Highland games are events held throughout the year in Scotland and other countries as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture and heritage, especially that of the Scottish Highlands. Certain aspects of the games are so well known as to have become emblematic of Scotland, such as the bagpipes, the kilt, and the heavy events, especially the caber toss. While centred on competitions in piping and drumming, dancing, and Scottish heavy athletics, the games also include entertainment and exhibits related to other aspects of Scottish and Gaelic culture.
The Cowal Highland Gathering, better known as the cowal Games, held in Dunoon, Scotland every August, is the largest Highland games in Scotland, attracting around 3,500 competitors and somewhere in the region of 15–20,000 spectators from around the globe. Worldwide, however, it is dwarfed by two gatherings in the United States: the 50,000 that attend Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina and the even larger gathering—the largest in the Northern Hemisphere—that has taken place every year since 1865 hosted by the Caledonian Club of San Francisco. This event is currently held Labor Day weekend in Pleasanton, California.
The games are claimed to have influenced Baron Pierre de Coubertin when he was planning the revival of the Olympic Games. De Coubertin saw a display of Highland games at the Paris Exhibition of 1889.
The origin of human games and sports predates recorded history. An example of a possible early games venue is at Fetteresso, although that location is technically a few miles south of the Scottish Highlands.
It is reported in numerous books and Highland games programs, that King Malcolm III of Scotland, in the 11th century, summoned contestants to a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich (overlooking Braemar). King Malcolm created this foot race in order to find the fastest runner in the land to be his royal messenger. Some have seen this apocryphal event to be the origin of today's modern Highland games.
There is a document from 1703 summoning the clan of the Laird of Grant, Clan Grant. They were to arrive wearing Highland coats and "also with gun, sword, pistill [sic] and dirk". From this letter, it is believed that the competitions would have included feats of arms.
However, the modern Highland games are largely a Victorian invention, developed after the Highland Clearances.
In their original form many centuries ago, Highland games revolved around athletic and sports competitions. Though other activities were always a part of the festivities, many today still consider Highland athletics to be 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 pine pole or log is stood upright and hoisted by the competitor who balances it vertically holding the smaller end in his hands (see photo). Then the copetitor runs forward attempting to toss it in such a way that it turns end over end with the upper (larger) end striking the ground first. The smaller end that was originally held by the athlete then hits the ground in the 12 o'clock position measured relative to the direction of the run. 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 how closely their throws approximate the ideal 12 o'clock toss on an imaginary clock.
- Stone put: This event is similar to the modern-day shot put as seen in the Olympic Games. Instead of a steel shot, a large stone of variable weight is often used. There are also some differences from the Olympic shot put in allowable techniques. There are two versions of the stone toss events, differing in allowable technique. The "Braemar Stone" uses a 20–26 lb stone for men (13–18 lb for women) and does not allow any run up to the toeboard or "trig" to deliver the stone, i.e., it is a standing put. In the "Open Stone" using a 16–22 lb stone for men (or 8–12 lb for women), the thrower is allowed to use any throwing style so long as the stone is put with one hand with the stone resting cradled in the neck until the moment of release. Most athletes in the open stone event 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 lb for men or 12 or 16 lb for women) is attached to the end of a shaft about 4 feet in length and made out of wood, bamboo, rattan, or plastic. With the feet in a fixed position, the hammer is whirled about one's head and thrown for distance over the shoulder. Hammer throwers sometimes employ specially designed footwear with flat blades to dig into the turf to maintain their balance and resist the centrifugal forces of the implement as it is whirled about the head. This substantially increases the distance attainable in the throw.
- Weight throw, also known as the weight for distance event. There are actually two separate events, one using a light (28 lb for men and 14 lb for women) and the other a heavy (56 lb for men, 42 lb for masters men, and 28 lb for women) weight. 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. 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 and 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.
- Maide Leisg(Scots Gaelic meaning 'Lazy Stick'): Trial of strength performed by two men sitting on the ground with the soles of their feet pressing against each other. Thus seated, they held a stick between their toes which they pulled against each other till one of them was raised from the ground. The oldest 'Maide Leisg' competition in the world takes place at the Carloway show and Highland Games on the Isle of Lewis.
