The Highland Games go back to contests of strength among the clans in ancient times, a way for the chiefs to choose the strongest men as their warriors. King Mael Coluim III, in the 11th Century, summoned contestants to a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich. This may have been the origin of today’s modern Highland Games.
During the Celtic revival of the early 19th Century, there was a renewed interest in the traditions of the clans of the Scottish Highlands. Various Highland Societies, beginning in the 1780s, began to organize events which eventually led to the Highland Games we know today.
This modern revival of the Games received an enormous boost with the visit of King George IV to Scotland in 1822, although events had been held in previous years. In the 1840s, in Braemar, the Games began as a fundraising effort by local artisans and in 1848, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began to patronize them. The following year, they were moved to the grounds of Balmoral Castle itself.
In the 19th Century, Baron Pierre de Coubertin visited a number of athletic competitions in preparation for the forthcoming Olympic Games, in order to examine the technical organization of such a competition. Among them, he visited a Highland Games event in conjunction with the Paris Exhibition of 1889. That event, in addition to what we today would call track and field events, also contained wrestling, tug-of-war, cycling, as well as competition in piping and dancing.
Heavy Athletic Events
Standard Highland athletics events:
Caber toss: a long tapered wooden pole is stood upright and lifted by the competitor who balances it vertically in his hands. Then he runs forward and tosses it end-over-end, “turning the caber”. Cabers vary greatly in length, weight, taper and balance.
Stone put: this event is similar to the modern-day shot put in the Olympic Games. However, instead of a steel shot, a large stone, of variable weight is often used.
Scottish hammer throw: this event is similar to the hammer throw in modern track and field competitions, though with some differences. In the Scottish event, a round metal ball is attached to the end of a shaft. With feet in a fixed position, the hammer is whirled about the head and thrown for distance over either shoulder.
Weight throw: This is two events, one using a light (28 lb) and the other a heavy (56 lb) weight made of metal with a handle attached. It is thrown with one hand and the longest throw wins.
Weight over the bar, is where athletes attempt to toss a 56 pound weight with an attached handle over a horizontal bar using only one hand. Each athlete is allowed three attempts at each height.
Sheaf toss: A bundle of straw (the sheaf) weighing 20 pounds (9 kg) and wrapped in a burlap bag is tossed vertically with a pitchfork over a raised bar like that used in pole vaulting.
Golf originated during the 15th century from a game played on the east coast of Scotland where a pebble would be hit using a stick or club. The game was played on links or linklands – stretches of sandy, grass-covered lands lying between fields and the seashore. By 1457 it was so popular that the Scottish King James II banned it because too many Scots were out golfing instead of attending mandatory archery practice for national defense.
The oldest golf course in Scotland, Musselburgh Links, dates from 1672. The most renowned golf course in the world, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, was founded in 1754 by “22 Noblemen and Gentlemen of the Kingdom of Fife.” After 1750, golf evolved into the modern sport we know today. In 1774, Edinburgh golfers wrote the first standardized rules for the game.
Golfers soon tired of hitting pebbles and, in 1618, the game was revolutionized when the Featherie (feather-filled ball) was introduced. They remained popular until 1844, when they were replaced by gutta percha balls made from Malaysian rubber. In 1898, Coburn Haskell introduced the first one-piece rubber cored ball. In 1905, golf ball manufacturer William Taylor was the first to add the dimple pattern. Golf balls had now taken on their modern form.
Golf clubs have evolved from wooden shaft clubs to today’s sets of woods and irons. The evolution of clubs went hand in hand with the evolution of golf balls that were able to withstand harder whacks.
It is likely that modern curling has its origins in Scotland, in the early part of the 16th century, as a primitive game of quoits on ice. The introduction of rounded stones, of artificial ice, of playing four-aside, and the discovery of the “curl’ or the ‘twist’, can be chronicled in Scottish curling records.
Curling is like bowling on ice, where players play their bowls with the aim of ending up nearest the target. At the same time, it is also essential to ensure that the opposition cannot do anything about it!
In normal Rinks play, each team has four players – the Lead, Second, Third and Skip. The Skip gives instructions to the other players, both as to the line in which the stone shall be sent and the weight with which it should be delivered. A third important component is the “handle” – the direction of rotation with which the Skip wishes the stone to be sent up the ice.
In addition to delivering his two stones at each end, a player may also be involved in vigorously sweeping in front of the stones of his other team members. Sweeping can affect the distance which a stone will travel up the ice and the degree to which it draws as it approaches the head.
The game of shinty goes back to Gaelic Scotland and the even earlier heritage of the Celtics. Its demands of skill, speed, stamina and courage make camanachd, the sport of the curved stick, the perfect exercise of a warrior people, and clearly contributed to the fame of the Highlander in battle.
Shinty evolved from a long history and widely differing local variations in the last quarter of the 19th Century. In 1879 the Glasgow Celtic Society instituted a cup competition and established rules of play. In 1893, enthusiasts met in Kingussie and the Camanachd Association was formed “to foster and develop the national game of shinty”.
The Camanachd Association focuses particularly on the fostering of shinty in primary school and beyond. A major problem has been the loss of young players between the ages of 12 and 15.
Scotland has literally thousands of hills, ranging from the smallest bumps to towering mountains. Mountains are Scotland’s trademark, being home to the 42 highest mountains in the whole of Great Britain and they are attracting more and more hikers.
Perhaps the catalyst for hill traffic are “lists”. Long ago, a few notable climbers compiled lists of hills which fell into certain categories. The main purpose of the exercise was to plot the lay of the land, but in recent times the objective for many people is to climb all the hills on these lists.
A Munro is a Scottish mountain over 3,000 ft. There are 284 Munros, the name coming from tables compiled by Sir Hugh Munro, first president of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, who published them in 1891. Over 2,500 people have climbed them all.
A Corbett is a separate mountain over 2,500 ft. Distinct Corbetts must have a 500 ft drop between them. The Corbetts are named after John Rooke Corbett. There are currently 220 Corbett’s and these, too, have become a tick list for hill baggers.
The Donalds is a collective name given to all the mountains in Lowland Scotland which are over 2,000 feet. The classification was given its name by Percy Donald who published a table. Donald-“bagging” is not nearly as popular, since Donalds are smaller and the terrain is considered to be more difficult, with deep heather and rough ground.
The Grahams are named after Fiona Torbet (nee Graham) who published her own list of these peaks in the early 1990s. The Grahams are all the distinct mountains in Scotland which are between 2,000 and 2,499 feet (610 and 761 metres), and which have at least a 150 metre drop between them. There are 224 separate Grahams – even seven of the Islands contain Grahams.
Fly fishing for trout is almost certainly the most popular branch of angling in Scotland. It takes place on lochs (lakes) and rivers throughout the country and offers a huge element of variety.
The traditional method of loch fishing – two or three anglers fishing small wet flies from a drifting boat – is known as “loch-style” fishing and it forms the basis for competitive angling in national and international tournaments.
The Atlantic salmon is often regarded as the “King of Fish” and Scotland hosts most of the greatest salmon rivers in the British Isles. Names like the Tweed, Tay, Spey and Dee are known throughout world as prime locations for the sport.
You don’t have to be mad to take part in the Loony Dook, but it helps! Every New Year’s Day, a group of hardy souls brave the cold and take a dook (Scottish slang for swim) in the Firth of Forth at South Queensferry, near Edinburgh, all in the name of charity. Fancy dress is welcomed, but no wetsuits are allowed! All those brave enough to take part get a free hot whisky and soup. But if you can’t face the water, it’s also a fun event to watch.