Highland games

Highland games
Opening ceremonies of 2004 Canmore Highland games

Highland games are events held throughout the year in Scotland and other countries as a way of celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture and heritage, especially that of the Scottish Highlands. Certain aspects of the games are so well known as to have become emblematic of Scotland, such as the bagpipes, the kilt, and the heavy events, especially the caber toss. While centred on competitions in piping and drumming, dancing, and Scottish heavy athletics, the games also include entertainment and exhibits related to other aspects of Scottish and Gaelic culture.

The Cowal Highland Gathering, better known as the Cowal Games, held in Dunoon, Scotland, every August, is the largest Highland games in Scotland, attracting around 3,500 competitors and somewhere in the region of 15–20,000 spectators from around the globe. Worldwide, however, it is dwarfed by two gatherings in the United States: the 50,000 that attend Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina and the even larger gathering—the largest in the Northern Hemisphere—that has taken place every year since 1865 hosted by the Caledonian Club of San Francisco. This event is currently held Labor Day weekend in Pleasanton, California.[1]

The games 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.[1]



The origin of human games and sports predates recorded history. An example of a possible early games venue is at Fetteresso, although that location is technically a few miles south of the Scottish Highlands.

It is reported in numerous books and Highland games programs, that King Malcolm III of Scotland, in the 11th century, summoned contestants to a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich (overlooking Braemar).[2] King Malcolm created this foot race in order to find the fastest runner in the land to be his royal messenger. Some have seen this apocryphal event to be the origin of today's modern Highland games.[3]

There is a document from 1703 summoning the clan of the Laird of Grant, Clan Grant. They were to arrive wearing Highland coats and "also with gun, sword, pistill [sic] and dirk".[4] From this letter, it is believed that the competitions would have included feats of arms.

However, the modern Highland games are largely a Victorian invention, developed after the Highland Clearances.


Heavy Events

A caber being thrown at the 2000 New Hampshire Highland Games

In their original form many centuries ago, Highland games revolved around athletic and sports competitions. Though other activities were always a part of the festivities, many today still consider Highland athletics to be what the games are all about — in short, that the athletics are the Games, and all the other activities are just entertainment. Regardless, it remains true today that the athletic competitions are at least an integral part of the events and one — the caber toss — has come to almost symbolize the Highland games.

Although quite a range of events can be a part of the Highland athletics competition, a few have become standard.

  • 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 (see photo). 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
  • 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 till one of them was raised from the ground. The oldest 'Maide Leisg' competition in the world takes place at the Carloway show and Highland Games on the Isle of Lewis.

Many of the Heavy Events competitors in Scottish highland athletics are former high school and college track and field athletes who find the Scottish games are a good way to continue their competitive careers.

Increasingly in the USA, the Heavy Events are attracting women and master class athletes which has led to a proliferation of additional classes in Heavy Events competitions. Lighter implements are used in the classes.


Massed bands at the 2005 Pacific Northwest Highland Games
Highland Pipeband Competition Circle [Prince Charles Pipe Band 2008]

For many Highland games festival attendees, the most memorable of all the events at the games is the massing of the pipe bands. Normally held in conjunction with the opening and closing ceremonies of the games, 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, and other crowd-pleasing favorites.

It is, in fact, the music of the bagpipe which has come to symbolise music at the Games and, indeed, in Scotland itself. In addition to the massed bands, nearly all Highland games gatherings feature a wide range of piping and drumming competition, including solo piping and drumming, small group ensembles and, of course, the pipe bands themselves.

But the pipes and drums are not the only music which can be heard at Highland games. 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.


Cowal Highland Games hosts the annual World Championship Highland Dancing Competition. This event gathers the best competitive dancers from around the world who compete for the World Championship Title.

