Though Highland games are composed of athletic and artistic events celebrating Scottish and Celtic culture, the lively competitions have become surprisingly globalized, popping up in Switzerland and all over North America.
From caber tosses to hammer throws to tug-of-wars, here is some intel on the best Highland games based in Scotland and beyond.
Cowal Highland Gathering
The organizers of the Cowal Highland Gathering are not shy about singing its praises, calling it “the biggest, most spectacular Highland games in the world.” They add that the gathering is famous for its unique ambiance, top-class contestants, gorgeous Highland location and “spine-tingling salute to the Chieftain:” Queen Elizabeth II. Bagpipe merriment aside, the Cowal Highland Gathering’s heart is all about old-fashioned, plaid-to-the-bone heavy athletics. Picture athletes shot-putting the historic 34 lb Cowal Stone (double the weight of a normal shot put) and throwing Scottish hammers. The last event to take place, the caber toss, is “a nail-biter”, the organizers say. Contestants have the chance to hurl a giant Tilhill caber – “one of the biggest cabers on the circuit and a mighty challenge for even these athletes.”
The Braemar Gathering dates back many centuries to the games held by the minions of the ancient Scottish King Malcolm III, aka “Big Head.” Now, the Braemar Gathering is held in honor of the reigning British monarch, who acts as Braemar Gathering chieftain. “Every Gathering is a memorable occasion and that of 2012 will be no exception,” the organizers say. To be held this year on September 1, Braemar mixes traditional pageantry and frivolity with “heavy” and “track.” That pans out as everything from children’s sack race to piping, highland dancing, tossing the caber, putting the stone and throwing the hammer. Then there are various running races plus “long leap” and tug-of-war. The raucous gathering happens at the Princess Royal & Duke of Fife Memorial Park about 58 miles west of Aberdeen in the Highlands. Typically, some 20,000 spectators show. Be one of them and you might just spot the Queen.
Calgary Highland Games
Whether you are a Scot or not, the Calgary Highland Games is for you, the organizers say. Showing just how widespread Highland games are in Canada, the organizers tout it as one of the top examples of the event in the country’s west. Launched in 1913, the Calgary Highland Games is one of the oldest gatherings of its kind in North America and Canada. This year marks its 99th birthday. “With competitors from around the world, the Calgary Highland Games is a proud spectacle of Scotland’s history come to life,” the organizers say. The Calgary Games kick off on September 1 with two charity soccer matches in support of the Calgary Food Bank - a charity devoted to the gathering and distribution of emergency food for people in need. Then you get the usual: caber tossing, tug-of-war, piping, dancing and the like. “Duck herding” is in the mix too. The Calgary Highland Games are meant to be a chance to celebrate your Scotch sporting heritage or just “catch the spirit.”
Northeast Florida Scottish Games & Festival
It would be hard to think of a more unlikely venue for a Scottish games than sunny Florida. But the fact that the Northeast Florida Scottish Games & Festival exists underlines how global Scottish sporting frolics have become. The Florida games take place in February. The event makes much of its multi-ethnic Scottish roots, pinpointing particular attending clans, which run the gamut from Buchanan to Young. Epic events on the agenda include hammer throw, weight toss, weight throw, caber toss and “sheaf toss”, where a pitchfork is used to hurl a burlap bag stuffed with straw over a horizontal bar above the competitor’s head. Another highlight of the Florida games is a fiddle contest. The whole happening is meant to reflect “the deep connections and effects” that Scots and their descendants have had on the United States and Northeast Florida in particular. Proceeds go to charities including Segs-4-Vets, which gives Segways to every United States soldier whose service resulted in disability.
Glengarry Highland Games
The Glengarry Highland Games date back to 1948. Since then, some million people have come to witness one of the world’s biggest Highland Games festivals held in Maxville, Ontario, Canada. The organizers promise “an outstanding display of music, dance, sports, fiddling, pageantry, and tradition”. Glengarry serves up all the classic events, including stone, hammer, caber and sheaf and, as always, adds lashings of revelry. But, according to the organizers, the heavyweight contests excite the crowd most. The Glengarry Highland Games, which take place in a grandstand stadium, are proud to have welcomed multiple Canadian Prime Ministers as guests of honor to open the Games. Ranked as one of Ontario’s Top 100 Festivals, the Glengarry Highland Games are touted as one of North America’s biggest Celtic events.
Cover Photo Credit: conner395 – flickr.com