The Highland Games is 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 every year. In this guide we take you through what you can expect to see at a Highland Games and why attending one is a must - if you want to soak up Scottish culture this is the perfect way.
With locations all over the country, our full collection of Scotland cottages can offer the perfect base whilst you dabble in the caber toss and haggis throwing!
Highland Games sports
Alongside the wealth of centuries-old traditions being kept alive, another reason why the Highland Games events 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 Scotland Highland Games.
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 consists of a metal ball, which can weigh up to 22lbs, connected to a wooden handle. The contestant stands with their back facing the field and swings the hammer over their head 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 Highland Games 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.
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.
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 Highland Games event can test even seasoned runners due to the uneven terrain and the steepness of many of the hills.
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. There is always food and drink in circulation as well as arts and crafts tents, stalls and other smaller events on the go. Here are some of the other things you can expect to experience.
Highland dancing is always an important element of any Scottish 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. If you are interested to learn all about Scottish tartan you can learn all about it in our guide.
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 Scotland 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.
Like with many country and agricultural shows across the UK, animal events have become a mainstay of several Scotland Highland Games. These include herding dog trials and exhibitions, as well as livestock exhibitions, featuring local breeds such as the Highland Cattle.
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.
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. If you are all about the food when on holiday make sure you read our guide all about Scottish food and the things you have to try!
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.
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Other facts about the Highland Games
A few fast facts about the Highland Games:
- Highland Games take place all over the world in countries as varied as Indonesia and Brazil.
- 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.
If you're feeling inspired to join in the fun of the Highland Games sports or just take in the atmosphere, take a look at our holiday cottages in Scotland and find your ideal holiday getaway. For more ideas on how to spend time with the family in Scotland, read our guide to family days out in Scotland.
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