​Guide to the Highland Games banner image

​Guide to the Highland Games

Scotland's Highland Games are a vital part of the local's calendar. Discover more about them...

In case ye dinnae ken, every summer thousands ah prood Scots gather together tae gie it laldy as part ay the Highland Games. It’s not just people fae Scotland who give it a shot; just aboot every state in the US holds its ain annual event, with games also taking place across Canada, New Zealand and Australia. So if ye gonnae travel tae Scotland throughout the summer months, ye simply have tae gie involved.

But just what are the Highland Games? It’s a celebration ay Scottish heritage; a combination ay sports, culture an’ community mixed together. From field an’ track events tae Highland dancing competitions, large-scale tug-o-wars tae clàrsach (Gaelic harp) contests, there’s somethin’ fah everyone tae enjoy.

Hopefully you read that in a Scottish accent (if not, go back and read it again!). We love the Scottish dialect that has developed over thousands of years, which is a good thing because we’re about go back in time…

Image courtesy of Aberdeen017 youtube.com

Image courtesy of Aberdeen017 youtube.com

A bit of History

The Highland Games date so far back that the true origins are unknown. Said to have originated from Ireland in 2000 BC, one apocryphal event which could have led to the modern Games is that of King Malcolm III of Scotland, who summoned people to a foot race in order to find a royal messenger. Malcolm III reigned from 1058 to 1093, and is the historical equivalent of the Malcolm character in Macbeth.

That race took place at Craig Choinnich near Braemar, and today the annual Braemar Gathering in Aberdeenshire is the largest Highland Games in the world. Throughout the centuries the popularity of the Games grew; however, the Act of Proscription in 1746 was an awful blow to proceedings. For almost 40 years, Scottish dress, customs and gatherings were outlawed in a bid to prevent the Scottish Highlands from revolting. Not long after the repeal, however, the Games were fully revived.

If you’re planning on going to the Braemar Gathering in early September, you’re likely to see members of the Royal Family – just as you would have some 200 years ago. George IV attended in 1822, and to this day it’s the only Games that the Royal Family attends annually. If not, don’t worry – there are hundreds of other events taking place over the summertime.

What games are there?

The caber toss is arguably the most iconic event at the Games, which sees participants pick up, carry and throw a large heavy log as far they can. It’s just one of many heavy lifting games; others include:

  • The stone put (similar to the modern shot put)
  • The Scottish hammer throw (similar to the modern hammer throw)
  • The weight throw/ the weight over the bar (where athletes throw a four-stone weight over a high bar with one hand)
  • The sheaf toss (throwing a 20-pound bundle of straw over a raised bar)
  • The Maide Leisg; two men sit with the soles of their feet touching, and pull a stick at each end until one is raised from the ground.
Image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk

Image courtesy of telegraph.co.uk

Tug-of-wars, track races, and wrestling matches round off the sporting events.

Then there’s the music and dancing. At both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Highland Games, it’s traditional to see anywhere up to 20 different pipe bands playing in unison – perhaps ‘Scotland the Brave’ or ‘Amazing Grace’. Dancing is also a big part of the festivities, with performers showcasing the very best Highland jigs while audiences enjoy fantastic local food and drink.

Highland games in Scotland

Crowd at Cowal Highland Gathering, courtesy of snipview.com

Crowd at Cowal Highland Gathering, courtesy of snipview.com

Every weekend from the end of May right through to September and even the odd date in November, there is a Highland Games event taking place somewhere in Scotland.

The self-proclaimed ‘World’s Biggest Highland Games’ is the Cowal Highland Gathering which takes place over the final weekend in August – Cowal being a peninsula in Argyll and Bute up in the Scottish Highlands. Some 20,000 visitors come to the Cowal town of Dunoon every year, including tourists from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

To view a full list of Scotland’s Highland Games events, visit the Scottish Highland Games Association (SHGA) website.

Header image: The tug o’ war at Blair Atholl Highland Game;, image courtesy of visitscotland.com