Secondary events and attractions

Assembling for the parade of clans at the 2005 Tacoma Highland Games

At modern-day Highland Games events, a wide variety of other activities and events are generally available. Foremost among these are the clan tents and vendors of Scottish related goods. The various clan societies make the Highland games one of the main focus of their seasonal activities, usually making an appearance at as many such events as possible. Visitors can find out information about the Scottish roots and can become active in their own clan society if they wish.

At modern games, armouries will display their collections of swords and armour, and often perform mock battles. Various vendors selling Scottish memorabilia are also present selling everything from Irn-Bru to the stuffed likeness of the Loch Ness Monster.

Herding dog trials and exhibitions are often held, showcasing the breeder's and trainer's skills. In addition, there may be other types of Highland animals present, such as the Highland cattle.

Various traditional and modern Celtic arts are often showcased. This could include Harper's circles, Scottish country dancing, and one or more entertainment stages. In addition, most events usually feature a pre-event ceilidh (a type of social event with traditional music, dancing, song, and other forms of entertainment).

Various food vendors will also offer assorted types of traditional Scottish refreshment and sustenance.

Major events in Scotland

Location Name Details
Braemar, Aberdeenshire Braemar Gathering Attended by the British Royal Family.
Burntisland, Fife Burntisland Highland Games Second oldest in the world
Ceres, Fife CERES HIGHLAND GAMES Oldest Free games in the world
Crieff Crieff Highland Games
Dunoon Cowal Highland Gathering Biggest Games in Scotland
Inverkeithing Inverkeithing Highland Games
Halkirk Halkirk Highland Games started in 1886,
Lochearnhead Balquhidder, Lochearnhead & Strathyre Highland Games Cameron's, MacLaren and MacGregor clans linked to the games
Pitlochry Pitlochry Highland GamesIsle Of Skye Highland Games
Portree Isle Of Skye Highland Games
St. Andrews St. Andrews Highland Games

Major events outside Scotland


Location[2] Name
Calgary, Alberta Calgary Highland Games
Cambridge, Ontario Cambridge Highland Games
Grande Prairie, Alberta Grande Prairie Highland Games
Coquitlam, British Columbia BC Highland Games
Victoria, British Columbia Victoria Highland Games and Celtic Festival
Antigonish, Nova Scotia Antigonish Highland Games
Almonte, Ontario North Lanark Highland Games
Cobourg, Ontario Cobourg Highland Games
Fergus, Ontario Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games
Maxville, Ontario Glengarry Highland Games
Sudbury, Ontario Sudbury Celtic Festival & Highland Games
Montreal, Quebec Montreal Highland Games