Many of the Heavy Events competitors in Scottish highland athletics 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.
For many Highland games festival attendees, the most memorable of all the events at the games is the massing of the pipe bands. Normally held in conjunction with the opening and closing ceremonies of the games, as many as 20 or more pipe bands will march and play together. The result is a thunderous rendition of traditional favourites Scotland the Brave or Amazing Grace, and other crowd-pleasing favorites.
It is, in fact, the music of the bagpipe which has come to symbolise music at the Games and, indeed, in Scotland itself. In addition to the massed bands, 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.
But the pipes and drums are not the only music which can be heard at Highland games. Music at Highland games gatherings takes on a variety of forms. 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.
People dance there. There were several traditional dances that were danced along to traditional music.
Secondary Events and Attractions
At modern-day Highland Games events, a wide variety of other activities and events are generally available. Foremost among these are the clan tents and vendors of Scottish related goods. The various clan societies make the Highland games one of the main focus of their seasonal activities, usually making an appearance at as many such events as possible. Visitors can find out information about the Scottish roots and can become active in their own clan society if they wish.
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.
Herding dog trials and exhibitions are often held, showcasing the breeder's and trainer's skills. In addition, there may be other types of Highland animals present, such as the Highland cattle.
Various traditional and modern Celtic arts are often showcased. This could include Harper's circles, Scottish country dancing, and one or more entertainment stages. In addition, most events usually feature a pre-event ceilidh (a type of social event with traditional music, dancing, song, and other forms of entertainment).
Various food vendors will also offer assorted types of traditional Scottish refreshment and sustenance.
Major events in Scotland
|Burntisland, Fife||Burntisland Highland Games||Second oldest in the world|
|Ceres, Fife||CERES HIGHLAND GAMES||Oldest Free games in the world|
|Crieff||Crieff Highland Games|
|Dunoon||Cowal Highland Gathering||Biggest Games in Scotland|
Major events outside Scotland
|Calgary, Alberta||Calgary Highland Games|
|Cambridge, Ontario||Cambridge Highland Games|
|Grande Prairie, Alberta||Grande Prairie Highland Games|
|Coquitlam, British Columbia||BC Highland Games|
|Victoria, British Columbia||Victoria Highland Games and Celtic Festival|
|Antigonish, Nova Scotia||Antigonish Highland Games|
|Almonte, Ontario||North Lanark Highland Games|
|Cobourg, Ontario||Cobourg Highland Games|
|Maxville, Ontario||Glengarry Highland Games|
|Sudbury, Ontario||Sudbury Celtic Festival & Highland Games|
|Montreal, Quebec||Montreal Highland Games|
|St. Ursen, Fribourg||Highland Games Swiss Championships|
|Scottsboro, Alabama||North Alabama Scottish Festival & Highland Games|
|Eagle River, Alaska||Alaskan Scottish Highland Games|
|Camp Verde, Arizona||Verde Valley Highland Games|
|Phoenix, Arizona||Arizona Scottish Gathering and Highland Games|
|Prescott, Arizona||Prescott Highland Games|
|Tucson, Arizona||Tucson Celtic Festival and Highland Games|
|Batesville, Arkansas||Arkansas Scottish Festival|
|Bakersfield, California||Bakersfield High Games|
|Santa Cruz County, California||Scottish Renaissance Festival featuring the Loch Lomond Highland Games & Celtic Gathering|
|Campbell, California||Campbell Highland Games|
|Costa Mesa, California||United Scottish Highland Gathering|
