Highland games are events held throughout the year as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture and heritage, especially that of the Scottish Highlands. Certain aspects of the games are so well known as to have become emblematic of Scotland, such as the bagpipes, the kilt, and the heavy events, especially the caber toss. While centered on competitions in piping and drumming, dancing, and Scottish heavy athletics, the games also include entertainment and exhibits related to other aspects of Scottish and Gaelic culture.
The Cowal Highland Gathering, better known as the Cowal Games, held in Dunoon, Scotland, every August, is the largest Highland games in Scotland, attracting around 3,500 competitors and somewhere in the region of 15–20,000 spectators from around the globe. Worldwide, however, it is dwarfed by two gatherings in the United States: the 50,000 that attend Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina and the even larger gathering—the largest in the Northern Hemisphere—that has taken place every year since 1865, hosted by the Caledonian Club of San Francisco. This event is currently held Labor Day weekend in Pleasanton, California.
It is reported that King Malcolm III of Scotland, in the 11th century, summoned contestants to a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich (overlooking Braemar). King Malcolm created this foot race in order to find the fastest runner in the land to be his royal messenger. There is a document from 1703 summoning the clan of the Laird of Grant. They were to arrive wearing Highland coats and “also with gun, sword, pistill [sic] and dirk“.From this letter, it is believed that the competitions would have included feats of arms.
However, the modern Highland games are largely a Victorian invention, developed after the Highland Clearances.
In their original form many centuries ago, Highland games revolved around athletic and sports competitions. Although quite a range of events can be a part of the Highland athletics competition, a few have become standard.
- Caber toss: A long tapered pine pole or log is stood upright and hoisted by the competitor who balances it vertically holdingthe smaller end in his hands (see photo). Then the competitor runs forward attempting to toss it in such a way that it turns end over end with the upper (larger) end striking the ground first. The smaller end that was originally held by the athlete then hits the ground in the 12 o’clock position measured relative to the direction of the run. If successful, the athlete is said to have turned the caber. Cabers vary greatly in length, weight, taper, and balance, all of which affect the degree of difficulty in making a successful toss. Competitors are judged on how closely their throws approximate the ideal 12 o’clock toss on an imaginary clock.
- Stone put: This event is similar to the modern-day shot put as seen in the Olympic Games. There are two versions of the stone toss events, differing in allowable technique.
- The “Braemar Stone” uses a 20–26 lb stone for men (13–18 lb for women) and does not allow any run up to the toeboard or “trig” to deliver the stone, i.e., it is a standing put.
- The “Open Stone” using a 16–22 lb stone for men (or 8–12 lb for women), the thrower is allowed to use any throwing style so long as the stone is put with one hand with the stone resting cradled in the neck until the moment of release.
- Scottish hammer throw: This event is similar to the hammer throw as seen in modern-day track and field competitions, though with some differences. In the Scottish event, a round metal ball (weighing 16 or 22 lb for men or 12 or 16 lb for women) is attached to the end of a shaft about 4 feet in length and made out of wood, bamboo, rattan, or plastic. With the feet in a fixed position, the hammer is whirled about one’s head and thrown for distance over the shoulder.
- Weight throw: Weight throw, also known as the weight for distance event. There are actually two separate events, one using a light (28lb for men and 14 lb for women) and the other a heavy (56 lb for men, 42 lb for masters men, and 28 lb for women) weight. Usually a spinning technique is employed. The longest throw wins.
Weight over the bar,: Also known as weight for ht. The athletes attempt to toss a 56 pound (4 stone) weight with an attached handle over a horizontal bar using only one hand. Each athlete is allowed three attempts at each height. Successful clearance of the height allows the athlete to advance into the next round at a greater height. The competition is determined by the highest successful toss with fewest misses being used to break tie scores.
Sheaf toss: A bundle of straw (the sheaf) weighing 20 pounds (9 kg) for the men and 10 pounds (4.5 kg) for the women and
wrapped in a burlap bag is tossed vertically with a pitchfork over a raised bar much like that used in pole vaulting. The progression and scoring of this event is similar to the Weight Over The Bar. There is significant debate among athletes as to whether the sheaf toss is in fact an authentic Highland event. Some argue it is actually a country fair event, but all agree that it is a great crowd pleaser.
- Maide Leisg(Scots Gaelic meaning ‘Lazy Stick’): Trial of strength performed by two men sitting on the ground with the soles of their feet pressing against each other. Thus seated, they held a stick between their toes which they pulled against each other till one of them was raised from the ground. The oldest ‘Maide Leisg’ competition in the world takes place at the Carloway show and Highland Games on the Isle of Lewis.
For many Highland games festival attendees, the most memorable of all the events at the games is the massing of the pipe bands. Normally held in conjunction with the opening and closing ceremonies of the games, as many as 20 or more pipe bands will march and play together. The result is a thunderous rendition of traditional favourites Scotland the Brave or Amazing Grace, and other crowd-pleasing favorites.
It is, in fact, the music of the bagpipe which has come to symbolise music at the Games and, indeed, in Scotland itself. In addition to the massed bands, nearly all Highland games gatherings feature a wide range of piping and drumming competition, including solo piping and drumming, small group ensembles and, of course, the pipe bands themselves.
But the pipes and drums are not the only music which can be heard at Highland games. Music at Highland games gatherings takes on a variety of forms. Many such events offer fiddling, harp circles, Celtic bands and other forms of musical entertainment, the latter usually spiced with a healthy amount of bagpipe music.
The Cowal_Highland_Gathering hosts the annual World Championship Highland Dancing Competition. This event gathers the best
competitive dancers from around the world who compete for the World Championship Title.
Secondary events and attractions
At modern-day Highland Games events, a wide variety of other activities and events are generally available. Foremost among these are the clan tents and vendors of Scottish related goods. The various clan societies make the Highland games one of the main focus of their seasonal activities, usually making an appearance at as many such events as possible. Visitors can find out information about the Scottish roots and can become active in their own clan society if they wish.
At modern games, armouries will display their collections of swords and armour, and often perform mock battles. Various vendors selling Scottish memorabilia are also present selling everything from Irn-Bru to the stuffed likeness of the Loch Ness Monster.
Various traditional and modern Celtic arts are often showcased. This could include Harper’s circles, Scottish country dancing, and one or more entertainment stages. In addition, most events usually feature a pre-event ceilidh (a type of social event with traditional music, dancing, song, and other forms of entertainment).
Various food vendors will also offer assorted types of traditional Scottish refreshment and sustenance. Tip: try the Irn-Bru soft drink.