Location Name
St. Ursen, Fribourg Highland Games Swiss Championships

United States

Location[2] Name
Scottsboro, Alabama North Alabama Scottish Festival & Highland Games
Eagle River, Alaska Alaskan Scottish Highland Games
Camp Verde, Arizona Verde Valley Highland Games
Phoenix, Arizona Arizona Scottish Gathering and Highland Games
Prescott, Arizona Prescott Highland Games
Tucson, Arizona Tucson Celtic Festival and Highland Games
Batesville, Arkansas Arkansas Scottish Festival
Bakersfield, California Bakersfield High Games
Santa Cruz County, California Scottish Renaissance Festival featuring the Loch Lomond Highland Games & Celtic Gathering
Campbell, California Campbell Highland Games
Costa Mesa, California United Scottish Highland Gathering
Fresno, California Fresno Highland Games
Livermore, California Livermore Scottish Games and Celtic Celebration
Modesto, California Modesto Highland Games
Oakland, California Oakland Scottish Games
Pleasanton, California Caledonian Club of San Francisco Highland Gathering
Salinas, California Monterey Highland Games and Celtic Festival
Santa Cruz, California Santa Cruz Highland Games and Celtic Festival
Ventura, California Seaside Highland Games
Vista, California San Diego Scottish Highland Games and Gathering
Woodland, California Sacramento Valley Scottish Games
Elizabeth, Colorado Elizabeth Celtic Festival
Estes Park, Colorado Long's Peak Scottish/Irish Highland Festival
Highlands Ranch, Colorado Colorado Scottish Festival
Sterling, Colorado Sterling Celtic Festival
Goshen, Connecticut St. Andrews Society of Connecticut Scottish Festival
Norwalk, Connecticut Round Hill Highland Games
Scotland, Connecticut Scotland Highland Festival
Dunedin, Florida Dunedin Highland Games
Fort Lauderdale, Florida Southeast Florida Scottish Festival and Games
Green Cove Springs, Florida Northeast Florida Scottish Highland Games
Ocala, Florida Ocala Scottish Highland Games and Celtic Festival
Panama City, Florida Panama City Highland Games
Pensacola, Florida Pensacola Highland Games
Tallahassee, Florida Tallahassee Highland Games
Sarasota, Florida Sarasota Highland Games
Winter Springs, Florida Central Florida Scottish Highland Games
Zephyrhills, Florida Zephyrhills Celtic Festival and Highland Games
Blairsville, Georgia Blairsville Scottish Festival and Highland Games
Chickamauga, Georgia Appalachian Celtic Festival
Anderson, South Carolina Loch Hartwell Highland Games
Ringgold, Georgia Ringold Highland Games
Savannah, Georgia Savannah Scottish Games and Highland Festival
Stone Mountain, Georgia Stone Mountain Highland Games
Honolulu, Hawaii Hawaiian Scottish Festival
Boise, Idaho Treasure Valley Highland Games
Oakbrook, Illinois Illinois St. Andrew Society Highland Games
Springfield, Illinois Shamrock Games
Springfield, Illinois Springfield Highland Games and Celtic Festival
Columbus, Indiana Columbus, Indiana Scottish Festival
Fort Wayne, Indiana Indiana Highland Games
South Bend, Indiana Celtic Festival and Bryan Verkler Invitational Highland Games
Davenport, Iowa Celtic Festival and Highland Games of the Quad-Cities
McPherson, Kansas McPherson Scottish Festival and Highland Games
Wakeeney, Kansas Th' Gatherin' Fire Festival O'Beltane
Carrollton, Kentucky Kentucky Scottish Weekend
Glasgow, Kentucky Glasgow Highland Games
Murray, Kentucky Western Kentucky Highlands Festival
Jackson, Louisiana Highland Games of Louisiana
Minden, Louisiana Tartan Day Celebration
West Monroe, Louisiana Northeast Louisiana Celtic Festival
Belfast, Maine Maine Celtic Celebration
Brunswick, Maine Maine Highland Games
Elkton, Maryland Fair Hill Scottish Games
Frederick, Maryland Frederick Celtic Festival
Havre De Grace, Maryland Stepping Stone Museum Highland Games
St. Leonard, Maryland Southern Maryland Celtic Festival and Highland Gathering
McHenry, Maryland McHenry Higland Festival
Snow Hill, Maryland Chesapeake Celtic Festival
Florence, Massachusetts Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival www.glasgowlands.org
Greenfield, Massachusetts Western Massachusetts Highland Games and Festival
Alma, Michigan Alma Highland Festival and Games
Kalamazoo, Michigan Kalamazoo Highland Games
Livonia, Michigan St. Andrews Society of Detroit Highland Games
Saline, Michigan Saline Highland Games
Farmington, Minnesota Minnesota Scottish Fair
Moorhead, Minnesota Celtic Festival
Gulfport, Mississippi Highlands and Islands Games on the Gulf Coast
Jackson, Mississippi Celtic Fest Mississippi
Buffalo, Missouri Southwest Missouri Celtic Heritage Festival
Riverside, Missouri Kansas City Highland Games
St. Charles, Missouri Missouri Tartan Day Festivities www.motartanday.com
Hamilton, Montana Bitterroot Scottish Irish Festival
Las Vegas, Nevada Las Vegas Celtic Gathering
Reno, Nevada Reno Celtic Celebration
Lincoln, New Hampshire New Hampshire Highland Games www.nhscot.org
Albuquerque, New Mexico Rio Grande Valley Celtic Festival and Highland Games
Altamont, New York Capital District Scottish Games
Amherst, New York Amherst Museum Scottish Festival and Highland Games
Old Westbury, New York Long Island Scottish Games
Greensboro, North Carolina Triad Highland Games
Hendersonville, North Carolina Foothills Highland Games and Festival
Huntersville, North Carolina Loch Norman Highland Games
Laurinburg, North Carolina Scotland County Highland Games
Linville, North Carolina Grandfather Mountain Highland Games
Mint Hill, North Carolina Mint Hill Highland Games
Waxhaw, North Carolina Waxhaw Scottish Highland Games
Winston-Salem, North Carolina Winston-Salem Celtic Music Festival and Highland Games
Hartville, Ohio Brigadoon Beltane Festival
Wellington, Ohio Ohio Scottish Festival
Tulsa, Oklahoma Oklahoma Scottish Festival and Highland Games
Yukon, Oklahoma Scottish Heritage Festival and Highland Games
Athena, Oregon Athena Caledonian Games
Baker City, Oregon Eastern Oregon Highland Games
Gresham, Oregon Portland Highland Games
Madras, Oregon High Desert Celtic Festival and Games
Winston, Oregon Douglas County Celtic Highland Games
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania Bethlehem Celtic Classic
Edinboro, Pennsylvania Edinboro Highland Games
Ligonier, Pennsylvania Ligonier Highland Games
Manheim, Pennsylvania Celtic Fling and Highland Games
Richmond, Rhode Island Rhode Island Scottish Highland Festival
Clover, South Carolina Clover Scottish Games
Greenville, South Carolina Greenville Scottish Highland Games
Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina Charleston Scottish Games and Highland Gathering
Rapid City, South Dakota Black Hills Dakota Gathering of the Clans
Elizabethton, Tennessee Sycamore Shoals Celtic Festival
Gatlinburg, Tennessee Gatlinburg Scottish Highland Games
Jackson, Tennessee Celtic Fest
Arlington, Texas Texas Scottish Festival and Highland Games
Bedford, Texas Bedford Celtic Heritage Festival
Helotes, Texas San Antonio Highland Games
Houston, Texas Houston Highland Games and Celtic Festival
Salado, Texas Salado Scottish Clan Gathering and Highland Games
Lehi, Utah Utah Highland Games
Payson, Utah Payson Scottish Festival
Delaplane, Virginia Virginia Scottish Games and Festival
Leesburg, Virginia Potomac Celtic Festival
Lanexa, Virginia Williamsburg Scottish Festival
Lexington, Virginia Lexington Scots Irish Festival
Mechanicsville, Virginia Meadow Highland Games and Celtic Festival
Radford, Virginia Radford Highlander Festival
Enumclaw, Washington Pacific Northwest Scottish Highland Games
Bellingham, Washington Bellingham Highland Games
Graham, Washington Tacoma Highland Games
Greenbank, Washington Whidbey Island Highland Games
Kelso, Washington Kelso Hilander Festival and Games
Mount Vernon, Washington Skagit Valley Highland Games and Celtic Festival
Prosser, Washington Prosser Scottish Festival
Puyallup, Washington Scottish American Festival
Spokane, Washington Spokane Highland Games
Bridgeport, West Virginia North Central West Virginia Scottish Festival and Celtic Gathering
Milwaukee, Wisconsin Milwaukee Highland Games and Festival
Waukesha, Wisconsin Wisconsin Highland Games
Gillette, Wyoming Wyoming Celtic Festival
Jackson, Wyoming Jackson Hole Scottish Festival


