A history of the Scottish Highland Games
THEY channel a style of Scottishness expressed in tartan, bagpipes and brute strength with tens of thousands drawn to Highland Games around the world each year.
Such events are as likely to be held in Detroit and Sau Paulo as they are in Dundee and St Andrew’s as people search out a little connection to heritage and home.
Highland Games have proved to be one of Scotland’s biggest cultural exports with the events rooted some 1,000 years ago at the foot of a hill in Deeside.
Here we look at how they all began - and why they travelled so far.
It is said they were originally a form of war game in which the strongest and bravest soldiers would triumph.
Highland Games remain a potent expression of a form of Scottishness - both at home and abroad - with the celebration of pipes, drums, dancing and brute strength carried around the world in a fond tribute to the motherland.
The first historical reference to Highland Games-type events in Scotland was made during the reign of King Malcolm III (1057-1093) when he summoned men to race up Craig Choinnich near Braemar in order to find a royal messenger.
The games are said to have become a way of choosing the most ablest men for the clan chieftain’s household but it wasn’t just brute strength that was determined. Musicians and dancers were also sought to add prestige to the clan.
The Ceres Games in Fife are considered the oldest, continuous Highland Games in Scotland and began in 1314.
They continue to thrive more than 700 years after the King of Scots, Robert the Bruce, granted a charter for the village to hold a market and fair to acknowledge the farmers, labourers, craftsmen and “the small folk” who fought at the Battle of Bannockburn.
The growing tradition of Highland Games was stalled following Culloden, when the 1746 Proscription Acts were passed to dismantle Highland life, culture and society.
The Braemar Gathering, arguably the most famous games in the world given their royal connections, had its roots in Kings Malcolm’s race but its modern incarnation began in 1815 when a mutual assistance society of wrights - or builders - was formed in the town.
The workers were to hold a procession every year and in 1832, foot races were held for the first time - and have been run every year since. The games were attended by Queen Victoria in 1838 with royal support continuing since then.
It could be said that Queen Victoria’s endorsement of the games has been the biggest single factor in the growth of such events and their export around the world.
BIGGEST EVENTS IN SCOTLAND
There are around 100 Highland Games in Scotland every year.
The Cowal Highland Gathering has long claimed to be the biggest games in the world. At its peak it drew 30,000 spectators but numbers are more likely to be in the region of 20,000 over the three-day event. The games hosts the World Highland Dancing Championships with competitors from US, Canada, Australia commonly taking part.
The Braemar Gathering attracts around 10,000 spectators a day with the Queen a loyal attendee. Similar numbers are drawn to the Lonach Highland Gathering in Strathdon, Aberdeenshire, with the highlight undoubtedly the march of the Lonach Highlanders. Around 200 men of all generations, drawn from the glen and armed with Lochaber axes and pikes, join the march from Belabeg to Lonach Hall in a 175 year tradition.
Lonach grew in popularity due to the regular attendance of comedian Billy Connolly, who formerly owned nearby Candacraig House. A number of his house guests would also attend Lonach, with late comedian Robin Williams taking part in the hill race. Comedian Steve Martin and actor Sean Connery have also been spotted in the crowds.
Celebrity pulling power has also been added to the Bridge of Allan Highland Games, with Judy Murray appointed Chieftain at last year’s event. Former Rangers boss Ally McCoist and actress Dianna Rigg have also taken the honour.
Hollywood actor Ewan McGregor was appointed Chieftain of the Crieff Highland Games in 2001.
HOW GAMES SPREAD AROUND THE WORLD
As Scots moved around the world, so did a version of the traditions and culture that binded them. There is barely a corner of the globe that does not have a Caledonian Society with the ties to home and heritage seemingly as important today as they were for the diaspora of old.
Caledonian Societies were rapidly formed in the 19th and early 20th Centuries to reflect emigration of Scots with Waipu, New Zealand, believed to be the first.
The Waipu Caledonian Society was formed in 1871 to help settle new Scottish arrivals, many who had left Scotland amid The Clearance and who originally settled in Nova Scotia before moving to New Zealand.
Such societies were widely formed in North America to help draw together new arrivals and act as a reunion point. The first Highland Games in the US took place in 1836 when the Highland Society of New York held its first “sportive meeting”.
Three years later, the Caledonian Club of San Francisco held its first Highland Games with claims that it is now the longest running in the country.
That year, the first games were held in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, homes to thousands of Scots.
The largest event is now said to be the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in North Carolina, which has an attendance of 30,000.
Today, you can attend a Highland Games across Europe - particularly Germany and The Netherlands - Indonesia, Japan, South Africa and Brazil.
While many Highland Games have modernised their schedules with strong men contests and wellie flinging competitions, there are a few traditions that form the heart of the Highland Games.
It’s impossible to imagine going to a games and not seeing the tossing the caber event and the other heavyweight contests.
The caber is just short of six metres tall, lifted, balanced and completely flipped by the competitor. The highest scores goes those who land the caber straight ahead, in the 12 o’clock position.
No one really knows how the contest began but it has been suggested that cabers - today often a reclaimed telegraph pole - were first used to help men cross fast flowing rivers.
Another standard heavy event is “throwing the weight over the bar” which is said to have started with simple stones but with agricultural weights now used, primarily a 56lb metal cube.
Highland Games are the biggest, natural platform for the bagpipes with such events soundtracked by the pummelling, proud performances of the mass pipe band - or the delicate melody of the Piobaireachd master.