The Highland Games
The Highland Games are thought to have originated from the 11th century when King Malcolm III of Scotland summoned contestants to a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich (overlooking Braemar.) He created the foot race to find the fastest runner in the land to be his royal messenger.The Highland Games modern origins 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. However, the modern Highland games are largely a Victorian invention, developed after the Highland Clearances.
The oldest free Highland Games in Scotland are in Ceres, Fife, held every year since the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The biggest is the Cowal Highland Gathering, better known as the Cowal Games which are held in Dunoon, Scotland, every August. It attracts around 3,500 competitors and around 23,000 spectators.
The Games consist of various Heavy Events.
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. Then the competitor 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 until one of them was raised from the ground. The oldest ‘Maide Leisg’ competition in the world takes place at the Carloway show and Highland.
Of course no Highland Games events would be complete without music. Pipe bands play at the opening and closing ceremonies, and 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.
Nearly all Highland Games gatherings have piping and drumming competition, including solo piping and drumming, small group ensembles and, of course, the pipe bands themselves. But 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.
And with music comes dancing. The Cowal Highland Gathering hosts the annual World Highland Dancing Championship. This event gathers the best competitive dancers from around the world who compete for the SOBHD sanctioned World Championship title.
So the next time you’re in Scotland, come and see the Highland Games.