  1. ^ e at VisitScotland.com
  2. ^ For a modern day fictional account of this event, see The origins of the Braemar Games Hill Race, by Les Wheeler
  3. ^ The interested reader can consult any number of Highland games web sites, many of which contain a brief sketch on the history of the Highland games themselves. Most will mention this hill climb, some referring to it as a story or legend, others as if it were an established fact and going from there to state just as matter-of-factly that the Highland games as we know them today can be traced back to or owe their origins to this hill climb event. As just one example (among many), the program (and web site) of the Pacific Northwest Highland Games states: "One of the first Highland games was held towards the end of the eleventh century, when King Malcolm Canmore . . ." going on from there to recount the story of the hill climb. Webster, in Scottish Highland Games, is not so certain. He recounts the story, labelling it as story, or legend only. Thomas Owen Clancy and Barbara E. Crawford, in the Bibliographical essay to chapter 2 (The Formation of the Scottish Kingdom) of The New Penguin History of Scotland state: "Little of significance has been written about the eleventh century kingdom otherwise, except on the dispute over the reliability of the early documentary sources. . .".
  4. ^ As quoted on the history page of the Aboyne Highland Gathering web site
  5. ^ The web site of the International Wrestling Association reports rather more expansively on the role of the 1889 Paris event and its effect on the development of the Olympics, considering it to have had a "huge impact" on world sport. An article published in 2004 in the Christian Science Monitor points to two other events, including that of Much Wenlock, a small English village in Shropshire,

