Highland Games History, Facts and Traditions

Here’s some fascinating Highland Games facts and history for you to enjoy and learn about. These events are also known as Highland Gatherings .

  • David Webster in his 1973 published book on Highland Games indicates that the timeworn history of Highland Gatherings includes tales and legends that are fascinating and worthy of telling, yet difficult when it comes to separating fact from fiction.
    • Webster tells of one James Logan, a respected historian and member of ‘The Club of True Highlanders’ who chose to focus on writing about Highland Games after having his nose broken by a hammer at a competition.
    • Ancient games were often started with a primitive form of shinty1 using a horsehair ball, and the games then finished with chariot races, which sounded more like a scene from Ben Hur in a Roman amphitheatre (except they were typically held in a local marketplace.
    • Other sports that you don’t tend to see int eh modern games included: archery and a sling shot.
    • Music and song was always an important part of gatherings, keeping the older generations involved, who also recited stories of days gone by, importantly passing on tradition and folklore through oral tradition. These were complemented by travelling jugglers and showmen.
  • The Scottish Highland Games Association represent over 60 Highland Gatherings in Scotland, with over 500 athletes competing in 1000 events in front of 150,000 spectators.
  • The Cowal Highland Gathering, also known as the Cowal Games, held in Dunoon, Scotland, every August, is the largest Scottish Highland Games with 3,500 competitors and 23,000 spectators. It is famous for the quality of its Highland Dancing, hosting international competitors who compete for the Scottish and World Championships.
    • Highland Dancing is said to be one of the most sophisticated forms of national dance anywhere in the world, with a strong competitive tradition. It’s recorded origins date back as far as 1525, though Romans are said to have witnessed some kind of Highland Dance when invading Britain as far back as the 1st century AD.
    • The Gaelic for Highland Dancing is ‘Gille Calum’, though it is also written as ‘Gillie Chaluim’.
    • According to Visit Scotland’s mini-guide to Highland Games, Highland Dancing was an all-male competition until the late 19th century.
    • The Highland Fling, one of the best-known dances, is supposed to be based on the antics of a stag on a Scottish hillside. This dance, on the spot, is thought to originate with men dancing on their targe2 (shield).
  • The oldest Highland Games are held each June at Ceres in Fife. They began under a Charter awarded by Robert the Bruce in recognition of the villagers’ support at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
  • The march of the Lonach Highlanders is a 175 year old tradition where around 200 men armed with Lochaber axes and pikes, join the march from Belabeg to Lonach Hall as part of the Lonach Highland Gathering in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire.
  • The origins of Highland games are said to date back even further to the 11th century, with their roots in tests of strength for troops. The ‘Heavy Events’ i.e. shot put, hammer throw and “Maide Leisg,” where two seated athletes wrestle over a stick — still reflect this.
    • The contests of strength – jumping, running, throwing and riding, are said to have been introduced by Malcolm Canmore in 1040 as a means of selecting the most able men for soldiers and couriers.  Also known as King Malcolm III, (1031-1093) the son of Duncan (murdered by Macbeth), he is said to have called a foot race to the summit of Creag Choinnich, near Braemar, in the hopes of finding the fastest runner in the land.
    • King Malcolm is also said to have introduced the sword dance, still popular at modern gatherings. Here’s a video of the sword dancing:

    • Some historians believe that Heavy Events actually originated during Druid times!
    • Yet others suggest that Highland Games originate from Ireland in 2000 BC, crossing the water to Scotland with the 4th and 5th century migrations of the Scotti (original Scots people) into Dalriada (Argyll).

highland games compilation

  • These Highland gatherings are as much about music and dancing as they are about sports, featuring dancing, piping, fiddling and the Clarsach (Gaelic harp).
    • The heritage of Scotlands national instrument, the Bagpipe or in Gaelic “piob-mhor” (the great pipe) actually traces back to the middle-east dating back to 1000 BC. Bagpipes are mentioned in the Old Testament. The pipes themselves evolved alongside early European civilisation – with many different evolutions and variations across the continent.
    • The Highland Pipes (Scottish Great Highland bagpipes) are one of the over thirty different kinds of bagpipes that have appeared throughout the world. The Spanish, French, Italians, Germans, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Tunisians, Indians, Greeks, and many other cultures have developed bagpipes of their own. This includes variants such as the Scottish Lowland Bagpipes, the Northumbria pipes, and the Irish Union pipes.
    • The bagpipes were popular across England and Ireland in the Middle Ages (5th to the 15th century).
    • It doesn’t appear to be clear quite when and where the first, second and third drones were added to the “piob-mhor” or when and where the bagpipe entered Scotland. According to wikipedia, the first clear reference to the Scottish Highland bagpipes comes from French history, which mentions their use at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547. The bagpipe replaced the trumpet on the battlefield.
    • It is thought that the original Highland pipes probably comprised a single drone with the second drone being added in the mid to late 1500’s. The early seventeenth century saw the development of piping families including the MacCrimmonds, MacArthurs, MacGregors and the Mackays of Gairloch. The third, or the great drone, came into use sometime in the early 1700s. Whereas, Scottish Lowlands, pipers were part of the travelling minstrel class, performing at weddings, feasts and fairs.

