Highland games are events held throughout the year in Scotland and other countries 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 centred 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 New Caledonian Club of San Francisco.
The origin of human games and sports predates recorded history. One common factor characteristic of prehistoric games seems to be the need of primitive man to develop or to imitate, magically or otherwise, the skills necessary for survival in his society. An example of a possible early games venue is at Fetteresso, although that location is technically a few miles south of the Scottish Highlands.
It is reported in numerous books and Highland games programs, 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. Some have seen in this apocryphal event the origin of today's modern Highland games.
During various times of English occupation, from before the Wars of Independence to the suppression after the Jacobite wars, the men of Scotland were forbidden to bear or train with arms, in an attempt to prevent another popular Scottish uprising. Scots continued to train for war; they simply did so with the implements of war replaced with the implements of the Highland games.
There is a document from 1703 summoning the clan of the Laird of Grant, Clan 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. Though other activities were always a part of the festivities, many today still consider Highland athletics to be what the games are all about — in short, that the athletics are the Games, and all the other activities are just entertainment. Regardless, it remains true today that the athletic competitions are at least an integral part of the events and one — the caber toss — has come to almost symbolize the Highland games.
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 holding the 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. Instead of a steel shot, a large stone of variable weight is often used. There are also some differences from the Olympic shot put in allowable techniques. 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. In 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. Most athletes in the open stone event use either the "glide" or the "spin" techniques.
- 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. Hammer throwers sometimes employ specially designed footwear with flat blades to dig into the turf to maintain their balance and resist the centrifugal forces of the implement as it is whirled about the head. This substantially increases the distance attainable in the throw.
- Weight throw, also known as the weight for distance event. There are actually two separate events, one using a light (28 lb 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. The weights are made of metal and have a handle attached either directly or by means of a chain. The implement is thrown using one hand only, but otherwise using any technique. Usually a spinning technique is employed. The longest throw wins.
- Weight over the bar, also known as weight for height. 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.
Many of the Heavy Events competitors in Scottish highland athletics are former high school and college track and field athletes who find the Scottish games are a good way to continue their competitive careers.
Increasingly in the USA, the Heavy Events are attracting women and master class athletes which has led to a proliferation of additional classes in Heavy Events competitions. Lighter implements are used in the classes.
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 favorites Scotland the Brave or Amazing Grace, and other crowd-pleasing favorites.
It is, in fact, the music of the bagpipe which has come to symbolize 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,
There are two basic forms of dancing at modern Highland Games gatherings. Scottish country dancing is a social dance like ballroom dancing or square dancing, the latter of which evolved from country dancing.
The other type of dancing which one can see at Highland Games events is the highly competitive and technical form known as Highland dancing. This again takes two forms. First there are the traditional Highland dances - the Sword Dance (or Gillie Calum), the Highland Fling, the Highland Reel, and the Seann Triubhas (pronounced shawn trews). The other competition dances are known as national dances, the most well known of which are the Scottish Lilt, the Flora MacDonald, the Earl of Erroll, Highland Laddie, Blue Bonnets and Village Maid. Also common at the games are the Irish Jig and the Sailor's Hornpipe dances.
Highland dancing, in all its competitive forms, is a very technical dance form, requiring many hours of practice and training over a period of several years in order to perfect. It has more in common with ballet than with the social dancing of the Scottish Country Dance. In addition, the Highland dances are performed solo, unlike country dancing. Even the Reel, which is performed with other dancers, is judged on an individual basis.
Many Highland gatherings worldwide, and almost all in the United States, recognize the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing (SOBHD), formed in 1950, as the world governing body of Highland dancing. The SOBHD standardizes the dance steps, establishes rules for competitions and attire, certifies competitions and instructors and the like. In addition, a World Highland Dance Championship, sanctioned by the SOBHD, has been held annually at the Cowal Highland Gathering since 1948.
Historically, the Highland dances were danced only by men. This is most likely because men themselves came up with the dances. The Highland Fling was a dance that started out to imitate a courting stag on a hill, hence a man should dance it in order to court his lady. The magnificent Sword dance was in fact a victory dance that was accredited to King Malcolm himself. This came about as the result of the nature and origin of the dances themselves as well as the fact that during the years of Proscription, only military regiments were permitted to adopt Highland attire and practice the traditions such as dancing.
But late in the 19th Century, a young woman named Jenny Douglas decided to enter a Highland dance competition. As this was not expressly forbidden, she was allowed to enter and since then, the number of females participating in the sport has increased until today in excess of 95% of all dancers are female. There have been several female World Highland Dance Champions crowned at the Cowal Gathering since they began organizing the competition in 1948.
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.
