A history of the Scottish Highland Games

The mass bagpipe march is the epitome of the Highland Games across the world,

Such events are as likely to take place in Detroit and Sau Paulo as they are in Dundee and St Andrew’s, as people seek a little connection to heritage and home.

The Highland Games have proven to be one of Scotland’s greatest cultural exports with events rooted around 1,000 years ago at the foot of a hill in Deeside.

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Here we take a look at how they all started – and why they’ve traveled so far.

A young piper plays at the Braemar Highland Gathering (Photo by Chris Jackson / Getty Images)

They are said to have originally been a form of war game in which the strongest and bravest soldiers would triumph.

The Highland Games remain a powerful expression of a Scottish form – both at home and abroad – with the celebration of bagpipes, drums, dancing and brute force carried across the world in a tribute affectionate to the motherland.

The first historical reference to Highland Games type events in Scotland was made during the reign of King Malcolm III (1057-1093) when he summoned men to race against Craig Choinnich near Braemar in order to find a royal messenger. .

Hercules the Bear and his owner Andy Robin fight in the 22-foot-long kilt the bear was expected to wear at the Callander Highland Games. Photo taken in July 1987.

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The games are said to have become a way of picking the most capable men for the chieftain’s house, but it wasn’t just brute strength that was determined. Musicians and dancers were also in demand to add prestige to the clan.

The Ceres Games in Fife are considered the oldest and oldest games in the Highlands in Scotland and started in 1314.

They continue to thrive more than 700 years after the King of Scotland, Robert the Bruce, chartered the village for a market and fair to recognize farmers, laborers, artisans and “the common people” who fought at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Icelandic shot put champion Hreinn Halldorsson at the Highland Games, which took place at Meadowbank Stadium, Edinburgh, in August 1977.

The growing tradition of the Highland Games was interrupted after Culloden, when the Outlaw Acts of 1746 were passed to dismantle Highland life, culture, and society.

The Braemar Gathering, arguably the most famous games in the world given their royal ties, has its roots in the Kings Malcolm race, but its modern incarnation began in 1815 when a mutual aid society wrights – or builders – was formed in the city.

The workers were to hold a procession every year, and in 1832, foot races were held for the first time – and have been held every year since. The games were attended by Queen Victoria in 1838 with royal support since then.

You could say that Queen Victoria’s approval of the games was the most important factor in the growth of such events and their export to the world.

Jay Scott winning the 16-pound confined hammer at the Luss Highland Games.

THE BIGGEST EVENTS IN SCOTLAND

There are around 100 Highland Games in Scotland each year.

The Cowal Highland Gathering has long claimed to be the greatest game in the world. At its peak, it drew 30,000 spectators, but the numbers are more likely to be in the 20,000 range over the three days of the event. The games host the Highland World Dance Championships in which contestants from the United States, Canada and Australia typically participate.

The Braemar Gathering attracts around 10,000 spectators a day with the Queen a faithful. Similar figures are taken from the Lonach Highland Gathering in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, with arguably the highlight of the Lonach Highlanders March. About 200 men of all generations, drawn from the valley and armed with axes and Lochaber pikes, join the march from Belabeg to Lonach Hall in a 175-year tradition.

Lonach gained popularity due to the regular presence of comedian Billy Connolly, who once owned the nearby Candacraig house. A number of his guests are also reportedly attending Lonach, with late comedian Robin Williams taking part in the hill climb. Comedian Steve Martin and actor Sean Connery were also spotted in the crowd.

Murrayfield Highlands Games.

The celebrity pulling power was also added to the Bridge of Allan Highland Games, with Judy Murray named Chieftain at last year’s event. Former Rangers boss Ally McCoist and actress Dianna Rigg also took the honor.

Hollywood actor Ewan McGregor was named chef of the Crieff Highland Games in 2001.

HOW THE GAMES SPREAD AROUND THE WORLD

As the Scots moved around the world, so did a version of the traditions and culture that bound them. There is hardly a corner of the globe that does not have a Caledonian society with ties to home and heritage seemingly as important today as they were to the diaspora in days gone by.

Caledonian societies were quickly formed in the 19th and early 20th centuries to reflect the emigration of Scots with Waipu, New Zealand, reportedly the first.

The Waipu Caledonian Society was formed in 1871 to help settle the Scottish newcomers, many of whom had left Scotland in the middle of The Clearance and who initially settled in Nova Scotia before moving to New Zealand.

Such societies have been formed widely in North America to help bring newcomers together and serve as a meeting point. The first Highland Games in the United States were held in 1836 when the Highland Society of New York held its first “sports meeting”.

Three years later, the Caledonian Club of San Francisco hosted their first Highland Games, claiming they were now the oldest in the country.

That year the first games were held in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, home to thousands of Scots.

The biggest event is now said to be the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina, which has 30,000 spectators.

Today you can attend Highland Games all over Europe – especially Germany and the Netherlands – Indonesia, Japan, South Africa and Brazil.

While many Highland Games have modernized their programs with strongman contests and boot-throwing competitions, there are a few traditions that form the heart of the Highland Games.

It’s impossible to imagine going to a game and not seeing the event kick off the caber and the other heavyweight contests.

The caber is a little less than six meters high, is lifted, balanced and completely turned over by the competitor. The highest scores go to those who land the caber straight ahead, in the 12 o’clock position.

No one is quite sure how the contest started, but it has been suggested that cabers – often today a salvaged telegraph pole – were first used to help men cross fast-flowing rivers.

Another standard heavy event is a “throw the weight on the bar,” which would have started with simple stones but with farm weights now in use, primarily a 56-pound metal cube.

The Highland Games are the greatest natural platform for bagpipes with such events punctuated by the shattering and proud performances of the bagpipe group – or the delicate melody of master Piobaireachd.

The Highland Games draw thousands of spectators both in Scotland and around the world with the fiercely contested Highland dance competitions. PIC Phil Wilkinson / TSPL
Richmond Highlands Games.
Lonach’s men march through the village of Strathdon ahead of the Lonach Highland Games in Aberdeenshire. See PA / Danny Lawson.
Comedian Billy Connolly attends the Lonach Highland Games in Aberdeenshire with his wife Pamela Stephenson (left) and daughter Cara and granddaughter (right) PIC Danny Lawson / PA.
British shot put champion Geoff Capes at the Highland Games, held at Meadowbank Stadium, Edinburgh, in August 1977.
Murrayfield Highlands Games.
A young piper plays at the Braemar Highland Gathering (Photo by Chris Jackson / Getty Images)
Hercules the Bear and his owner Andy Robin fight in the 22-foot-long kilt the bear was expected to wear at the Callander Highland Games. Photo taken in July 1987.
Icelandic shot put champion Hreinn Halldorsson at the Highland Games, which took place at Meadowbank Stadium, Edinburgh, in August 1977.
Jay Scott winning the 16-pound confined hammer at the Luss Highland Games.
Murrayfield Highlands Games.
The Highland Games draw thousands of spectators both in Scotland and around the world with the fiercely contested Highland dance competitions. PIC Phil Wilkinson / TSPL
Richmond Highlands Games.
Lonach’s men march through the village of Strathdon ahead of the Lonach Highland Games in Aberdeenshire. See PA / Danny Lawson.
Comedian Billy Connolly attends the Lonach Highland Games in Aberdeenshire with his wife Pamela Stephenson (left) and daughter Cara and granddaughter (right) PIC Danny Lawson / PA.
British shot put champion Geoff Capes at the Highland Games, held at Meadowbank Stadium, Edinburgh, in August 1977.
Murrayfield Highlands Games.


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Jennifer R. Strohm