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So what’s the history of Highland Games? They are as iconically Scottish as bagpipes, kilts and whisky – all of which feature heavily at any gathering. Highland games in their current form date to 1867, but it seems likely that the Victorian event was merely a revival of a much older tradition that ceased after the suppression of clan customs following the 1745 Jacobite rising.
The oldest free Highland Games in Scotland is held each June in Ceres and began under a Charter awarded by Robert the Bruce in recognition of the villagers’ support at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Today the games are noted for their unique sporting and athletic events many of which involve throwing and lifting. These include the shot put, tug-o-war, caber toss and hammer throw – collectively known as heavy events. As well as the game themselves spectators can enjoy the highland dancing, piping displays and the sights and sounds of the Pipe Bands.
One of the most recognised competitions namely “Tossing the Caber” has come to almost symbolise the Highland games around the world. No one really knows how the contest began but it has been suggested that cabers – today often a reclaimed telegraph pole – were first used to help men cross fast flowing rivers.
A full-length log, usually made of Scots pine, is stood upright and lifted by the competitor using both hands under the bottom of it, so as to rest against their body. They then move forward, building momentum, before tossing it into the air so that it turns end over end before it hits the ground. The aim is for the caber to land in line with the original run. If it is straight the toss is said to be in the 12 o’clock position. Competitors are judged on how closely their caber lands to 12 o’clock.
Another really popular event is the “Tug O War” and one of the most fiercely fought over competitions at many Highland Games.
It is simply eight men pulling against another team of eight, coached by an additional member of the team who encourages the team and shouts instructions of technique to ensure they pull their opposite number across the line. A great crowd pleaser.
Other events include the “Hammer Throw” and as the name suggests involves participants using the handle of the hammer to whirl it around their head and then throw it as far as they can.
The hammers are made from a metal ball weighing around 22 lb for men or 16 lb for women, attached to a wooden pole or handle.
In the “Shot Put” competitors throw a large stone of around 20 – 26lbs in weight as far as they possibly can. The stone is thrown either after a short run-up to the toe-board or from a fixed standing position, depending on the rules of the competition. The winner is the contestant who can throw the furthest shot.
Another standard heavy event is “throwing the weight over the bar” which is said to have started with simple stones but with agricultural weights now used, primarily a 56lb metal cube.
Highland Games have proved to be one of Scotland’s biggest cultural exports with the events rooted some 1,000 years ago at the foot of a hill in Deeside.
The first historical reference to Highland Games type of events in Scotland was made during the reign of King Malcolm III (1057-1093) when he summoned men to race up Craig Choinnich near Braemar in order to find a royal messenger.
The games are said to have become a way of choosing the most-ablest men for the clan chieftain’s household, but it wasn’t just brute strength that was determined as musicians and dancers were also sought to add prestige to the clan.
The old kings and chiefs of Scotland used the Highland Dances as a way of choosing the best men for their servants and men at arms. These dances tested a warrior’s strength, stamina, accuracy, and agility.
The oldest of the traditional dances of Scotland, is the “Highland Fling”
According to tradition, ancient warriors and clansmen performed this dance on the small round shield (called a targe), which they carried into battle. Most Targes had a sharp spike of steel of some 5 to 6 inches in length projecting from the centre, so dancers learned early to move with great skill and dexterity – a false or careless step could be more than a little painful.
The dance is said to have been inspired by the capers of the stag – the dancers upraised arms representing the animal’s antlers. Danced vigorously and exultantly, it is now highly stylised and calls for the greatest skill in technique and exactness of timing.
It has become the classic solo dance at modern competitive dancing events and is often selected at competitions to decide who will be judged the best Highland dancer of the day.
Modern Highland Dancing competitions play a big part in any traditional Highland Games. The Dancers need a lot of stamina, strength, coordination and precision in order to execute the various dances to a high standard especially when competing. There are many competitions for highland dancing organised around the world, mainly in Scotland, United States, Canada and Australia.
Highland Games are also the biggest, natural platform for the bagpipes with such events being sound-tracked by the pummelling, distinctive sound of the pipes and drums.
There is no better sight or sound than witnessing the wonderful spectacle of several pipe bands marching and playing together during a performance of massed pipe bands.
Lonach Highland Gathering always held on the last Saturday of August in Strathdon, has the highlight undoubtedly of the march of the Lonach Highlanders.
Around 200 men of all generations, drawn from the glen and armed with Lochaber axes and pikes, join the march from Belabeg to Lonach Hall.
The Braemar Gathering, arguably the most famous games in the world given their Royal connections, had its roots in Kings Malcolm’s race but its modern incarnation began in 1815 when a mutual assistance society of wrights – or builders – was formed in the town.
The workers were to hold a precession every year and in 1832, foot races were held for the first time – and have been run every year since. The games were attended by Queen Victoria in 1838 with Royal support continuing since then.
It is thought that Queen Victoria’s endorsement of the games has been the biggest single factor in the growth of such events and their export around the world. The Braemar Royal Gathering, which takes place during the first weekend in September, is the only Games attended annually by the British Royal Family and attracts around 10,000 spectators.
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Photos and video credits go to Braemar Media