Stop hiding behind “tradition” and make events fair

Are traditional Highland games an opportunity to reunite with friends, commemorate the region’s history and reinforce sexist ideas about sport?

After last weekend’s Glenfinnan Gathering, held in the village for the 75th time this year, a competitor took to Facebook to criticize the lack of equal opportunities for female athletes.

On the day of the games, runner Jessica Acheson was told, as I have been since, that all events “are gender neutral so they don’t discriminate”. In each event at the games there is a first, second and third place with cash prizes. The results are read on the tannoy and published after the event. The 100 meter sprint, the half mile run, the long jump, the high jump and even the heavy lifting events – all “gender neutral”.

Only one race has a separate women’s award – First Lady of the Hill Climb. Yet this award recognizes what athletes say: there can never be a level playing field when men race against women. Uniformity and equality are not the same thing. This cup was the only track and field award won by a woman all day.

When Jessica questioned the policy, she was told there wasn’t enough money for the awards for women. The prize money could not be shared, because then the men would not gain much.

A third award for a man is considered more important than any award or recognition for a woman. Jessica asked if the race results could be recorded anyway, maybe just read on the tannoy. They told him no.

Women’s efforts are not taken seriously

It’s easy to dismiss such concerns by saying that the Highland Games are just for fun, and shouldn’t be taken seriously. To which I would respond – men are allowed to take it seriously.

Some male competitors were barely off the field, alternating between heavy lifting and athletics all afternoon. They had clearly trained and prepared for the day, but so had the women. Only, women have never really been in the competition.

Men participating in a hill race.
Prize money for Highland Games events is not always equal between men and women (Photo: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson)

I go to the Glenfinnan Games every year. I grew up in the village and feel detached from my roots if I miss this third Saturday in August. But I’m ashamed to say that it took another woman speaking for me to reevaluate how events like these have affected my relationship with the sport. The message received by women is: you can participate if you want to, but it doesn’t really matter.

My son ran the race himself this year and came third in junior. I am proud, of course, but there is no record of the woman who came third, or even second. It’s hard to justify

As an adult, I ran the hill climb twice. I ran it for the last time with my 11 year old son, maybe to show that because I was racing with a child, I didn’t take it seriously. Despite this, at the last Glenfinnan Games in 2019, I was first lady of the hill climb. The joke is that I was the only woman to enter. So what turned off other women, do we think?

My son ran the race himself this year and came third in junior. I am proud, of course, but there is no record of the woman who came third, or even second. It’s hard to justify.

We’re giving the wrong message to the next generation

In 2019, talks finally took place between the Royal Scottish Highland Games Association (RSHGA) and Scottish Athletics on improving inclusiveness. Looking at the programs for RSHGA member games, there are signs of improvement; more women’s races and more games using a handicap system – but there’s still a long way to go.

Most of the smaller Highland games, including Glenfinnan, are not members of the RSHGA, so any changes will be up to the individual committees. And change requires first understanding that there is a problem. So far it seems to be lacking (although I remain hopeful).

Children taking part in a Highland games race.
At Mallaig and Morar, only toddlers race (Photo: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson)

Twenty miles further, Mallaig and Morar had held their Highland games a fortnight before. It’s also a small community-run event, but they’ve taken a very different approach. A member of the committee told me: “We have men’s races and women’s races, some have the same start and the same course, and some have their own unique start. They all receive cash prizes, which are the same regardless of gender, and there are also unique trophies. The only category where we don’t make a distinction is the toddler race.

My leggy 14-year-old’s triumphs on the pitch now also seem a bit unfair – where were the girls? The next generation receives the same message.

Highland games should represent Scotland

As Jessica told me, “I didn’t expect to race against men in cross-country in school as a kid, and I don’t expect it as an adult either. Not having the same sporting opportunities sets a bad example for young Games participants and visitors from other countries of what sport is like in Scotland.

To refuse to evolve is to risk becoming useless, or even disappearing. Wouldn’t this be the sad end of a glorious tradition?

Enough. What future Eilish McColgan or is Laura Muir being told to help out in the tea tent instead?

Highland games are traditional events, but it’s easy to use tradition as an excuse. Do we really think spectators would be outraged to see women competing fairly in 2022?

Shot Put at a Highland Games.
Women compete in the same events as men at the Highland Games (Photo: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson)

To refuse to evolve is to risk becoming useless, or even disappearing. Wouldn’t this be the sad end of a glorious tradition?

We can only speculate how many women in the history of the games would rather have been on the pitch than helping with the cakes. There’s no guessing now: women want a fair shot.


Ailsa Sheldon is a Scottish freelance journalist

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Jennifer R. Strohm