions.
Haggis hurling is one of the Highland Games’ more unusual traditions, and is now a popular novelty at many of the events. It began as a joke in the 1970s, when challengers wanted to see how far a haggis could be thrown whilst standing on top of a whisky barrel, but its popularity soon grew and there is now even a World Haggis Hurling Championship.
Other things to see at the Highland Games
Modern Highland Games events are not just sporting contests but celebrations of all things Scottish and local to the area. Here are just a few of the other interesting things you may see at some Highland Games events.
Many Highland Games events are part of larger clan meetings, bringing together people who either share a family or who are based in the same local area. Many clans set up their own tents to celebrate their roots and showcase to the public their origins as well as any goods they may have worked to produce.
Like with many country and agricultural shows across the UK, animal events have become a mainstay of several Highland Games. These include herding dog trials and exhibitions, as well as livestock exhibitions, featuring local breeds such as the Highland Cattle.
Highland Games have also become a great place for local and traditional artists to showcase their work, and span everything from art to song and dance. You may find yourself watching some Scottish country dancing, listening to a circle of harpers or even joining in with a ceilidh.
At Highland Games events you may be able to see the work of armouries, who gather to display their interesting collections of swords and armour. Some also stage mock battles so you can see the armour and weapons in action.
Food and stalls
You’ll also have the chance to browse several stalls, often set up by local vendors, to find a bite to eat or find a souvenir to take home. Some Highland Games have hundreds of stalls, selling everything from locally made food and drink to stuffed Loch Ness monster toys.
The history of the Highland Games
Highland Games in one form or another, have been around for over 1000 years. According to oral tradition, similar gatherings have been taking place amongst Celtic tribes since before the dawn of Christianity, and in these times were designed to select the clan’s best and strongest warriors.
The first Highland Games in Scotland to be designated as an official sporting event are recorded as having taken place in the 11th century, during the reign of King Malcolm III. He staged a royal contest to find the fastest and strongest who could act as his messengers. However, the first free games were held at Ceres in Fire in 1314, after a charter was granted by Robert the Bruce after the villagers supported him during the Battle of Bannockburn – these Highland Games still take place in Ceres today.
Games continued to be held throughout Scotland over the following centuries until 1746, when the English enforced the Act of Proscription. This meant that practising a number of Scottish traditions, which included the Highland Games as well as playing the bagpipes and wearing kilts, became punishable by death. The Act of Proscription was repealed a few decades later and Highland societies began to form, giving birth to the Highland Games as we know them today.
In 1781, the first society gathering and modern Highland Games took place at Falkirk, and in the decades that followed, events were taking place throughout Scotland. It also didn’t take long for the Highland Games to spread across the world as Scottish immigrants and descendants helped to organise the first American Highland Games in New York in the mid 19th century.
Notable Highland Games events
More than 60 Highland Games are held across Scotland throughout the season, from the Carmunnock Highland Games in the south all the way up to the Durness Highland Gathering in the very north of the mainland. Below are just some of the most notable and best-known Highland Games events that take place every year.
When: 2020 dates TBC
Held annually since 1977, today the Perth Highland Games pulls in some of the biggest crowds, attracting more than 5000 spectators every year. Proceedings usually include heavyweight events, solo piping competitions and Highland dancing contests, and this Highland Games event is self-proclaimed 'fun for all the family!'
When: 2020 dates TBC
Founded in 1870, the Crieff Highland Games have been a long-time favourite with visitors, not only due to its variety of events but also as it plays host to the Scottish Professional Heavyweight Championship, attracting some of the country’s strongest athletes. The event has also had many notable chieftains over the years, from international rugby player Kenny Logan to actor Ewan McGregor.
When: 2020 dates TBC
Held in the town of Dunoon on the Cowal Peninsula, the Cowal Highland Gathering is the largest Highland Games in the world, attracting more than 23,000 visitors every year across the three-day spectacle. Established in 1894, the event hosts the Scottish and World Highland Dancing Championships, as well as a slew of other contests spanning everything from wrestling to piping and shot putting the historic Cowal stone. The gathering also ends with a spectacular finale, with marching bands and a dazzling firework display as the sun sets over the Firth of Clyde.
When: 2020 dates TBC
The Braemar Gathering, set in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, is known across the world thanks to its royal connections. Queen Victoria became a royal patron in 1848 and today the event remains in attendance by the Queen and other members of the royal family. Among its main events are the caber tossing, gathering of pipe bands and the inter-service tug o’war.
Other facts about the Highland Games
The Highland Games has a colourful past and has become a worldwide phenomenon, meaning that there are some more rather unusual aspects to some of the Highland Games events. Check out these unusual facts:
Highland Games take place all over the world in countries as varied as Indonesia and Brazil. The northernmost games are held in Finnmark in Norway, while the southernmost games take place in Dunedin in New Zealand.
The world record for the biggest bowl of porridge was set at the Cupar Highland Games in 2010. Measuring 690 litres, it more than doubled the existing record and would have been able to feed over 2000 people.
The most cabers tossed at one time was 66, a record set in 2016 at the Masters World Championships in Inverness.
In France, the caber toss is sometimes given a quintessentially French twist - the caber is swapped for a giant champagne cork!
When Highland dancing competitions were first established in the late 19th century, they were open to men only. Today, a staggering 95% of competitors who take part are female.
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