16 Jul Highland games season is in full swing
From tossing the caber to the massed pipes and drums, Scotland’s Highland games provide a colourful spectacle during the summer months. Although the season starts in May and finishes mid-September, July and August are the peak months with around 30 events held each month.
Traditionally, the events at Highland games could be divided into two categories: heavy and light events. The heavy events are feats of strength such as tug o’war and competitions to see who can throw assorted weights such as hammers and stones the furthest.
Perhaps surprisingly, tossing the caber – the most iconic of the heavy events – is not a test of brute strength. The winner is not the athlete who throws the log the greatest distance but the one whose log lands in line with the original run up to the toss. If completely straight, it is said to have landed to twelve o’clock.
The light events include running and cycling races as well as solo piping and Highland dances. Less traditional but no less popular are events such as sheep dog trials, livestock exhibitions and the, ahem, ancient art of haggis hurling. There may be clan tents where clan associations celebrate their history. There will definitely be food stalls and a more than likely busy beer tent. Some Highland Games continue into the evening with live music, a disco or a ceilidh, A.K.A. Scottish country dancing.
Origins of Highland games
The origins of Highland games are open to conjecture. One theory is that the Scots brought the practice over from Ireland around the fifth century AD. Others reckon that it all started around the time of King Malcolm III who ruled Scotland in the eleventh century. Keen to find a fast messenger, Malcolm is said to have instructed his men to race to the top of Creag Chòinnich hill with the first to reach the summit being awarded the post of personal courier to the king. Some say that the games started in the 1300s when Robert the Bruce granted the right to hold the games to the people of Ceres in Fife after they fought for him at Bannockburn.
Perhaps. What is more certain is that the Highland games in their current form began to gain popularity during the 19th century. Queen Victoria’s love of all things Scottish encouraged a wider appreciation of Caledonian traditions. No matter how authentic or otherwise they may be.
She first attended the Braemar Gathering in 1848 and today it remains one of the best attended games with around 16,000 spectators expected when it is held in Fife Memorial Park, Braemar on the first Saturday in September. The royal family are still regular visitors and the Queen is the patron of the event.
Global Highland games
Given the size and range of the Scots diaspora, it is no surprise that Highland games take place across the globe with the first one in America taking place in 1836. If you want to experience them in their original country, then you can check dates and locations with VisitScotland.
While there will be no caber tossing and probably not much in the way of Highland dancing, our food and drink tours in Glasgow, Edinburgh and St Andrews all celebrate aspects of Scottish culture and history. More info and tickets.
Pic from VisitScotland shows Pipe band at The Ballater Highland Games. Credit David N. Anderson