Everything You Need to Know About the Highland Games
It’s one of Scotland’s oldest traditions. With tartan kilts for all to see, thrilling tug o’ war fights, bagpipes blaring out into the crowds, and plenty of whiskey and dancing, this is an event that every vacationer should attend at least once in their life. It’s family-friendly too – with food, shopping, costumes and craft stalls – so you can bring the whole clan to see what this Scottish festival is all about. Steeped in ancient history, the Highland Games is an important ritual that is still upheld to this day. For visitors who have never experienced this time-honored sporting competition, it can be a great day out, and one that is utterly unique and unforgettable.
Interested in watching the festivities on your next luxury Scottish vacation? Here’s everything you need to know to plan your visit.
What Are the Highlands Games?
Seen as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture, the Highland Games are events organized by the Scottish Highlands Games Association. They take place across a number of locations, and they welcome locals as well as tourists for a fun day of healthy competition, live music, and traditional Scottish food and drink.
The Highland Games is all a part of the cultural Highlands experience. The event offers a glimpse into how medieval clans competed against each other and prepared for battle during the Middle Ages. Today, there are over 100 games that take place every single year. Each one differs in size, with some of the biggest events having thousands of competitors and over 20,000 spectators!
As seen with many other sporting events, there’s a league table, with prizes such as cash or trophies up for grabs. There’s a fantastic mix of traditional games (many of which visitors may not have heard of) as well as some modern classics that invite cheering from the sidelines.
One of the most interesting draws of the Highland Games is the exciting mix of outfits and costumes, as clubs and clans show their tartan colors. Expect a fantastic parade of kilts, flags and bagpipes – the quintessential Scotland as painted in books, movies and Scottish fairytales.
The History of the Highland Games
These games date back a long time. The first ever reference to the types of sports held at the Highland Games was under the rule of King Malcolm III in 1031. Men were summoned to race to the top of Craig Choinnich, a large hill overlooking Braemar, so that the King could find the fastest runner to be his royal messenger. There were also many events like these where soldiers were tested in order to recruit the strongest and bravest men in the country.
Later, clans would compete against one another and it is believed that clan chieftains would use these sports to select the best bodyguards and fittest fighters. But not all games were based on muscle and brawn. There were plenty of opportunities for people to work the left side of their brain too. Musicians and dancers were also important to have in a clan household, so dancing competitions and live performances were also held, providing all-day entertainment for families and spectators.
Today, many of the old traditions are still in place. For instance, the original shot-puts were round stones sourced from nearby riverbeds, and Scots pine trunk with its branches removed still serves as the caber which is tossed in the caber tossing event. The games tend to have their own unique timetable of events, so each location will be different. But the biggest gatherings tend to feature all the traditional sports, such as shot put, hammer throw, tossing the caber, and tug o’war.
The Ceres Games in Fife, which started in 1314, are the oldest Highland Games in Scotland, and they have been continuous and highly successful ever since inception. The Ceres Games are said to be “held in honor of the brave men who fought at Bannockburn”, making them an important cultural event for the local people. While the largest event is the Cowal Highland Gathering, held in Dunoon every year.
Who Governs the Games Today?
While clans are no longer operating as they used to in Scotland, they are still legally recognized groups, each with their own official clan chief. So much of the tradition has been able to remain with the Highland Games today. The SHGA (Scottish Highlands Games Association) is the governing body of all events, and there are around sixty SHGA members, including several associate members from overseas.
All members are appointed to exemplify all that is best about good competition and sportsmanship. They aim to provide quality entertainment for visitors, and members’ events are used to pay prize funds in excess of a quarter of a million pounds annually.
In total, the SHGA governs over 60 different events, staging over 1,000 competitions and catering for more than 150,000 spectators.
When and Where are the Highland Games?
The Highland Games take place from May to mid-September each year, across multiple locations. The festivals often have stunning natural backdrops, creating a magical experience for anyone who’s visiting. The Ceres Games in Fife (late June) is perhaps the most famous for being the oldest games around, as is the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon (late August) due to it being the largest. Also worth mentioning is the Braemar Gathering (first Saturday in September), with roots dating all the way back to King Malcolm III, the King of Scots in the 11th Century.
Other well-known events are the Crieff Highland Gathering (August), the Lonach Highland Gathering and Games in Strathdon (always the fourth Saturday in August), Gordon Castle Highland Games (May), Lochcarron Highland Games (July), City of Inverness Highland Games (July), Isle of Skye Highland Games (August), the Pitlochry Highland Games (September), and the Loch Lomond Highland Games (July).