|Fresno, California||Fresno Highland Games|
|Livermore, California||Livermore Scottish Games and Celtic Celebration|
|Modesto, California||Modesto Highland Games|
|Oakland, California||Oakland Scottish Games|
|Pleasanton, California||Caledonian Club of San Francisco Highland Gathering|
|Salinas, California||Monterey Highland Games and Celtic Festival|
|Santa Cruz, California||Santa Cruz Highland Games and Celtic Festival|
|Ventura, California||Seaside Highland Games|
|Vista, California||San Diego Scottish Highland Games and Gathering|
|Woodland, California||Sacramento Valley Scottish Games|
|Elizabeth, Colorado||Elizabeth Celtic Festival|
|Estes Park, Colorado||Long's Peak Scottish/Irish Highland Festival|
|Highlands Ranch, Colorado||Colorado Scottish Festival|
|Sterling, Colorado||Sterling Celtic Festival|
|Goshen, Connecticut||St. Andrews Society of Connecticut Scottish Festival|
|Norwalk, Connecticut||Round Hill Highland Games|
|Scotland, Connecticut||Scotland Highland Festival|
|Dunedin, Florida||Dunedin Highland Games|
|Fort Lauderdale, Florida||Southeast Florida Scottish Festival and Games|
|Green Cove Springs, Florida||Northeast Florida Scottish Highland Games|
|Ocala, Florida||Ocala Scottish Highland Games and Celtic Festival|
|Panama City, Florida||Panama City Highland Games|
|Pensacola, Florida||Pensacola Highland Games|
|Tallahassee, Florida||Tallahassee Highland Games|
|Sarasota, Florida||Sarasota Highland Games|
|Winter Springs, Florida||Central Florida Scottish Highland Games|
|Zephyrhills, Florida||Zephyrhills Celtic Festival and Highland Games|
|Blairsville, Georgia||Blairsville Scottish Festival and Highland Games|
|Chickamauga, Georgia||Appalachian Celtic Festival|
|Anderson, South Carolina||Loch Hartwell Highland Games|
|Ringgold, Georgia||Ringold Highland Games|
|Savannah, Georgia||Savannah Scottish Games and Highland Festival|
|Stone Mountain, Georgia||Stone Mountain Highland Games|
|Honolulu, Hawaii||Hawaiian Scottish Festival|
|Boise, Idaho||Treasure Valley Highland Games|
|Oakbrook, Illinois||Illinois St. Andrew Society Highland Games|
|Springfield, Illinois||Shamrock Games|
|Springfield, Illinois||Springfield Highland Games and Celtic Festival|
|Columbus, Indiana||Columbus, Indiana Scottish Festival|
|Fort Wayne, Indiana||Indiana Highland Games|
|South Bend, Indiana||Celtic Festival and Bryan Verkler Invitational Highland Games|
|Davenport, Iowa||Celtic Festival and Highland Games of the Quad-Cities|
|McPherson, Kansas||McPherson Scottish Festival and Highland Games|
|Wakeeney, Kansas||Th' Gatherin' Fire Festival O'Beltane|
|Carrollton, Kentucky||Kentucky Scottish Weekend|
|Glasgow, Kentucky||Glasgow Highland Games|
|Murray, Kentucky||Western Kentucky Highlands Festival|
|Jackson, Louisiana||Highland Games of Louisiana|
|Minden, Louisiana||Tartan Day Celebration|
|West Monroe, Louisiana||Northeast Louisiana Celtic Festival|
|Belfast, Maine||Maine Celtic Celebration|
|Brunswick, Maine||Maine Highland Games|
|Elkton, Maryland||Fair Hill Scottish Games|
|Frederick, Maryland||Frederick Celtic Festival|
|Havre De Grace, Maryland||Stepping Stone Museum Highland Games|
|St. Leonard, Maryland||Southern Maryland Celtic Festival and Highland Gathering|
|McHenry, Maryland||McHenry Higland Festival|
|Snow Hill, Maryland||Chesapeake Celtic Festival|
|Florence, Massachusetts||Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival|
|Greenfield, Massachusetts||Western Massachusetts Highland Games and Festival|
|Alma, Michigan||Alma Highland Festival and Games|
|Kalamazoo, Michigan||Kalamazoo Highland Games|
|Livonia, Michigan||St. Andrews Society of Detroit Highland Games|
|Saline, Michigan||Saline Highland Games|
|Farmington, Minnesota||Minnesota Scottish Fair|
|Moorhead, Minnesota||Celtic Festival|
|Gulfport, Mississippi||Highlands and Islands Games on the Gulf Coast|
