Highland games are a unique form of entertainment that combines athleticism, music, and ancient Scottish culture. For centuries, these games have been a popular way for Scots to celebrate their heritage and Highland clans to compete for honor. Today, highland games are enjoyed by spectators and participants from all over the world. In this guide we will explore what highland games are, their history, and how to get involved whether you are a spectator or participant.
Ever wanted to watch big sweaty Scottish men throw heavy objects around?
If the answer to that question is a big emphatic yes, here’s some good news for you… at the Highland Games, you can do exactly that!
But despite what you might believe, the event isn’t just about sport—the Highland Games are one of the planet’s most interesting, impressive, and immersive celebrations of Scottish culture and heritage.
So in this guide, we’ve brought you everything you need to know about them. Squeeze into your kilt and come join the fun!
What Are the Highland Games?
The Highland Games are a sports-based excuse to celebrate the history, heritage, and traditions of Scotland and its people.
At a Highland Games event, you get to watch lots of traditional strength-based sports (some of which I’ll cover in more detail later in this guide). But in addition to all that strength stuff, you might also get things as varied as bagpipes, kilts, dancing, traditional food and drink, arts and crafts, family activities, Scottish music, livestock competitions, ceilidhs, discos, and plenty more.
In short, if it’s Scottish and traditional, you’ll often find it at a Highland Games event.
Contrary to popular belief, these games don’t just consist of big beefy men throwing heavy things around (although there are lots of big beefy men throwing heavy things around).
Though no one really knows exactly when the Highland Games began, they’re thought to originate around 4,000 years ago. What a long ol’ time!
Where Are the Highland Games Held?
Unlike with most big sporting events, there’s not just one regular Highland Games. So when people talk about ‘The Highland Games,’ that’s sort of a misnomer.
In reality, there are lots of Highland Games celebrated throughout various parts of the world, and during various times of the year.
The biggest and most famous are of course usually held in Scotland (and the most famous of them all is the Braemar Gathering, attended by the British Royal Family, right in the center of the UK’s biggest national park).
But there are Highland Games events across various parts of the planet (both large and small), including places as diverse and surprising as Brazil, Switzerland, Hungary, Bermuda, Chile, and Australia.
In short, if there’s Scottish heritage or Scottish people in a place, you’ll probably find a Highland Games event in that place.
When Are the Highland Games Held?
Because there are so many Highland Games events, they’re not all held at the same time as one another.
The typical season of the Highland Games runs from May until September, and most events only last for one day. The season peaks in July and August, when there are sometimes up to 30 Highland Games events throughout Scotland each month.
Most Highland Games take place on a Saturday or a Sunday—people in Scotland have jobs just like the rest of us.
Highland Games Activities: the Big List
Because the potential Highland Games activities are so vast and varied, we can’t possibly list every single thing you could ever see at a Highland Games event.
So, instead, I’ve listed all the strength-based athletic competitions you’ll usually see.
Depending on the scale and size of the event, you might be able to expect more games than what is listed below. Here are some of the basic games with short videos for each one, so you can have a better understanding of what they are like:
1. The Caber Toss
The most famous and iconic of all the Highland Games’ tests of strength, the caber toss is a pretty simple concept, but the execution isn’t so easy. In the caber toss, competitors take a big long wooden log, and throw it in front of them.
But here’s the interesting part: the throw isn’t measured by distance. Instead, the goal is to flip the caber while keeping it in as straight a line as possible.
Because it’s the most famous Highland Game activity, you’ll pretty much always see a caber toss at any Highland Games event.
2. The Sheaf Toss
Another sport, another toss.
During the sheaf toss, competitors are given a heavy burlap sack stuffed with straw, and a pitchfork. They then use that pitchfork to hurl the burlap sack over a horizontal bar. And whoever can hurl their burlap sack over the highest bar takes the crown!
Typically, this burlap sack weighs in at around 16lbs (that’s 7kg).
3. The Scottish Hammer Throw
Relatively similar to a normal hammer throw, this game features a metal ball attached to the end of a wooden pole. Competitors rotate the ball and its handle around their heads before then throwing it as far as they can. Whoever throws it the furthest is the winner!
The hammer usually weighs around 22lb (10kg) for men or 16lb (7.3kg) for women.
4. Weight over the Bar
This imaginatively-named game is also known as ‘weight for height’ and ‘the weight throw.’
Sort of similar to the sheaf toss, but also not similar to the sheaf toss, this game also asks competitors to throw a heavy object over a bar. But instead of a burlap sack, this time it’s a heavy block with a handle on its top.
Again, whoever has the highest throw is the esteemed winner.
5. The Tug of War
This one probably doesn’t require much explanation. But if you’re somehow unfamiliar with a tug of war, here’s how it works:
There’s a big rope. On one end, there’s a team of (usually 8) competitors. On the other end, there’s another team of (usually 8) competitors. On the floor, there’s a line. Both teams pull as hard as they can, until one team pulls the opposing team over the line on the floor. Simple!
6. The Maide-Leisg
Going by its original Gaelic name, and pronounced ‘made leash,’ this one is sort of like a tug of war… but it’s a one-on-one affair instead of a team game.
In the maide-leisg, two men sit on the floor, facing one another, holding an object, and with the soles of their feet touching. They then both pull on that object until one of the competitors forces the other to their feet.
7. The Stone Put
Sometimes known as the ‘shot put,’ this is about as simple as strength tests get. You’ve probably seen this one in the Olympics… but in case you haven’t, here’s how it works:
Competitors take a big heavy stone in the palm of their hand, then throw that big heavy stone as far as they possibly can.
Usually, this stone weighs between 20 and 26lbs (that’s between 9 and 11.7kg).
8. Haggis Hurling
Not necessarily a mainstay of the Highland Games, but common enough (and bizarre enough) to warrant an inclusion here, Haggis Hurling is a pretty self-explanatory ‘sport.’
In this competition, competitors take a haggis and throw it as far as they can. But here’s the interesting twist: if the haggis splits or doesn’t stay intact, the thrower is disqualified. So you need to treat the haggis gently.
Can Anyone Participate in the Highland Games?
To be an official competitor at any serious Highland Games event, you need to be registered with the RSHGA (the Royal Scottish Highland Games Association).
Established in 1947, anyone on their register can participate in any of the Highland Games, and at any of the Highland Games events.
That said, some of the more informal and small-scale games sometimes allow anyone to enter. And at most Highland Games events, spectators are encouraged to try their hand at some of the sports (although they of course aren’t entered into the official competitions).
What Are the World Highland Games Championships?
The World Highland Games Championships include and celebrate many of the events we’ve covered so far in this guide.
Hosted in a different location each year, the World Highland Games Championships are like the Highland Games’ version of the World Cup. Each year, the championships feature all the Highland Games’ typical events, plus lots more tests of strength.
The competition is a pretty big deal, and previous competitors have included strongmen, Olympic athletes, and plenty more beefy behemoths—and previous winners have included legends such as Ryan Vierra and Geoff Capes.
The Highland Games: Final Thoughts and Further Reading
There you have it—everything you could ever need to know about the Highland Games!
Thanks for reading, you adventurous explorer, and make sure you hang around for much more!
If you want to learn anything else about Scottish culture, check out our guides to traditional Scottish clothes, the best gifts and souvenirs you can buy from the nation, and the top 23 reasons you should visit the place at least once in your life.