  • Highland Games were halted in Scotland for 40 years by the Act of Proscription in 1746. This followed the final crushing of the Jacobite Rebellion. The Act outlawed many traditional Scottish customs including the wearing traditional plaid, and Highland gatherings.
    • Scottish customs and tradition were given a huge boost by the visit to Scotland in 1822 of George IV.
    • The first modern Highland Games were held at Strathearn in Perthshire in 1821, inspired by the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, organised by St Fillan’s Highland Society.
  • The Braemar Gathering which take place during the first weekend in September, is the only Games attended annually by the British Royal Family. The Braemar Gathering is a short distance from the royal family’s summer retreat at the Balmoral Estate in Aberdeenshire. The Queen, along with Prince Charles, or the Duke of Rothesay as he is known while in Scotland, are patrons of the gathering.
    • The organisers state that there have been Gatherings of one sort or another at Braemar since the days of King Malcolm Canmore, nine hundred years ago.
    • Braemar Wright Society organised the gathering – they are the oldest Friendly Society in Scotland, formed in 1815. They were renamed to Braemar Highland Society in 1826 then, in 1866, Queen Victoria ordered that the title “Royal” should be added to the name of the Society.
    • These games were first attended by Queen Victoria in 1848.
Lochaber Highland Games - Glenfinnan

Glenfinnan Monument

  • The Glenfinnan Gathering takes place each year on the Saturday closest to the anniversary of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Raising of the Standard in 1745. The games take place at the exact location – close to the Jacobite Monument on the banks of Loch Shiel.
  • Some games are strongly associated with particular clans and involve a parade of clansmen led by the chieftain. Examples include:
    • Clan Cameron – Lochaber Games
    • Clan Campbell –  Inveraray Games
    • Clan Hay – Aboyne Games
    • Clan Macpherson – Newtonmore Games
    • Clan MacMillan – Inverness Games
    • Clan Macnab – Killin Games
    • Actor Ewan McGregor was named Chieftain of the games in his hometown Crieff in 2001.
    • Bute Highland Games located in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute have been held, in their modern incarnation, since 1947. Past Chieftains of the games have included HRH The Prince of Wales.
    • In olden days, druids would often be the guest of honour, rather than a chieftain, and would bless the games.
  • The first Highland Games in the USA took place in New York in 1836.
  • In 1889 the founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Coubertin was said to be greatly impressed by a Highland games held at the Paris Exhibition. This resulted in the hammer and the shot put, wrestling and the tug-of-war all being included as Olympic events.
  • Snefjørd Highland games in Norway, are said to be the most northerly games in the world, with Logan Park Games in New Zealand hosts the most southerly.
  • Haggis hurling’ is a popular feature of many Highland Games, whereas in some French Games a giant champagne cork is tossed instead of a caber.
  • The Caledonian Club of San Francisco host the largest Highland Games with 50,000 spectators. Founded in 1866, the Caledonian Club of San Francisco is one of the oldest Scottish clubs in California. 2017 sees their 152nd consecutive Highland Games.
    • Back in 1866, California’s gold rush had attracted many a Scot to San Francisco. A group os 17  Scots gathered at the Ale Vaults to plan these – San Francisco city’s first Games.
    • North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain weigh in as one of the planet’s largest Highland Games events. The gathering attracts around 40,000 visitors.
  • Caledonian Societies were rapidly formed in the 19th and early 20th Centuries to reflect emigration of Scots with Waipu, New Zealand, believed to be the first.
  • These days there are Highland Games across the world, particularly in Germany and The Netherlands, also: Indonesia, Japan, South Africa and Brazil.
  • The Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS), in Edinburgh, was founded in 1923 to preserve this dance tradition, which features at modern games.
  • The Invercharron gathering in Bonar Bridge in The Highlands is traditionally the UK’s final games of the year.
    • The organisers say that many of the Scottish Highland Games Association league results are decided at Invercharron, making it one of the most exciting of the season.
    • The recently formed Highland League for the Heavy Athletes incorporates 12 Highland area games with the League Finals and championship decided at the Invercharron Games.
  • The Highland Games in Inverness take place in July.
    • In 2014, a Guinness World Record was set at the Masters World Championship in Inverness when 160 kilted athletes tossed 66 cabers at the same time.

