Discover the origins of Scotland’s most famous strength and agility contests, Highland games, which are still celebrated across the nation
Originally an almighty test of strength and stamina, and now a jovial summer gathering and a chance to celebrate all things Scottish, Highland games have been a traditional part of Scotland’s culture for hundreds of years, though their modern-day popularity is owed to the Victorians.
The roots of the games date as far back as the 11th century when King Malcolm III called a foot race to the summit of Craig Choinnich to find the fastest runner in the land to become his personal courier.
The games then evolved to include events that tested not only muscles and speed of the strongest clan members, but also creative dance and music skills to keep kings and queens and clan chiefs entertained.
Highland games as we know them have been celebrated around Scotland since the 1800s, when they were formally reintroduced as part of the revival of Tartan and Highland Culture encouraged by Sir Walter Scott and given a royal seal of approval by Queen Victoria.
Taking place in the summer season between May and September, every event has its own unique character and traditions. Here are four of the best events happening this summer for you to get a taste of this most Scottish of celebrations.
Luss Highland Gathering, Loch Lomond
1 July 2023
It would be hard to find a more beautiful location for these games, which have been held annually since 1875 (aside from a break during the World Wars). With the River Luss on one side, romantic Loch Lomond in the background and the rugged Luss Hills completing the picture, these games are a true reminder that Scotland’s scenery is guaranteed to beat off the competition.
When it first began, the Luss gathering was the highlight of the year for the local people, and since then the games have remained relatively unchanged. Although sock-knitting competitions and shepherd’s crook-making have been dropped, traditional events such as caber tossing, hammer throwing and hill races have stayed, and of course, the event would not be complete without the rousing sound of the pipes and the swish of Highland dancers.
Crieff Highland Gathering, Perthshire
20 August 2023
With the first event held in 1870, the Crieff games are widely known as ‘Scotland’s Premier Highland Games’, partly due to some of the modern events held every year, including acrobatics, motorbike displays and a mini festival celebrating Celtic music. HRH Prince William the Earl of Strathearn is the Crieff games’ Royal Chieftain, and this year the event will be called The Platinum Jubilee Crieff Highland Gathering, in honour of the Queen marking 70 years on the throne. In addition to the usual events, including the traditional Scottish Heavyweight Championships, caber tossing and Highland dancing, there will be a musical performance from the world’s most famous bagpipe band, The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, making this an event not to be missed. crieffhighlandgathering.com
Cowal Highland Gathering, Argyll
24-26 August 2023
The Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon, Argyll, is the largest Highland games in the world, attracting 23,000 visitors, who come to witness this spectacle of Scottishness every year. First held in 1894, these games are steeped in history and include every traditional event, along with some more modern additions, including mountain biking, a fun run, and headline music acts from the A List of traditional Celtic musicians. The highlight of the event is the salute to the Chieftain. At the end of the two-day event the massed pipers and drummers play the stirring Highland Laddie in unison as the sun sets over the Firth of Clyde – a truly unforgettable experience.
Braemar Highland Gathering, Aberdeenshire
2 September 2023
There have been Highland gatherings of some form at Braemar since the days of King Malcolm III, 900 hundred years ago. However, the Braemar Gathering has been run in its present form since 1832 and, after Queen Victoria first attended in 1844, is traditionally attended by members of the Royal Family, making it the most famous games in the world. The Braemar Gathering also boasts the oldest foot races in the world, having been organised on a regular basis since 1832. The gathering includes all the traditional events, including hammer throwing and caber tossing, Massed Pipes, solo piping, and Highland dancing, alongside track events. braemargathering.org