See also



  • Michael Brander, Essential Guide to the Highland Games (1992) ISBN 0-86241-302-8
  • Emily Ann Donaldson, The Scottish Highland Games in America (Pelican Publishing Company, Gretna, LA, 1986). ISBN0-88289-474-9.
  • Joan F. Flett and Thomas M. Flett, Traditional Dancing in Scotland (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1964, 1985), ISBN 0-7102-0731-X
  • John G. Gibson, Traditional Gaelic Bagpiping, 1745-1945 (McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal, 1998). ISBN 0-7735-1541-0. See esp. chapter 15, "Highland Games and Competition Piping"
  • Ian R. Mitchell, "Rheumatism, Romanticism and Revolution: Victoria, Balmorality and 1848" in History Scotland (Vol. 5, #5, Sept/Oct 2005)
  • John Prebble, The King's Jaunt (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd,1988., 2000), ISBN 1-84158-068-6
  • Hugh Trevor-Roper, "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland." in The Invention of Tradition ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, ISBN 0-521-24645-8.
  • David Webster, Scottish Highland Games (Edinburgh, Scotland 1973)

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Highland Games — plural noun An event consisting of competitions in athletic sports, bagpiping, traditional dancing, etc held in the Scottish Highlands or by Scots in other places • • • Main Entry: ↑high * * * ˌHighland ˈGames 7 [Highland Games] noun …   Useful english dictionary

  • Highland Games — also Highland Gathering a special event held every year in Scottish towns, with traditional Scottish sports, dancing, and music. The sports include tossing the caber (=throwing a long, heavy wooden pole into the air) …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • Highland Games — Jeux écossais en Amérique du Nord Les jeux des Highlands (Highland Games en anglais) sont des évènements sportifs se déroulant tout au long de l année, en Écosse et dans d autres pays, et dont le but est de célébrer la culture écossaise, et… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Highland Games —    The Highland Games (or ‘Heavy Events’), one of the most enduring images of Scotland today, help preserve forms of traditional Celtic sport and include events for men and women. The most famous event is tossing the caber, but others include… …   Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture

  • Highland games competitors — Highland Games Competitors:The Scottish Highland Games, held mainly in Scotland, the United States, New Zealand, Iceland and Canada, are a place of social, cultural, and athletic gathering. These athletes work hard in these competitions, and the… …   Wikipedia

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  • Highland games — noun Festivals held throughout the year and in many countries of the world whose purpose is to celebrate the culture and heritage of Scotland and especially the Scottish Highlands …   Wiktionary

  • Highland Games — plural noun a meeting for athletic events, playing of the bagpipes, and dancing, held in the Scottish Highlands or by Scots elsewhere …   English new terms dictionary

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