Inverness Highland Games Panorama

Traditional Highland Games events

Alongside the Olympic type events of running, cycling and field events such as the long jump, high jump, triple jump and pole vault are dancing and piping competitions, plus the more traditional Heavy Weight events of:

  • Caber Tossing
    • The caber is a large, tapered, wooden pole (like a telegraph pole) between 15 and 23 feet (5-7 metres) long and weighing between 5 and 11 stone (30-70kg). One of the most fearsome cabers of all is the 20ft (6m), 9.5 stone (60kg) Braemar caber, first tossed in 1951. The origins of this event is from woodsmen who were used to hauling trees.
  • Shot Put/Stone Put
    • Similar to the modern-day Olympic shot put, but normally featuring a smooth stone. There are versions of the stone toss events, one that allows a run-up and more variation in technique, the other  – a standing put. Large smooth stones from a riverbed are used for putting.
  • Scottish Hammer Throw
    • Similar to the hammer throw as seen in modern-day track and field competitions. A round metal ball (weighing 16 or 22 lb. for men or 12 or 16 lb. for women) is attached to the end of a shaft about 4 feet in length. The throwing motion involves about two swings from stationary position, then three, four or very rarely five rotations of the body in circular motion using a complicated heel-toe movement of the foot. The hammer throw originated using a blacksmith’s hammer.
  • Weight Throw
    • The weights are made of metal and have a handle attached either directly or by means of a chain. The implement is thrown using one hand only, but otherwise using any technique. Usually, a spinning technique is employed.
  • Weight Height/weight for height/weight over the bar
    • Athletes toss a 56-pound (4-stone) weight with an attached handle over a horizontal bar using only one hand.
  • Maide Leisg
    • A trial of strength between two men sitting on the ground with the soles of their feet pressing against each other. A stick is held between their hands which they pull against until one of them is raised from the ground.

Highland Games Heavy Weight

Other events that you might see include:

  • Haggis Hurling
    • The current world record for haggis hurling was set at 66 metres (217 feet) by Lorne Coltart at the Milngavie Highland Games on 11 June 2011.
  • Haggis Eating
    • The World Championship Haggis Eating Competition takes place at Birnam Highland Games.
  • Sheaf Tossing
    • A pitchfork is used to hurl a burlap bag stuffed with straw over a horizontal bar above the competitor’s head. Typical weight for the bag is about 7 kg (16 pounds.

Click here to view the above pictures and more in detail in Andy’s Highland Games Gallery, which features images from several different gatherings.

 

1 Shinty (Scottish Gaelic: camanachd or iomain, prounounced ca-man-achd or yi-mane) is a team game played with sticks and a ball. Unique to Scotland and one of the oldest games in the world, Shinty is now played mainly in the Scottish Highlands. Shiny has similarities to hockey and lacrosse, with historical roots in golf and ice hockey. Shinty is a game of 2 teams of 12 players, each with a curved stick called a Caman. Shinty, as it is known today, is considered by some to have originated on the playing fields at Kinguisse, near Aviemore and Cairngorm.

2 Targe refers to various types of shields used by infantry troops from the 13th to 16th centuries, or even earlier. It was the Scottish Highlander’s main means of defence in battle until it’s use was banned after The Battle of Culloden in 1746. A particularly famous targe was allegedly carried by Donald Cameron, the chief of Clan Cameron, aka ‘Cameron of Lochiel’, into the battle of Culloden (and battles before). Lochiel, a close advisor to Bonnie Prince Charlie, was seriously wounded in the battle. His targe, which usually hangs in Achnaharry Castle, the clan seat, is currently (23 June – 12 November 2017) on display at the ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites’ exhibition at The National Museum of Scotland. We have our own replica ‘Cameron of Lochiel’ targe on order (minus the gun shot holes), so watch this space for more details.

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