These traditional events are also mirrored in other parts of the world and are very well-attended. For instance, the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina and the Caledonian Club of San Francisco Event in California, both in the United States, are hugely successful. But if you want to get an authentic Scottish experience, nothing beats attending the Highland Games in its birthplace.
What Sports Can You Watch?
Spectators will be blown away by the unique and exciting sports competitions that will take place when they visit. Traditional games are at the heart of these cultural events.
Here are some of the sports that you will get to witness when you attend:
Tossing the Caber
The famous caber tossing game has come to epitomize the Highland Games and is one of the most popular competitions to watch. During the caber toss, a log made of Scots pine is thrown into the air by a strong and meticulously precise contestant who aims to land the caber at a 12 o’clock position in line with the original run.
The log is stood upright on the ground and should rest against the competitor’s body, then they must run forward to build momentum before launching it with both hands. In the air, the caber needs to turn end over end, with the upper end landing first. Competitors will be judged on how straight their throw is.
Hammer throwing is an event that involves swinging a hammer around your head before throwing it as far as possible. The hammer is made from a metal ball that weighs around 22lb (or 16lb for women) and this ball is attached to a wooden pole or handle for throwing with. Competitors will be judged on distance.
Everyone loves the shot put event at the Highland Games. As an all-round family favorite, it always gets the crowd cheering. Known also a ‘stone put’, this sport is all about distance throwing. It works in a similar way as the hammer throw, but with a put or large stone instead.
Following tradition, the stone (weighing around 20lb) is sourced from a nearby river. It is normally either thrown from a standing position or following a short run-up. Competitors must throw the stone from behind a board known as a trig, and they will have three attempts to get the best distance.
Tug O’ War
People of all ages love to watch the tug o’ war games. As one of the most fiercely fought competitions at the Highland Games, winning this is an important victory. Two teams of eight men pull at each end of a rope, and their aim is to bring the other team over the line. This is also one of the most vocal sports to take place, as each team has their own captain who stands and shouts instructions to help their team win.
Weight for Height
The weight for height game requires competitors to throw a weight of 56lb over a raised bar. This must be done using the handle and using just one hand. This means that single arm strength is key. Every time, a competitor is successful, the bar is raised. As the bar gets higher across the course of the game, contestants are knocked out until only one person is left standing.
This is a traditional race used by Kings and clans to establish the fastest runners in the country. Runners must reach the top of the hill as quickly as possible, and they can get up there any way they choose. Whether that be running or climbing. Hill races can often be very challenging due to the uneven terrain, so contestants must be familiar with the terrain of every kind during their training.
What About Food and Entertainment?
These are great family-friendly events, with something for all ages. In addition to all the exciting sports and competitions you can watch, there’s also fantastic bagpipe music and live performances, local crafts and art. The World Highland Dancing Championships are held at these events too, featuring dancers all the way from the US and Canada, and even as far as Australia.
When it comes to food and drink, you won’t be disappointed either. Even if you’re not a huge fan of traditional sports, the atmosphere is an attraction in itself – as is the food! The Highland Games are the perfect spots to sample authentic Scottish cuisine and get your taste buds on fresh local produce. Plus, with the growing popularity of Scottish whiskey and Scottish gin, you’ll find many distilleries sharing their top varieties here.
Some regions like to showcase their local artisan producers, and you’ll be able to find local specialties ranging from Perthshire pulled pork and Aberdeen Angus steaks to Kelvin Valley Honey from North Lanarkshire and Gigha Smoked Halibut.
Who Competes at the Highland Games?
While spectators are always encouraged to attend, the only people who can usually enter to compete in the games are those who are registered with the SHGA (Scottish Highlands Games Association). All SHGA members will be eligible to compete in SHGA-registered events. These include things like hill races, running, cycling, light field events, and heavyweight events. There are other events at the Highland Games (such as Highland Dancing or Piping) that don’t require registration.
Registered competitors will be awarded with points in the SHGA league tables, and will also be able to win prize money, trophies and medals presented by the SHGA.
How Much Does it Cost to Watch?
The cost of entry for these events will depend on which one you wish to attend. Each Highland Games event is different and will be charged differently.
As an example, the Braemar Gathering ranges from £12 for a single adult ticket to £35 for a covered grandstand, while the Perthshire Highland Games is £8 for an adult ticket. It is also possible to pay for family tickets at some events, and parking may also be charged.
Whichever of the Highland Games you wish to attend, it’s important to book ahead to ensure that you don’t miss out on the best seats. If you’re booking from overseas, bear in mind that your tickets may be held for collection on the day. So plan to arrive early to pick up tickets.