Herding dog trials and exhibitions are often held, showcasing the breeder's and trainer's skills. In addition, there may be other types of Highland animals present, such as the Highland cattle.
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.
- Cowal Highland Gathering can be verified as the world's largest highland games on the Official Scottish Tourist Board Website at VisitScotland.com
- For a modern day fictional account of this event, see The origins of the Braemar Games Hill Race, by Les Wheeler
- The interested reader can consult any number of Highland games web sites, many of which contain a brief sketch on the history of the Highland games themselves. Most will mention this hill climb, some referring to it as a story or legend, others as if it were an established fact and going from there to state just as matter-of-factly that the Highland games as we know them today can be traced back to or owe their origins to this hill climb event. As just one example (among many), the program (and web site) of the Pacific Northwest Highland Games states: "One of the first Highland games was held towards the end of the eleventh century, when King Malcolm Canmore . . ." going on from there to recount the story of the hill climb. Webster, in Scottish Highland Games, is not so certain. He recounts the story, labelling it as story, or legend only. Thomas Owen Clancy and Barbara E. Crawford, in the Bibliographical essay to chapter 2 (The Formation of the Scottish Kingdom) of The New Penguin History of Scotland state: "Little of significance has been written about the eleventh century kingdom otherwise, except on the dispute over the reliability of the early documentary sources. . .".
- As quoted on the history page of the Aboyne Highland Gathering web site
- The web site of the International Wrestling Association reports rather more expansively on the role of the 1889 Paris event and its effect on the development of the Olympics, considering it to have had a "huge impact" on world sport. An article published in 2004 in the Christian Science Monitor points to two other events, including that of Much Wenlock, a small English village in Shropshire, as being of major importance.
- TUba, Essential Guide to the Highland Games (1992) ISBN 0-86241-302-8
- Joan F. Flett and Thomas M. Flett, Traditional Dancing in Scotland (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1964, 1985), ISBN 0-7102-0731-X
- John G. Gibson, Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping, 1745-1945 (McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 1998). ISBN 0-7735-1541-0. See esp. chapter 15, "Highland Games and Competition Piping"
- Ian R. Mitchell, "Rheumatism, Romanticism and Revolution: Victoria, Balmorality and 1848" in History Scotland (Vol. 5, #5, Sept/Oct 2005)
- John Prebble, The King's Jaunt (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd,1988., 2000), ISBN 1-84158-068-6
- Hugh Trevor-Roper, "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland." in The Invention of Tradition ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-521-24645-8.
- David Webster, Scottish Highland Games (Edinburgh, Scotland 1973)
- Emily Ann Donaldson, The Scottish Highland Games in America (Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, LA, 1986). ISBN0-88289-474-9.
- Scotland's Highland Games
- San Antonio Highland Games Association
- Swiss Highland Games - Swiss Championships
- Highland Games Sychrov - Championship of the Czech Republic
- Cowal Highland Gathering - The largest Highland Games in the world.
- Grandfather Mountain Highland Games (Largest outside of Scotland)
- Annual Games held in Charleston, SC
- Official Scottish Tourist Board Highland Games Calendar
- US Scots: includes extensive listing of Highland games events
- Nasgaweb: Scottish athletics site which contains detailed rules for the athletic events
- Highland Games Wikicity
- Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing
- Highland Games FAQ: What to know before you go
- Clan Cunningham - Northeast Region Games/Festival listing, by State and Providence.
- Society for Highland Cattle Owners in Scotland
- Pure breed Highland Cattle breeder site
- Fergus Scottish Festival & Highland Games
- Prescott, AZ Highland Games
- Glasgow (Kentucky) Highland Games
- Tulloch Inverness Highland Games - Host of the 2007 World Highland Games Heavy Championships.
- Payson Utah Scottish Festival
- The McCullough Scottish Games
- Annual Highland Games and Celtic Music in Houston, TX
- St. Andrew's Society of Detroit Annual Highalnd Games - The oldest continuous highland games in North America
- Stone Mountain Highland Games - Stone Mountain Highland Games at Stone Mountain Park, near Atlanta, GA
- Tartan Days, St. Charles Mo.
- All Things Scottish CelticFest, Cedar Rapids, Iowa - at Ushers Ferry Historic Village
- Celtic Highland Games of Quad Cities, Davenport, Iowa - Mississippi Valley Fair Grounds, 14 hours of Celtic Fun!
- Central Iowa Celtic Festival, Des Moines, Iowa - at Living History Farms
- North Central Heavies - Organizers of quality Highland Games in Northern Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
- Ancient Athletics - Midwestern host of Scottish Heavy Events, is a unit of the St. Andrew Society of Central Ill.