The Highland Games

September 21, 2019  - by 

What could be more Scottish than kilts, clans, or bagpipes? A place where all three come together is in the celebration of the Highland games, a unique way to experience Scottish and Gaelic culture.

Though they herald back possibly to the time of the Druids in Scotland more than a thousand years ago, today there are hundreds of Highland games the world over. Highland festivals draw thousands of competitors and spectators.

What can you see and do at the Highland games?

At the core of the Highland games are the athletic events you won’t experience anywhere else. Many are known as heavy athletics because of their emphasis on strength, speed, and fitness.

a man competes in the highland games.

Most games feature a range of cultural experiences, including piping, drumming, and dancing competitions. Booths feature traditional weapons, food samples, and crafts. Genealogical societies, or clan societies, help participants connect with clans and family roots.

Highland athletics include:

  • Caber Toss—An event where a competitor holds a full-length log upright and as he runs forward, he lifts and tosses the log end-over-end so the upper end falls roughly in a straight line from where he started.
  • Stone Put—An event similar to shot put in traditional track and field competitions. Competitors throw a stone of about 18–26 pounds as far as they can.
  • Hammer Throw—This competition features a hammer made from a heavy metal ball attached to a wooden pole or handle. Competitors stands with their back facing the field and swings the hammer over their head before twisting 180 degrees and launching it as far as possible.
  • Weight for Distance—An event where weights have a chain and handle and are thrown with one hand using any technique that goes the longest distance.
  • Weight Toss for Height—This competition requires the competitor to throw a 56-pound weight over a raised crossbar with one hand. As the bar is raised higher and higher, contestants are eliminated.

Where and when did the Highland games originate?

Stories of strong men lifting stones and competing in feats of strength and skill go back centuries. Oral traditions speak of races and competitions featuring the kind of everyday activities that would keep fighting men ready to move against their enemies.

an image of King Malcolm of Scotland.

Exploits might also demonstrate the prowess needed to be among the king’s top couriers or bodyguards. Old tales often get embellished to the point of becoming legends, but oral traditions keep culture alive.

The first written record of an official clan competition dates back to the 11th century, when King Malcolm III of Scotland sent a gathering of his subjects to race up to the summit of Craig Choinnich overlooking Braemar. He wanted to find the fastest runner to be his royal messenger. His contestants were likely some of the strongest and bravest of his warriors.

How have the games evolved and changed over time?

History hasn’t seen a uniform evolution of the Highland games. Interruptions during wars and a British attempt to undermine the clan system stifled Highland culture. It wasn’t until the time of Queen Victoria in the mid-to-late 19th century that the games took on a more formal and sanctioned organization. In the 19th century, the Highland games also provided inspiration for a revival of the modern Olympic Games.

Where are Highland games held?

There are numerous Highland games in Scotland, Ireland, and the surrounding isles from May through September.

The largest gathering of competitors is thought to be the Cowal Highland Gathering, held annually in Dunoon, Scotland. It is the iconic heart of the Highland games and draws 3,500 competitors and thousands of spectators. It is the home of the World Highland Dancing Championships.

dancers perform at the highland games.

The oldest continuously running games are thought to be the Ceres Games in Fife, which began in 1314. The event commemorates an important battle in the Scottish struggle for Independence. It is free, entertaining, and has something for all ages.

With waves of emigration, Scottish clans took their customs, traditions, and the games with them. In this day, there are enclaves of Scottish descendants almost everywhere, and hundreds of festivals draw crowds in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and even South America. Online sites will help you find a festival in a location near you!

Do you have Scottish heritage?

Heritage, community, belonging, and kinship are what you’ll find at the Highland games. If you have Scottish heritage, there are links on FamilySearch.org to countrywide collections of Scottish records. Scottish vital records will help you uniquely identify your ancestors. Guides and resources will help you get started. These records may lead you to an ancestor who participated in the games!

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