Highland Games: What’s the story?

This is Highland Games season in Scotland with games taking place the length and breadth of the country between May and September. Competitive tests of strength, speed and endurance are the centrepiece of Highland Games with some contests unique to such events. Where else do competitors toss the caber by attempting to hurl telegraph-pole lengths of timber end-over-end, or try to consume a pound of haggis in less than a minute? Music and dance also feature strongly at Highland Games with piping, fiddling and Highland dancing as important a part of the event as displays of physical prowess.

Highland Games now take place all over the world. From New Zealand to Norway and California to Japan, Games are staged wherever emigrant Scots have settled. Explanations of the origins Highland Games vary. According to some stories, in 1064 Malcolm III (Malcolm Canmore) staged a foot race to the summit of Creag Choinnich, near Braemar, intending to make the winner his personal courier. An annual Creag Choinnich hill race still takes place at mid-summer. In another story, also involving Malcolm III, the King used contests of strength as a way of identifying the strongest and most able men for his fighting forces.

An even earlier story has it that Highland Games originated in Ireland in 2000 BCE and were brought to the ancient kingdom of Dalriada (modern day Argyll) by the Scotti imigrants from Ireland in the 4th and 5th centuries. It’s perhaps fitting then that the Cowal Highland Gathering, which takes place each year in the Argyll town of Dunoon, lays claim to being the biggest Highland Games in Scotland today (https://www.cowalgathering.com/).

Ceres in Fife hosts the oldest free games in Scotland. Highland Games have been held there almost every year since 1314 when Robert the Bruce granted villagers a charter in recognition of their support at the Battle of Bannockburn (http://www.ceresgames.co.uk/).

Whatever their origins, Highland Games flourished until the Jacobite Rising of 1745 ended in the brief but brutal Battle of Culloden in April 1746. In the wake of the Rising, the British Government passed the Act of Proscription which made wearing Highland dress illegal and strengthened an earlier ban on carrying weapons. The Government also acted to disrupt clan networks and traditional communities through legislation and military occupation.

In this hostile climate, the tradition of Highland Games withered. However, their fortunes revived when the Act of Proscription was repealed in 1782 after almost 40 years. Following a visit to Scotland in 1822 by George IV, orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott to reflect his romantic view of Highland life, tartan and kilts became fashionable and Highland Games grew again in popularity. Queen Victoria cemented royal interest when she attended the Braemar Highland Gathering in 1848 and the event has enjoyed continued royal support ever since.

For details of Highland Games taking place in August and September, see this guide from Visit Scotland: https://www.visitscotland.com/see-do/events/highland-games/


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