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Highland Games

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.


Heavy Events

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 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 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 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 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.

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