A Highland Games – often referred to as a Gathering – is an essential part of what makes Scotland unique. Throughout the spring and summer – and, indeed, well into the autumn – you will find Highland Games , ranging from small, local events right up to large international festivals, throughout the length and breadth of the country. They represent a way of celebrating vital aspects of the Scottish cultural heritage to such an extent that, to many people, the images of caber tossing, bagpipe playing and the swirling kilts are as essential to Scotland as Edinburgh Castle, golf and deep-fried Mars Bars.
Highland Games reputedly began in the 11th century when Malcolm III was said to have organised a race to the top of Craig Choinnich to find the most suitable runner to act as his messenger. Whether true or not, the site of this race, near Braemar in the heart of the Cairngorms, is still an important Highland Games venue 10 centuries on.
The English occupiers of Scotland, determined to prevent rebellions, stopped the Scots from carrying weapons or training for war. Consequently, the Scottish natives developed the Games as a clandestine means of staying prepared to overthrow their oppressors. The modern games, though, were very much a Victorian innovation, for far more social reasons.
Part of the spectacle of a Highland Gathering are the traditional gladitorial feats of strength such as Stone Putting, Scotch Hammer Throwing, Caber Tossing, Weight Throwing and Throwing the Weight over the Bar. Some Games also include Sheaf Tossing, although it is often thought to be an English interloper. There’s also something quite breathtaking about a Highland Tug o’War battle. You’ll also see more traditional athletic races, often of a very high standard, and hill races to commemorate that very first run up Craig Choinnich.
Equally as important, however, are the Pipe Band competitions – as well as sometimes competitions for solo pipers – and Highland dancing events. Different Gatherings will have their own favourite other events so it’s not uncommon to find wrestling, cycling, Drum Major competitions and even five-a-side football on the timetables.
There are far too many Highland Games Gatherings to be able to mention them all here but well-known ones include those at the enchanting Blair Castle in Blair Atholl, Perthshire, every may; Strathmore Games, at Glamis Castle, the second Sunday in June; the Inverness Games in July; and the Highlander games at the famous Scone Palace, Perth in July.
The two most celebrated Gatherings, though, are probably Cowal and Braemar.
The Cowal Highland Gathering, at the end of August, is Scotland’s best attended Highland Games, attracting about 20,000 spectators each year to the town of Dunoon– as well as 3,500 participants from all over the world.
The Braemar Highland Gathering was formally constituted in 1816 and Queen Victoria, who first attended in 1848, honoured the meeting with the Royal title in 1866. In recent years it has been customary for the Queen and other members of the Royal Family to visit the Braemar Games whilst holidaying at nearby Balmoral Castle. Held on the first Saturday in September, the Braemar Games are the grandest of all the Gatherings, whilst still managing to stay firmly rooted in their area and keep their community feel.
Almost every major town and island will have its own Highland Games during the year, combining the strength and power of the ‘heavy’ events with the colour and passion of the pipe bands and the elegance of the dancing. Put all this against the backdrop provided by spectacular Scottish scenery and you’ll understand why Sottish Highland Games have an appeal way beyond the country’s borders.