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Scottish Highland Games: Events & History

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Anyone with Scottish roots feels a sense of pride when attending Highland Games. These events celebrate Scottish history and strength, bringing together families from miles around.

Highland History

The Highland Games aren't just a chance for competitors to see who is the strongest or who can toss a weight the farthest, or even who is the best dancer or piper. They are a celebration of Scottish History and traditions, traditions that go back over 900 years to the reign of King Malcolm III of Scotland.

Games Beginnings

The very first reference to a competition goes back to King Malcolm III of Scotland, who reigned from 1057-1093. He needed a new messenger, so he summoned men to compete in a race. The fastest man to race up a hill called Creag Choinnich would be the new messenger.

The first recognizable games began around 1314 in Fife, Scotland. These early games were between soldiers who wanted to see whose regiment had the strongest warriors. The Ceres Games are the oldest continuous Highland Games. The popularity and expansion of the games continued until about 1746, when the Act of Proscription attempted to outlaw Highland Games. It wasn't just the games Britain tried to wipe out, they wanted to ban the wearing of kilts and playing of bagpipes. The Act's goal was to wipe out Scottish culture and make the Scots assimilate into British culture. The act was finally repealed in 1782. After the repeal, the games began to revive once again.

Today's games take place throughout the world. The first American Highland Games took place in New York in 1836. Wherever there are people wanting to celebrate their heritage, Highland Games take place. The Highland Games aren't just feats of strength, either. Competitions also occur between dancers and bagpipers. Whether you're there to celebrate your heritage or just enjoy the atmosphere, there are many things to see at Scottish Highland Games.

Feats of Strength

The caber toss is one of the most recognizable events at a game. The caber is usually a 19-foot-long log which is tossed in the air. The goal of those tossing the caber is to get it to fly end over end in a straight line away from the thrower. Whoever's caber lands closest to the 12 o'clock position is the winner.

Caber Toss Illustration
caber toss

The hammer throw competition is a matter of distance. A round metal ball is attached to a pole, and the pole is usually about four feet long and made of wood, bamboo, rattan, or plastic. Men and women compete with two different weights; the men's hammer is usually 16 or 22 pounds and the women's hammers are 12 or 16 pounds. The hammer is whirled by the competitor around their head and thrown.

Hammer Throw Illustration
hammer throw

The stone throw is like shot put. Instead of a steel ''shot,'' competitor use a large stone. Stones weigh 20-26 pounds. The goal of stone throw is to throw the stone as far as possible.

Like the hammer throw and stone throw, the weight throw involves throwing a weight (similar to a kettle bell) with a handle as far as possible. There are varying weights in this competition. The weight throw is two separate events, a light throw and a heavy throw. The light throw for men is a 28-pound weight, while the light throw for women is a 14-pound weight. The heavy throw for men is a 56-pound weight, while the heavy throw for women is a 28-pound weight.

The weight over the bar, or weight for height competition involves throwing a 56-pound weight with a handle over a bar. Competitors get three attempts per height to throw the weight over the bar. The bar keeps being raised until only one competitor is left. Some competitors can toss as high as 18 feet.

Other Competitions

Some say the sheaf toss isn't a traditional event, but it's still fun to watch. Competitors use a pitchfork to toss a 16-20 pound burlap bag as high as they can. The bag is usually filled with twine or straw.

The maide leisg, or lazy stick, is a competition between two people. They sit on the ground with the soles of their feet touching the others. They pull against each other while they're holding a stick in their hands. Whoever gets raised from the ground first loses.

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