They were ancient gatherings dating back hundreds of years where clan chiefs tested the strength of their warriors to choose their closest messengers and bodyguards.
But now a call has been made for Highland Games organisers in the north of Scotland to introduce a gender balance to ensure women get an equal chance to compete.
Campaigners say there is a clear “north-south” divide in Scotland with Games in the Highlands and Grampians least likely to include handicapping to encourage female participants, unlike the Lowlands and Central Belt.
The Scottish Highland Games Association (SHGA), which has more than 60 members, has said there is not enough time or prize money to include women’s events at the majority of events in the north of Scotland, and claim tourists, especially from the US, want to attend “traditional” Highland Games.
The SHGA is due to meet the Scottish Government and tourist bodies early next year to examine ways of increasing funding to promote Highland Games. However, Rhoda Grant, Scottish Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said that if the SHGA wants funding it needs to prove it complies with gender fairness.
Grant said: “People coming to Highland Games are coming to see people play sport. It is hugely sexist to say they are going to see men compete against men.
“Women entering events at these Games are taking their sport seriously, but when not treated fairly they are being taken as ‘lesser’. It would take some work to agree a handicapping system but if the Scottish Highland Games hope to attract funding from the Scottish Government they will need to be seen as an organisation which treats women a equals.”
Campaigners say the fairest system is handicapping in events such as running so women compete alongside men in the same race and have an equal chance of winning prize money.
Another option is holding separate female-only events.
Examples of gender discrimination include Invercharron Highland Games where women enter a hill race against men but there is no handicapping involved to help women compete equally. The first woman back gets a second prize, and the second woman back get a third prize – meaning they receive less prize money than men.
Tain only has two races for women. In all other events women compete against men with no handicapping.
Ian Grieve, secretary of the Scottish Highland Games Association, said: “We’ve had criticism in the past with people saying we need to ‘sex things up’ and come into the 20th or 21st century. But I don’t think that’s what we are about. A lot of overseas visitors come to Scotland to see traditional Highland Games so I don’t think we’ll be looking at wholesale changes.”
A spokesman for Scottish Athletics said:“We’d like to see more women competing in Highland Games events where that’s possible and would encourage event organisers to explore ways to help make that happen.”