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The Scottish Highland Games

Drum major at the San Diego Scottish Highland Games

Modern Scottish Highland Games are one of the best places to go to experience Scottish and Celtic culture outside of Scotland. Today’s Games offer a variety of events and activities, from competitions in piping and drumming, Highland dance, and sheepdog trials, to food, vendors, musical performances, clan gatherings, and many others. During a day or weekend spent at a Scottish Highland Games event (usually held at a large, outdoor location), you can see amazing feats of strength that defy belief, sample everything from haggis to shortbread to the finest single malt whiskey, watch tiny dancers try to keep in step, while the more experienced demonstrate both grace and endurance, shop for a sword, flag, tartan scarf or tea cozy, hear world class musicians, and admire the precision and  musicality of the pipe bands, participate in a moving ceremony, discover your extended family at the clan tents, and take a leisurely rest watching the sheepdogs being put through their paces. Each Games has its own unique atmosphere, event offerings, and size, from the very intimate to the huge. For that reason, it’s fun to travel around to different Games and not only attend your local event once a year.

San Diego Scottish Highland Games

But what are the origins of these events? And how have they become so widespread, with Scottish Highland Games being held every year, all around the world?

The earliest historical reference to this type of event comes from King Malcom III in November of 1093, when he called for a race up Craig Choinnich with the aim of finding Scotland’s fastest runner, to become his royal messenger. Today’s Braemar Gathering traces its origins back to that event. 

Heavy athletics at Scottish Highland Games

The Ceres Games in Fife date back to 1314, and are thought to be the oldest continuously held Games in Scotland. The Ceres Games are held in honor of the men from that town who fought in the Battle of Bannockburn, which was a major victory over the English in the First War for Scottish Independence.

Carrying the caber at a Scottish Highland Games

The Cowal Highland Gathering held in August every year in Dunoon, Scotland, is the largest Scottish Highland Games in the world. However, there are remarkably well attended events held around the world, including in the United States.

Caber toss at a Scottish Highland Games

Competition is a common thread found throughout the Scottish Highland Games, which feature heavy athletics completion, pipe band competition, Highland dancing competition, and sometimes sheepdog trials. It’s apparent from this variety that not just strength and athletic ability is valued, but also skill, musicality, and artistry as it relates to Scottish culture.

Pipe band competition

The preservation of Scottish culture became so much more important after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, where Scottish Jacobite forces were defeated by the English. The Proscription Acts that were then passed were an attempt by the British powers to eradicate the Scottish way of life, and destroy the clans. Among other things, the wearing of kilts and all tartan was outlawed. The laws were finally repealed in 1782. However, Highland Games were really only organized again after the end of the Highland Clearances, during which thousands of families were forced from their land and homes in order to make way for grazing land for sheep, and in the process, the last remnants of clan life were destroyed. Such evictions were finally made illegal in 1886 with the passage of the Crofters Holdings Act.

In the years after the defeat at Culloden, huge numbers of Scots emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The celebration of Scottish culture still persists in each of these countries, with very large Highland Games and Scottish Festivals being held in many locations every year. These events bring a little bit of Scotland to the people who live so far away, and may never get to visit, but still love and yearn for that beautiful country, as well as to many others who can appreciate the rich culture on display. The value of these local events, large and small, cannot be overstated, and attendance and support should both be encouraged!