This is the largest Highland games in the world, where you can take part in a ceilidh and see dancers compete for the title of world champion
Taking place around Scotland during the summer months, Highland games provide a unique combination of culture, sport and social entertainment.
From traditional heavy athletics like tug-o-war and caber tossing to Highland dance competitions, piping, and field and track events, Highland games are a must-see addition to a Scottish holiday.
Highland games attract competitors from around the world, as well as locals - why not join in yourself? The games are a spectacle like no other set against beautiful Scottish scenery with colorful dance displays, local produce and an exciting atmosphere.
From May to September a full programme of Highland games takes place in small towns and villages across the country as well as those within the grounds of famed castles, so there are plenty to choose from.
At the Braemar Gathering in Aberdeenshire, you might even be lucky enough to see the Royal Family who traditionally attend each year. Or why not head along to Ceres Highland Games in Fife, the oldest free games in Scotland?
History of the Highland games
Games and sports have been part of Scottish culture for centuries. Some believe the roots of the Highland games date as far back as the 11th century, when King Malcolm III called a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich, near Braemar, in the hopes of finding the fastest runner in the land to become his personal courier.
In the modern format we know today, Highland games have been celebrated around Scotland since the 1800s and regularly draw in crowds of thousands. Amongst the most historic is the Braemar Gathering, which was awarded Royal Patronage by Queen Victoria and is still regularly attended by the reigning monarch and other members of the Royal Family.
An authentic Highland games combines sport, fun and culture, all with a unique Scottish twist. Heavy contests like the hammer throw see competitors put their muscles to the test, while field events such as the hill race test speed and stamina. Pipers show off their skills in both solo and band competitions, while dancers give dazzling displays of fancy footwork in pieces including the sword dance and the famous Highland fling.
How to shot put
12 fascinating facts on the Highland games
Perhaps the games’ most iconic event, the caber toss is rumoured to have stemmed from the need to toss logs over chasms. Nowadays, however, it is judged on style rather than distance: competitors aim to flip a log weighing up to 11 st so that it falls away from them in the ‘12 o’clock position’. The length it travels is entirely unimportant.
World Records are regularly broken at Highland games in Scotland and beyond. Last year a new Guinness World Record was set at the Masters World Championships in Inverness, when the most cabers were tossed at the same time. Over 160 kilted athletes took part, with 66 cabers being successfully tossed in the allotted time.
For many, one of the most memorable sights of the Highland games is the massed bands, when hundreds of pipers from different groups come together to play and march in unison. Look out for the solo piping competitions, where competitors play in a range of styles, including the Pibroch, which is considered the classical music of the bagpipe. Pibrochs tend to be slow, stately and complex.
Highland dancing at the games was originally an all-male event, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that women started to enter. The Cowal Gathering is renowned for the quality of its Highland dancing, drawing in the best performers from around the globe as they compete in the Scottish and World Championships.
The Atholl Gathering, Blair Castle, Perthshire
This year the World Championship Haggis Eating Competition takes place at Birnam Highland Games . A fun, yet fiercely competitive event, the winner is the competitor who finishes eating a pound of haggis in the quickest amount of time. The 2014 winner was Martin Bristow, from Murthly in Perthshire, who ate the haggis in 90 seconds, and finally clinched the title after coming second in three previous attempts.
You never know quite what you’ll see at a Highland games. Often one of the highlights of the local community calendar, they usually include a range of side shows, such as livestock events, parades, pet shows and even bonny baby competitions. At Aberfeldy Show and Games in Perthshire, you can even watch the more unusual sports of terrier racing!
Several games have boasted famous chieftains, including the singer Susan Boyle, who was Chieftain of the West Lothian Highland Games in 2014. Ewan McGregor (Star Wars, Trainspotting) was named Chieftain of the games in his hometown Crieff in 2001, and fellow actor Dougray Scott (Desperate Housewives, Mission Impossible: II) has held the honour at the Markinch Games in Fife.
Did you know that Baron Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, was so greatly impressed by a Highland display he saw at the 1889 Paris Exhibition that he introduced the hammer throw, shot put and the tug o’ war to his competition? The former two are still included to this day.
The Atholl Gathering, Blair Castle, Perthshire
Competitors in the heavy events use a range of techniques to improve their chances of winning. One movement in the weight for height event goes by the somewhat surprising nickname of ‘the handbag technique’, because the starting position is similar to where one would hold a handbag.
Haggis hurling began as a practical joke in the 1970s but is now a popular event at many Highland games – there’s even a World Haggis Hurling Association dedicated to the sport! The current world record was set at the Milngavie Highland Games in 2011, when Lorne Coltart hurled a haggis an impressive 217 ft.
Highland games now take place all around the world. The mostly northerly are held in Finnmark, Norway and the furthest south in Dundedin in New Zealand. The US and Canada host hundreds of Highland games, and there’s even a Latin American edition of the event in Brazil’s Sapucaia do Sul each year.
The Scottish Highland Games Association, who represent over 60 Highland games in Scotland, state that all competitors in open heavy events must wear a kilt when they compete. Great news for kilt makers, and fans of the tartan look!