Traditional Games in Scotland

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson takes us on a tour of Scotland's famous Highland Games, featuring four out of the 60 events. Usually played at heritage festivals, these games join with kilts and bagpipes as a symbol of the Scottish people and Scottish pride.

Highland Games

On the northern end of the United Kingdom, making up a third of the UK's total landmass, dwells a nation of spirited people with a rich heritage. Perhaps you are familiar with some of the many symbols of the Scottish people, such as plaid kilts and bagpipes, but there is much more to enjoy.

Map of Scotland and the UK
Map of Scotland and the UK

Around the world, anywhere people of Scottish ancestry celebrate their heritage, you can find cultural festivals. You'll see a lot of people wearing kilts, the plaid and pleated traditional clothing made from a long length of cloth wrapped around the waist of both men and women and draped over the shoulder. You will also hear bagpipes, watch traditional dances, and eat Scottish dishes. However, the highlight of these festivals is always the Highland Games, a competition of around 60 athletic events indigenous to the Highlands of Scotland.

Bagpipers assembling at Highland Games
Bagpipers assembling at Highland Games

Caber Toss

The most well-known competition of any Highland Games is the caber toss. Seeing men and women running and throwing something that looks like a telephone pole is a sight you don't forget easily. While it really is not a telephone pole, the caber is a log between 15 and 20 feet long. A competitor lifts this log off the ground and holds it upright, balanced against their neck and shoulder with the widest and heaviest part at the top. They are allowed to walk or run with the caber, as far as they need within the boundaries of the field, to build up enough momentum to toss it.

Caber Toss
Caber Toss

Now, the competition does not award points for distance as one might expect. They award points for accuracy. The competitor, also called the tosser, must throw the caber but launch the end so that it turns, hits the ground with the wide end, and falls over. The best tosses land with the narrow end of the caber, the part the tosser held, positioned away from the start in a perfectly straight line. This is called the 12 o'clock position and earns the most points. Each degree the caber is turned away from that position loses points, so control and accuracy matter, regardless of far the competitor can throw it.

Maide Leisg

This game might not be the most well-known of the Highland Games, but Maide Leisg is one of the most fun and a game anyone can play at home. Two people test their strength by sitting on the ground with their legs outstretched with the soles of their feet pressed against the soles of their competitor's feet, kind of like a footsy game of patty-cake. This position helps with leverage once the game begins.

The two competitors each take one end of a stick and begin to pull. Typically, the sticks measure between 2.5 and 3.5 feet, but the length is not regulated. Whichever athlete is stronger will pull their opponent toward them, but the position with the feet holds the players in place, which means that the weaker one will begin to be lifted off the ground. Try suggesting this game at the next party and see how much fun you have.

Sheaf Toss

Another great event is the sheaf toss. This event really highlights the farming and shepherding history of Scotland. Competitors use a hay fork with at least two tines to toss a burlap sack full of hay, mulch, or rope, called a sheaf. The goal is to send the sack, which weighs about 20 pounds, up and over a bar. For each round, the judges raise the bar and participants are eliminated when they reach a height they cannot toss the sheaf over. At each height, they can try to succeed three time; this means a single bad toss isn't a big deal. This competition likely came from farmers tossing bales of hay into carts or even into hay lofts with a pitch fork.

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