About This Festival
Anywhere there are enough Scots to hurl giant logs, you’ll find an annual gathering of the Scottish Highland Games . These old military exercises have grown into a worldwide exhibition, where everything from tug-of-war and caber-tossing (whittled-down tree trunks) to dance competitions and solo bagpipes performances is used to determine bellwethers of skill, prowess, and endurance. While Highland Games take place in every major Scottish city, one of the most celebrated is The Braemar Gathering, attended by the English Royal Family.
Let the Scottish Highland Games Begin
Legend says that the Scottish Highland Games started around the 11th century as footrace to the summit of Craig Choinnich, ordered by King Malcolm III of Scotland. The first to the top was awarded the title of royal messenger. The roots of the modern games lie in the 19th-century Victorian era, when residents of the Scottish Highlands were forcibly displaced. As a way to preserve traditional culture, military trials and basic training evolved into sport and competitions were held wherever the Scottish diaspora found itself. Consequently, this celebration of sport became a defining influence on the modern Olympic games (France’s Pierre de Coubertin indicated that a visit to the Highland Games influenced his founding of the International Olympic Committee).
The Games are often divided into three general categories: heavyweight competition, dance, and music. The heavyweight competition includes the burliest events, which have evolved into a Scottish rite of passage. The caber toss is Scotland’s signature and most impressive event, where logs more than a dozen feet long are carried by similarly tree-trunk shaped men and women. The stone-put is similar to shot-put, only some Highland Games still use ordinary stones weighing up to 26 pounds. The weight throw is fairly self-explanatory, as is “throwing the weight over the bar” and “throwing the hammer,” yet the drama of these events is real.
Athletes often prepare all year long for their local Highland Games. One of the more peculiar heavyweight events is the Maide Leisg (literally “lazy stick”). Two men sit on the ground with the soles of their feet pressed against each other and, thus seated, hold a stick between their hands that they pull back and forth until one of them is raised from the ground. The Games use creative and inventive ways of pitting man against man and man against nature. Unlike modern sports, technology has exhibited no influence, and the Games remain the same as they have for hundreds of years.
Although the Scottish Highland Games export its athletic events, dance is the most popular. The Sword Dance of Gille Calum is a classic dance that dates back to 1054, when in a fierce and bloody battle King Malcolm Canmore clashed with one of King MacBeth’s chiefs. The Highland Fling is the most famous solo dance and was originally performed by old clansmen atop their hefty shields (this may be the most intricate of the dances). The graceful Seann Triubhas (the Gaelic term for old trousers) is a solo dance that originated after the 1745 Rising, when wearing a kilt was forbidden and only Sasunnach trousers permitted. The dance initially displays contempt and displeasure at having to wear the garment, and then moves into a quicker section displaying delight at kicking off these restricting trousers, symbolizing the eventual return of the kilt. This dance is an especially joyous experience as it exemplifies the rekindling of the Scottish tradition that the entire Highland Games represents. Lastly, the Reel of Tulloch was a dance performed by the people of Tulloch who, impatient and cold while awaiting their master, invented to stave off boredom and keep warm.
No Highland Games are complete without pipe bands and solo pipes competitions. Originally used to herald the arrival of an oncoming army in battle, a solo bagpipes performance is something that no recording can do justice and is simply haunting in person. Additionally, fiddling, harp circles and Celtic singing soundtrack the event, yielding the rich experience of Scottish culture that so many have fought to preserve.
This is a great family event and perhaps the closest you’ll ever get to an Olympics-level spectacle (at a fraction of the price and effort). Though you can catch Highland Games around the world, we think they’re best viewed when framed by their namesake highlands and served with piping hot haggis.