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The Ultimate Guide to the Highland Games in Scotland

By Alex Boag-Wyllie
More by Alex

The Thrill of the Games

The Highland Games are a thrilling and authentic experience that captivates travellers from near and far. Attending the Highland Games is a must if you’re looking for Scotland’s traditions, heritage, and community spirit. Read on to discover the vibrant world of Highland Games, allowing you to curate unforgettable experiences for your clients.


A Showcase of Scottish Heritage

Legend tells that the Highland Games trace their roots back 1000 years when King Malcolm III of Scotland hosted a foot race to find a new messenger. In a feat of endurance and a show of speed, competitors raced up Creag Chòinnich, outside Braemar, for the job.

The village of Ceres, in Fife, claims to host the oldest Highland Games in the world. In June 1314, the legendary Battle of Bannockburn took place 80 km/50 miles to the west. It has been suggested that archers trained in Ceres in the lead-up to the battle, and the Highland Games have run in the village (almost) every year since.

A third story originates with the fierce Medieval clans and warriors. Keen to show their strength and test their speed, these great warriors may have used events similar to those seen in the Highland Games today. Music and dancing would have kept spectators and visiting clan chiefs entertained.

Whatever their true origin, these games serve as a celebration of Scottish heritage. The events we enjoy today take their inspiration from the 1800s when a wave of romanticism for all things Scottish swept the UK. Queen Victoria’s fondness for Balmoral Castle helped nurture its popularity.

The Royal family are often in attendance today at the prestigious Braemar Gathering, 11 km/7 miles west of Balmoral Castle. Another notable event is the Cowal Games, boating the largest attendance at a Highland Games in Scotland, with over 23,000 visitors annually. In Scotland, the Highland Games occur in various locations across the country between May and September. Wherever your clients stay in this beautiful country, there is a diverse array of events to choose from.

The Spirit of the Competition

One of the highlights of the Highland Games is witnessing athletes compete in various categories. From the precision footwork of Highland dancers to the raw power of heavy athletics competitors, the games offer a thrilling spectacle. Read on to discover some of the most iconic events that take place at most Highland Games.

Caber Toss

Among the many thrilling events at the Highland Games, the caber toss stands out as a symbol of strength and precision. This unique display is synonymous with the Highland Games.

The origins of the caber toss are shrouded in mystery, adding to its allure. Whether it was soldiers showcasing their strength or a loggers challenge, the exact beginnings of the sport remain unknown. First recorded in the mid-1500s, the term ‘caber’ derives from the Gaelic word for pole, reflecting its deep Scottish roots.

Contrary to popular belief, the objective of the caber toss is not distance but accuracy. Competitors face the challenge of tossing a 4 to 5 meter log, typically with the bark removed, in a way that causes it to rotate gracefully in the air. Points are awarded based on the alignment and angle of the log upon landing rather than the distance it travels. The ultimate aim is to achieve a perfect ‘12 o’clock’ landing, where the end held by the tosser faces directly away from them.

The caber toss is a highlight of the Highland Games, showcasing the strength and precision of its participants.

Hammer Throw

The hammer throw is a mesmerising display of strength and athleticism. This captivating event has become a significant discipline in field athletics, including the Olympics. Whether witnessed on a global stage or at a local Highland Games, this heavyweight sport holds an intriguing history that dates back centuries.

Legend traces the origins of the hammer throw back 4000 years ago. In Irish folklore, the great warrior Cuchullainn allegedly threw a chariot wheel, ‘inventing’ the hammer throw. More substantial evidence of the sport emerged in 16th century Britain, as men engaged in strength competitions. The modern incarnation of the sport debuted at Highland Games during the later 1800s. Eventually, it gained recognition as an Olympic event in 1900 for men and in 2000 for women.

The hammer throw challenges competitors to propel a metal ball attached to a wooden handle. Watch out for the thrower’s footwear during the Highland Games. Some shoes may feature a blade in the toe to serve as an anchor point, compensating for the absence of spinning.

From its humble beginnings in the Highland Games to its place on the world stage, this awe-inspiring event showcases participants’ immense power and technical prowess.

Pipes & Drums

The sound of bagpipes, accompanied by the beat of drums, evokes a sense of Scottish pride. These two elements come together to form the core of a stirring pipe band.

The precise origins of bagpipes remain elusive. However, Scottish culture likely adopted the instrument rather than it originating here. Historians can trace the roots of bagpipe music in Scotland back to the Isle of Skye in the 1600s. The British Army played a pivotal role in transforming the instrument and its music. It was the Army who created the pipe band we cherish today. Combining the resonant sound of bagpipes with the rhythmic beats of drums, Highland regiments created a formidable force. These bands boosted morale on troop marches and instilled fear in the hearts of enemies on the battlefield.

Highland Games often feature solo competitions for pipers, drummers, and drum majors. Additionally, spectators are treated to captivating performances by full pipe bands. These musical events offer a breathtaking display of skill and musicianship. The sight and sound of a pipe band marching through the games evoke a powerful sense of pride.

Pipe bands stand as a testament to the enduring legacy of Scottish music and culture. Their presence at Highland Games showcases these dedicated musicians’ remarkable skill and artistry.

Experience Scottish Culture

Credit: Visit Scotland

Attending the Highland Games is more than a spectator sport; it’s an opportunity to experience Scottish culture firsthand. Visitors can mingle with locals dressed in traditional kilts, indulge in mouthwatering Scottish cuisine, and explore stalls offering artisanal crafts. The atmosphere is one of warmth, laughter, and a palpable sense of community.

A kaleidoscope of stirring bagpipes, feats of strength, and Scottish culture, the Highland Games are a uniquely Scottish celebration. They are an unforgettable experience for those seeking a deeper connection with Scottish culture.

Discover the Highland Games in Scotland

With their vibrant displays of athleticism, captivating music, and rich traditions, these games are a true highlight of any Scottish adventure. By including the Highland Games in your travel itineraries, you can offer your clients a chance to witness the magic of this cherished cultural event and create memories that will last a lifetime.

Let’s work together to create the perfect experience for your clients.

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Meet the Author: Alex Boag-Wyllie

Born in the Scottish Highlands, I was lucky enough to spend my childhood playing on beautiful beaches and learning to ski (or, more often, fall over). My father’s job kept us on the move, and I was soon just as at home across the rest of the UK. I’m your gal if you need a good cafe recommendation (almost) anywhere in the country; if I haven’t been there yet, you can be sure it’s on my trip list…

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