More competitors encouraged to participate

From Guruuk in May to Bowhill in September, Scotland hosts dozens of Highland Games events each year.

But for the past two years, competitors have faced the obstacles of the Covid pandemic rather than the challenges of the games.

The events make a triumphant return this summer, giving athletes the chance to compete again and showing that the spirit of the Games lives on.

For the Royal Scottish Highland Games Association (RSHGA) and the Grampian Highland Games Association (GGA), it is of vital importance that the events continue.

“There are hundreds of years of tradition,” said RSHGA secretary Ian Grieve. “It’s important that this continues for Scotland and the communities.”

Spectators at the Lonach Highland Games in 2019. Photo by Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson.

“And that’s great for tourism, when the events are between May and September, they fill up quickly. People come from all over the world to see the iconic events.

GHGA Secretary Denise Forsyth added: “Within Grampian there were over 80,000 people attending pre-Covid which also brings money to the community.

“Different groups, like Brownies and Scouts, have the chance to raise funds and it’s more business for local hotels, pubs and restaurants. Bringing the community together is something we’ve all missed during lockdown.

“It looks positive”

Bringing the games back after a two-year break is an exciting prospect for the associations – but there were concerns about a drop in numbers.

“We’re just back from lockdown, but the numbers for heavyweight and cycling events are up, and the dancing has been pretty good so far,” Mr Grieve said.

The future looks positive based on the events held so far in 2022 – with many competitors making a comeback in hopes of breaking their own records.

The number of heavyweight competitors is increasing. Pictured is Glenisla’s Pete Hart during the 2019 Pitlochry draw. Photo by Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson.

Miss Forsyth said: “We had mixed feelings about the comeback, but we have to get the games back up and running. It is important for the community in which we live.

“There is a bit of trepidation, especially in this economic climate, will people still want to come is the question.

“Foreign visitors represent a large number of those who come, and we don’t know if it will be the same. Hopefully we will win over staycationers who want to see what Scotland has to offer.”

Adapt to the times

Mr. Grieve has been involved with the Highland Games in a variety of different roles for over 50 years and has held numerous titles with the RSHGA.

The Fife resident also hosts the annual event in St Andrews, which is seen as a relative newcomer to Highland Games schedule – although it has come a long way since it was first held in 1984.

Ian Grieve, secretary of the Royal Scottish Highland Games Association. Photo: Kris Miller/DC Thomson.

“The games are adapting to the times – we’ve moved to online ticketing and added card readers – but the actual events haven’t changed,” he said.

“And there are no plans to change them. We don’t want to stray from tradition and we know that visitors like to see the origin of the games.

“Overwhelmed by entries”

The RSHGA, which provides guidance to its more than 60 members, received the Royal Seal of Approval last year and hopes to continue the legacy by actively encouraging more people of all ages to get involved in the events.

A ‘special’ Highland Games was held at Braemar last summer with spectator tickets limited to 850 due to Covid.

Miss Forsyth, who was brought up with the games, said: ‘It was a way of reminding the public that the games are still here and plan to continue. We were overwhelmed with entries.

The Grampian Highland Games Gathering at Braemar in 2021. Photo by Stuart Wallace/Shutterstock.

In April, a heavyweight practice day was held at Crieff’s Market Park to give potential competitors a taste of what they can expect at the Highland Games.

“We had a good turnout,” Mr. Grieve said. “It was an amazing day, and we hope to organize it again next year.”

Three experienced trainers were on hand to show participants the basics of all heavyweight events as part of the joint venture of the RSHGA, Crieff Highland Games and Perthshire Highland Games Association.

Four-year-old Highland dancer Iris Smith from Cairnie dances to Fiona Caldwell’s pipes at the 2022 Gordonstoun School Junior Highland Games. Photo: Sandy McCook/DCT Media

Engage more children

The RSHGA also lends a small number of bikes for a year to children aged nine and over in the hope that they will then sign up to compete in junior cycling events.

“Kids love games when they’ve had a taste of them,” Grieve added.

Encouraging more children to get involved in games is something the GHGA also believes is important – and says schools should “absolutely” play a bigger role.

“It’s something we discuss a lot at meetings – how do we get the kids involved?” Miss Forsyth shared.

“Even by telling children about events at school, they may be able to move on to the Highland Games.

Tug of war at the Braemar Junior Highland Games in 2015. Photo by Kath Flannery/DC Thomson.

“The Braemar Junior Games is gaining popularity. It’s easy to cheer on pipers and junior dancers, but the athleticism is more of a challenge.

“Every game tries to build relationships with schools and we’re always trying to think of new ways to involve them.”

And it’s not just the competitors that are needed to keep the Highland Games going – every event needs a group of volunteers to bring it to life.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the Highland Games should contact each event directly through their website or social media.

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[More competitors encouraged to take part]

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Jennifer R. Strohm