The Highland Games are an iconic feature in the events calendar in Scotland. A gathering of athletes, musicians and communities, the games take palace annually between May and September. A kaleidoscope of stirring bagpipes, feats of strength, and Scottish culture, the Highland Games are a uniquely Scottish celebration.
No longer limited to the Highlands, games take place across Scotland, from the Borders in the south to Caithness at the very north tip of the mainland. Look out for the Gourock Games in Renfrew, an early entry in the annual calendar. In September, the Pitlochry Highland Games, just south of the Cairngorms National Park, signal that the season is drawing to a close.
Now that you’ve had a good warm-up, grab your kilt and discover our guide to the Highland Games in Scotland.
The Scottish weather can be very changeable, and enjoying all four seasons in one day is not uncommon. To get the most out of your day, bring:
You can buy tickets to most Highland Games at the gate on the day. Be prepared, some places may only accept cash, and don’t forget to check whether you can, or need to, buy advance tickets online beforehand.
Highland Games are all-day events outside. Make sure you bring a bottle of water to stay hydrated. Snacks are a good idea too, but you can expect a choice of food trucks at the event.
We’re all for immersing yourself in a moment, but you might want a picture or two to remind yourself of the day. Photos are also helpful to show your friends and family how big the caber really was!
Highland Games can be boisterous events. If you don’t like loud noises, consider bringing your favourite earplugs or headphones.
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The Highland Games have a reputation for being much older than they are. However, the event’s roots can be traced back in legend 1000 years. Allegedly, King Malcolm III of Scotland held a foot race up Creag Chòinnich, just outside Braemar. Supposedly, the winning prize was a job as the king’s new messenger. Today, the Braemar Highland Games remain one of the most famous Highland Games in Scotland. Members of the Royal family are often in attendance. Although some believe this race was the birth of the Highland Games, it is unlikely.
In Fife, the village of Ceres claims to be the oldest Highland Games in the world. In June 1314, the Battle of Bannockburn occurred nearby, and it may have been in Ceres that bow training took place beforehand. The Games claim to have run (almost) uninterrupted since then.
A final origin story emerges from Medieval clans and warriors. It is possible that these great warriors used events similar to those seen in today’s Highland Games to test their speed and strength. Music and Highland dancing kept rulers and clan chiefs entertained.
Whatever the Highland Games’ origin, most historians agree that the event we enjoy today is an early 19th-century invention. A wave of romanticism for all things Scottish occurred in the Victorian period. Queen Victoria’s fondness for Balmoral Castle and the Scottish Highlands helped inspire this popularity.
The caber toss is one of the most popular events at the Highland Games and is synonymous with the event. Competitors flip a large pole in this test of accuracy.
The origins of tossing the caber are relatively unknown. Whether you believe soldiers or woodmen/loggers invented the sport, it is a unique display of strength. First recorded in the mid-1500s, the word ‘caber’ comes from the Gaelic for pole.
It is a common misconception that the aim of the caber toss is to throw it as far as possible. The truth is that points come instead from accuracy. Competitors toss the caber – a 4 or 5-metre log, usually with the bark removed – so that it turns in the air. Judges award points for straight flips in this test of strength and stamina. The winner is the toss closest to a coveted ‘12 o’clock’ landing, with the held end facing straight towards the tosser.
The hammer throw sees competitors throw the hammer as far as possible in a feat of strength. The hammer is a metal ball attached to a wooden handle. The hammer weighs 22lb for men and 16lb for women.
Today, the hammer throw is best known as a discipline in field athletics. It features in world championships such as the Olympics. Whether on a global scale or at your local Highland Games, the origins of this heavyweight sport are the same. Irish legend places the sport’s origin 4000 years ago when the great warrior Cuchullainn threw a chariot wheel. More robust evidence emerged around the 16th century in England and Scotland when men threw a hammer in a strength competition. The hammer throw first appeared at Highland Games in Scotland in the later 1800s. A modern version entered the Olympics in 1900 for men and 2000 for women.
Strict rules govern the hammer throw, from the length of the handle to the weight of the ball, the number of turns to the throwing motion. At a Highland Games, look out for the thrower’s shoes. It’s not unusual to see a blade in the toe of the shoe, providing the thrower with an anchor point, as they are not allowed to spin.
The shot put sees competitors throw a weighted ball or stone (around 20lb) as far as possible from a fixed position. Competitors may throw a river stone in place of an iron ball. This is a stone put, rather than a shot put.
The history of the stone put dates back to the Romans. More recently, the discipline gained popularity during the Highland Games in the 1800s. It entered the Olympics at its start in 1896 for men, and women could compete from 1948.
