Highland Games

The Highland Games of Scotland are one of the United Kingdom’s most anticipated annual festivals. The games are thought to have originated as a foot race challenged by King Malcolm III of Scotland in the eleventh century as he searched for the country’s fastest runner to be his royal messenger. While today’s modern Highland Games have been greatly influenced by the Victorian era, they always celebrate the history and legacy of the Scottish people. There are several games held each year throughout Scotland, as well as the rest of the world. These games are a unique signature integral to the history of Scotland and the UK.

Highland Games competitions vary from event to event, but there are some standard sports typical of most games. These include the caber toss, the stone put, the Scottish hammer throw, the weight throw, the sheaf toss, and an event called Maide Leisg, Scots Gaelic for “lazy stick.” Most Highland Games also include grand displays of Scottish music, including drums, fiddling, harp circles, and, of course, bagpipes. Scottish country dancing appears for competition, as well as part of the popular ceilidh, a traditional Scottish social event with music and dancing. Many armories perform mock battles with swords and armor, while herding dogs perform in exhibitions of their skills. Visitors to Highland Games can also often find information on many Scottish clans, as well as shop for Scottish food and wares.

Scotland Highland Games

Scotland Highland Games
Scotland Highland Games  Image: toolstop (flickr)

The most popular events on the Highland Games calendar are located within Scotland itself. The games begun by King Malcolm III are still held in Braemar, near Aberdeen (gateway to the Scottish Highlands), every September. Known as The Braemar Gathering, these are the only games attended by the British Royal Family. The most popular games event, however, is the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon every August. The largest Highland Games in the world, Cowal draws approximately 23,000 spectators from many different countries. Cowal also hosts the annual World Highland Dancing Championship. Nearby Ceres claims the oldest free games in Scotland. Chartered by Robert Bruce in 1314 after the Battle of Bannockburn, these games hold special historical significance for the Scottish people.

US Highland Games

US Highland Games
US Highland Games  Image: stevehdc (flickr), CC by SA 2.0

With a history heavily influenced by Scottish immigrants, the United States boasts several major events on the Highland Games calendar. In 1956, Donald MacDonald founded Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina after attending the Braemar Gathering in 1954. The games were popular in this area, historically rich in Gaelic history, including former resident, Flora MacDonald, heroine of the Jacobite movement in Scotland. Grandfather Mountain is known as “America’s Braemar.” Further north in Virginia, the people of Alexandria established the Virginia Scottish Games and Festival to celebrate their Scottish heritage. These games take place every September.

Canada Highland Games

Canada Highland Games
Canada Highland Games  Image: k4dordy (flickr)

Many other countries host their own Highland Games, as well. The Calgary Highland Games are a highlight of Canada’s Highland Games calendar. They began in this city famous for the Calgary Stampede with the establishment of the city’s Saint Andrews Society in 1884. The first games were held in August 1913. While the location has changed throughout the years, the festival consistently boasts Western Canada’s biggest ceilidh. Other popular games in Canada include the Glengarry Highland Games in Ontario and the BC Highland Games in British Columbia.

Other Highland Games

Other Highland Games
Other Highland Games

While most games can be found in the United Kingdom and North America, there are some events held in various other countries around the world. 2012 marked the first ever Scottish games in Somerset, Bermuda. These Bermuda Highland Games celebrated a very successful first year and plan to host traditional Scottish competitors and musicians for years to come. The Swiss also host their own version of the games each August in Saint Ursen, Switzerland. The events at this Swiss championship include flag throwing and a unique form of wrestling.

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