Highland games are traditional competitions originating in the highland areas
of Scotland and still held there and in other parts of the world where Scots
have settled. The largest Highland Games in North America are held yearly at
Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. The competitions are best known for
traditional competitive athletic heavy events.
The best-known games are the ones held at Braemar,Inverness, Cowal, Lonach,
Ballater and Aboyne. Although they can be dated back to the 11th century, there
have been many long breaks and revivals. The City of Inverness Highland Games
was first held in 1822 and the Aboyne games have been running since 1867 without
a break apart from the two world wars. 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 and dirk". From this letter, it is believed that
the competitions would have included feats of arms.
In their original form many centuries ago, Highland games gatherings
centered around athletic and sports competitions. Though other activities were
always a part of the festivities, many today still consider that Highand
athletics are 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
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 wooden pole or log is stood upright and hoisted
by the competitor who balances it vertically holding the smaller end in his
hands. Then the competitor attempts to toss it, turning it end over end in
such a way that, first, the upper (larger) end will strike the ground (see
photo) and then, following that, the smaller end, originally held by the
athlete, will follow through and in turn strike the ground in the 12 o'clock
position measured relative to the point (considered at the 6 o'clock position)
at which the caber was released. 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 the accuracy of their throws.
Stone put: sometimes incorrectly called the Clachneart or "Stone of
Strength", is similar to the modern-day shot put as seen in the Olympic Games.
However, instead of a steel shot, most American games use a large stone, of
variable weight (somewhere between 16 and 28 pounds) while most Scottish games
use a steel shot of appropriate weight. There are also some differences from
the Olympic shot put in allowable techniques. Some games will feature two
stone toss events. The "Braemar Stone" using a 22+ lb stone allows no run up
to the toeboard or "trig" to deliver the stone, i.e. a standing put. In the
"Open Stone" using a 16-18 lb stone, the thrower is allowed to make a limited
moving approach to deliver the stone. Most athletes 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 pounds is attached to
the end of a cane shaft about 4 feet in length. It is whirled about one's head
and thrown for distance over either the right or left shoulder. Hammer
throwers usually employ specially designed footwear with flat blades to dig
into the turf to maintain their balance.
Weight throw, also known as the weight for distance event. Again, these
are actually two separate events, one using a light (28 pound or 2 stone) and
the other a heavy (56 pound or 4 stone) weight. The weights, made of metal,
have an attached chain and handle, and are thrown one handed. The longest
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 or 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 competitors in Scottish highland atheltics 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.
Music in a variety of forms, along with the heavy athletics and dancing, is
one of the main pillars of nearly all Highland Games events. 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.
But it is the music of the bagpipe, which has come to symbolize music at the
Games and, indeed, Scotland itself. 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.
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 Errol, 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 perfomed
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 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 expressely 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
Herding dog trials and exhibitions can be held, showcasing the breeders and
trainers skills. 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.