|Jackson, Mississippi||Celtic Fest Mississippi|
|Buffalo, Missouri||Southwest Missouri Celtic Heritage Festival|
|Riverside, Missouri||Kansas City Highland Games|
|St. Charles, Missouri||Missouri Tartan Day Festivities|
|Hamilton, Montana||Bitterroot Scottish Irish Festival|
|Las Vegas, Nevada||Las Vegas Celtic Gathering|
|Reno, Nevada||Reno Celtic Celebration|
|Lincoln, New Hampshire||New Hampshire Highland Games|
|Albuquerque, New Mexico||Rio Grande Valley Celtic Festival and Highland Games|
|Altamont, New York||Capital District Scottish Games|
|Amherst, New York||Amherst Museum Scottish Festival and Highland Games|
|Old Westbury, New York||Long Island Scottish Games|
|Greensboro, North Carolina||Triad Highland Games|
|Hendersonville, North Carolina||Foothills Highland Games and Festival|
|Huntersville, North Carolina||Loch Norman Highland Games|
|Laurinburg, North Carolina||Scotland County Highland Games|
|Linville, North Carolina||Grandfather Mountain Highland Games|
|Mint Hill, North Carolina||Mint Hill Highland Games|
|Waxhaw, North Carolina||Waxhaw Scottish Highland Games|
|Winston-Salem, North Carolina||Winston-Salem Celtic Music Festival and Highland Games|
|Hartville, Ohio||Brigadoon Beltane Festival|
|Wellington, Ohio||Ohio Scottish Festival|
|Tulsa, Oklahoma||Oklahoma Scottish Festival and Highland Games|
|Yukon, Oklahoma||Scottish Heritage Festival and Highland Games|
|Athena, Oregon||Athena Caledonian Games|
|Baker City, Oregon||Eastern Oregon Highland Games|
|Gresham, Oregon||Portland Highland Games|
|Madras, Oregon||High Desert Celtic Festival and Games|
|Winston, Oregon||Douglas County Celtic Highland Games|
|Bethlehem, Pennsylvania||Bethlehem Celtic Classic|
|Edinboro, Pennsylvania||Edinboro Highland Games|
|Ligonier, Pennsylvania||Ligonier Highland Games|
|Manheim, Pennsylvania||Celtic Fling and Highland Games|
|Richmond, Rhode Island||Rhode Island Scottish Highland Festival|
|Clover, South Carolina||Clover Scottish Games|
|Greenville, South Carolina||Greenville Scottish Highland Games|
|Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina||Charleston Scottish Games and Highland Gathering|
|Rapid City, South Dakota||Black Hills Dakota Gathering of the Clans|
|Gatlinburg, Tennessee||Gatlinburg Scottish Highland Games|
|Jackson, Tennessee||Celtic Fest|
|Arlington, Texas||Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games|
|Bedford, Texas||Bedford Celtic Heritage Festival|
|Helotes, Texas||San Antonio Highland Games|
|Houston, Texas||Houston Highland Games and Celtic Festival|
|Salado, Texas||Salado Scottish Clan Gathering and Highland Games|
|Lehi, Utah||Utah Highland Games|
|Payson, Utah||Payson Scottish Festival|
|Delaplane, Virginia||Virginia Scottish Games and Festival|
|Leesburg, Virginia||Potomac Celtic Festival|
|Lanexa, Virginia||Williamsburg Scottish Festival|
|Lexington, Virginia||Lexington Scots Irish Festival|
|Mechanicsville, Virginia||Meadow Highland Games and Celtic Festival|
|Radford, Virginia||Radford Highlander Festival|
|Enumclaw, Washington||Pacific Northwest Scottish Highland Games|
|Bellingham, Washington||Bellingham Highland Games|
|Graham, Washington||Tacoma Highland Games|
|Greenbank, Washington||Whidbey Island Highland Games|
|Kelso, Washington||Kelso Hilander Festival and Games|
|Mount Vernon, Washington||Skagit Valley Highland Games and Celtic Festival|
|Prosser, Washington||Prosser Scottish Festival|
|Puyallup, Washington||Scottish American Festival|
|Spokane, Washington||Spokane Highland Games|
|Bridgeport, West Virginia||North Central West Virginia Scottish Festival and Celtic Gathering|
|Milwaukee, Wisconsin||Milwaukee Highland Games and Festival|
|Waukesha, Wisconsin||Wisconsin Highland Games|
|Gillette, Wyoming||Wyoming Celtic Festival|
|Jackson, Wyoming||Jackson Hole Scottish Festival|