Highland Games – athletics, pipes and dancing

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December 15, 2016 By Heather MacCain

After an enjoyable weekend at the Cowal Highland Gathering a few weeks ago, we thought now would be the perfect time to discuss the wonderful tradition of Scottish Highland Games, how they have changed over the centuries, and how they continue to contribute to the culture of this vibrant and modern nation, passionate to celebrate and share their heritage worldwide!

Highland Games have been a part of the Scottish life since before recorded history – though some say they originated in the Ireland around 2000 BC, crossing over to Scotland with the fourth and fifth-century migrations of the Scotti people. The Braemar Games are known to have been among the first, in 1040, to formalise the events which took place, with the athletic challenges being used by King Malcolm III as a way to gather up Scotsmen and have them compete in feats of strength and speed to best select soldiers and couriers from among the clans. During Prescription, of course, the Games were banned completely, but they received a resurrection during the Victorian era, along with a UK-wide craze for all things kilted and Scottish, and have remained popular ever since.

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Nowadays, for most of us, the Games is just a fun day out with the family and an ideal excuse to perfect our casual or traditional kilt outfit – however, for Scottish athletes, dancers and musicians, the Highland Games are still a vitally important part of their training and careers. Highland Games can represent a place to prove themselves at a national, or even international, level, and continue on proudly with the traditions of their ancestors, while also representing a place for older people or Scottish emigrants to reminisce about their own kiltie upbringing and introduce these traditions to the new generations!

Athletic competitions still make up the core of Highland Games to this day, and though the exact events will vary from one Game to the next, some have become expected to feature at any Highland Games. The caber toss is one of the best known, but the intricacies of the challenge are not always fully understood by casual observers. In this event, the stripped trunk of a Scots Pine is held vertically by the narrowest end by a single competitor, who then runs and tosses the caber into the air – with the aim of having it flip in mid-air and land vertically on the thickest end, whereupon it should then fall directly away from the competitor. Participants are judged on how successful their execution of this move is, and also on the overall length and weight of their selected caber (as this can vary widely from one trunk to another). The Scottish stone put and hammer throw events also appear frequently and are usually familiar to attendees, as they are extremely similar to the modern versions of these events seen at the Olympics Games, but there are other more unique challenges also.

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One of these, the sheaf toss, has a degree of controversy to its inclusion at Highland Games, as some people feel that as th e common country fair event it is not uniquely Scottish enough to deserve a place at traditional Games, however, it is very popular and is not likely to disappear anytime soon! In this, a bundle of straw weighing 20 pounds for male competitors, and 10 pounds for women, is wrapped in a burlap bag and tossed vertically with a pitchfork over a raised bar, with each participant having three tries at each height. In each round, the successful competitors from the previous round will attempt to throw the sheaf over a higher bar, until a winner remains.

The final feat of athletic strength we will look at is the Maide Leisg, The Lazy Stick, in Gaelic. In this two competitors sit on the ground facing one another with the feet pressed together. A strong stick is held by both of them, and the competitors pull on the stick until one of them is raised off the ground by the strength of his opponent. This game is particularly popular, as any well-matched pair has a chance of a fun game trying to copy the athletes with little risk of injury as compared to some of the feats of strength and fortitude on the show!

But of course, the Highland Games are not just about watching the athletes, Highland Dancing is a massively popular event as well, and many Games will have displays of dancing or even competitions which the public can watch! The Cowal Gathering, for example, hosts the World Highland Dancing Championship each year to find the World Championship Highland Dancers of three ages groups, attracting dancers from around the world. Evidence suggests that Highland dancing began as sword dances performed by Highland warriors many centuries ago, indeed these war-like roots can still be seen today in dances such as the Bruschetta (Battle Dance) and the Highland Dirk Dance, and the combination of dexterity and strength required of the dancers can be thrilling to watch!

Music is also a popular part of the Games, and the massing of the pipe bands is very traditional, usually taking place at the opening and closing ceremonies of each Highland Games. These bands will also compete against one another during the Games itself, and other musical competitions will take place between smaller ensembles or solo pipers and drummers. Scottish and Celtic music makes up a large portion of the non-competitive entertainment as well of course, with fiddlers, harpists, and singers all commonly attending. General entertainment may also include displays by clan societies, mock battles staged by historical role-playing groups, or exhibitions of traditional Highland weaponry, and perhaps even a traditional ceilidh with Scottish country dancing for all! Traditional food and clothing vendors are of course very popular too, and Highland Games can turn into a bit of a fashion show with attendees running the gamut from modern utility style kilts with t-shirts and boots, to very traditional gentlemen displaying their classic daywear finery of tweed and jackets and waist-plates, tartan kilts and neatly turned out hose and brogues. Whatever your own personal style, you’re sure to find one perfect accessory you can’t resist!

So, as we come to the end of this year’s Highland Games season, I hope this post has allowed you to reminisce about some favorite moments from this summer, or inspired you to find a local Games to attend next year! Let us know in the comments if you have a special Highland Games moment you would like to share!