The rules of the shot put vary between Highland Games. Generally, competitors throw their shot from a fixed position within a circular area of just over 2m in diameter. The stone is thrown with one hand and must land within the marked landing area.
Two teams compete against each other in tug of war. The aim is to pull the opposition’s marker over the centre line.
Tug of war is an ancient sport with roots in Ancient Egypt, Greece and China. Historians believe the discipline trained warriors and served to build strength. A staple of 19th century Highland Games, tug of war also appeared in the Olympic Games between 1900 and 1920.
The rules of tug of war are simple, but this is still an exciting sport. Two teams, each comprising eight men and one coach, compete against each other. Competitors pull back as hard as possible once the referee begins the match. The game ends when one team pulls the other team’s marker over the centre line.
In weight for height, also known as weight over bar, competitors throw a metal weight on a strap over a bar. The sport’s origin is unknown, although it likely connects to an earlier sport in Ireland.
Like the high jump or pole vault in modern athletics, competitors have three tries at each bar height. The bar increases with each round, and the competition continues until only one contestant remains. Competitors throw the weight with one hand, usually thrown up from between the legs in an explosive show of strength. The stone usually weighs 28lb for women and 56lb for men.
The kilt is an iconic part of traditional Scottish dress. This knee-length tartan garment is a common sighting at Highland Games.
There is a common misconception that the tartan kilt, as we know it today, is an ancient part of Scottish dress. This is not true. Hundreds of years ago, wraps were integral to wardrobes in cold, windy Scotland. Some were tartan, but no ties to a clan or area existed. Instead, tartan was homemade using the dyes and patterns the weaver chose.
Wool prices and fashion in the 1500s saw belted plaid emerge. This was a feature of Highland dress in particular. The belted plaid was a stretch of fabric belted around the waist and draped over the upper body. The féileadh beag, father of the modern kilt, emerged from the belted plaid around 1700.
Following the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the law banned Highland dress. Yet soldiers in the British Army could continue to wear kilts. It was likely the Highland regiments who preserved the kilt so that it could regain popularity in the late 1700s. Royal visits to Scotland, including George IV and Victoria, sparked a fashion and romanticisation of Scottish culture. The tartan kilt, as we know it today, emerged.
No Highland Games would be complete without kilts. Although there is no official dress code for the Highland Games, recent rules ensure that competitors wear a kilt in many events.
Highland dancing is a traditional Scottish dance form often featured in Highland Games. A lone piper often accompanies dancers, although it is common to see dancers alongside a pipe band. There is a wide range of dances within highland dancing. They did not emerge as a unified dance form, so the origins of the dance form are not uniform. Highland dances originated over 500 years ago. Medieval soldiers demonstrated their strength, stamina and agility in these intricate steps. Although the origins of highland dancing are likely much older, the first documentation dates to the 13th century.
Traditionally the dance of men, female competitors dominate the sport today. Many Highland Games events include a highland dancing competition. Dances like the Highland Fling, Sword Dance and Seann Triubhas are popular. Whether you’re a fan of dance or just looking to immerse yourself in Scottish culture, the Highland Games offer the perfect opportunity to witness this unique dance form firsthand.
The lilting drone of the bagpipes is synonymous with Scottish culture. Add the stirring rhythm of the drums, and you have a rousing pipe band.
The origins of bagpipes are unknown. However, they are almost certainly not originally Scottish but instead adopted into the culture. Bagpipe music in Scotland has more definite roots on the Isle of Skye in the 1600s. The British Army is responsible for turning the instrument and music into the pipe band we know and love today. Drummers have a long history in the military. Highland regiments combined this with the stirring sound of bagpipes to form the pipe band. This music maintained morale on troop marches and instilled fear in the enemy on the battlefield.
Highland Games often feature solo pipe, drum and drum major competitions. There are also performances by the full pipes and drums. An impressive showcase of skill and musicianship, the sight and sound of a pipe band marching through the games is powerful.
Tartan, whisky, heavy accents and confounding dialects! These are things that people have grown to recognise and associate with Scottish culture. But there is so much more to Scotland than that, and read more here to find out…
No single Highland Games can be declared the best, and everyone’s opinions will differ depending on their interests. Consider location, events you want to see, and other factors to discover the best Highland Games for you to attend.
As a starter, the Braemar Highland Games is one of the most iconic events, with members of the Royal family often in attendance. Many of the photos in this blog are from the Newtonmore Highland Games.
The Cowal Highland Games claim to be the largest games in Scotland, with visitor numbers exceeding 20,000 people!
Everyone has a different answer to this question, depending on personal taste. The caber toss is always popular, as it is one of the most unique game events. The pipe band performances also draw a large crowd and are a stirring sight as they march in their finery. There are various Highland Games events, so you will find your personal favourite.