Traditional Scottish Games And Where to Find Them

Braemar Games
Traditional Scottish dancing at the Braemar Games. Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

Traditional Scottish Games were played at the earliest clan gatherings in Scotland. Long before Scotland had a written history, men were showing off their physical prowess and demonstrating their battle and survival skills in the heavy sports that are known as the Highland Games.

The Scottish games that are unique to these events - including stone throwing, tossing the caber and tug-of-war - were originally demonstrations of manhood for the benefit of clan leaders and, of course, the lassies. The lassies, meanwhile, showed off their finery and their dancing skills.

The Celtic Revival

The festivals, as they are held today, are part of a general Celtic revival that dates from the early 19th century and are largely a Victorian invention. The celebrations of Scottish culture take place year round, all over the world with the largest being held in North America. 

But the best and most authentic Highland celebrations of Celtic traditions, sports and culture are still held in Scotland through the summer and early autumn. They usually feature competitions in Highland dancing, bag piping - solo and in bands - and the picturesque heavy sports. The events included usually vary somewhat between different Highland Games and Gatherings

What are Heavy Sports?

A particular aspect of Highland Games, the heavy sports include:

  • Tossing the caber - The caber is a long pine log - pretty much the size of a tree. The competitor balances it vertically in his hands and then throws is so that it will turn end-over-end through the air.
  • Stone put - Competitors throw a large stone - the weight varies according to the particular Highland Games because the stones are real stones rather than weights. At the Braemar Gathering there is a lighter stone for women to throw.
  • Hammer throw Similar to the Olympic event, the Scottish hammer is a ball weighing about 23 pounds at the end of a four foot handle (at some competitions there are lighter hammers for women). The competitor whirls the hammer around his - or her - head before throwing it.
  • Weight throws - There are usually two different events, one involves throwing a weight, attached to a handle, for distance and the other involves throwing the weight over a bar for height. The iron balls, or cubes used in the weight throws weigh about 57 pounds.

Highland Games - Where to See and Take Part

These are some of the best:

  • The Cowal Highland Gathering
  • When: End of August (in 2020 August 27-29)
  • Where: Dunoon, Argyll, Scotland
  • Website
  • What: Claiming to be the biggest and most spectacular Highland Gathering, the 3-day Cowal Gathering has been taking place in Argyll since 1894. Events include Highland dancing, heavy sports, solo piping and pipe bands. At least 3,500 competitors attend from all over the world and there are usually about 23,000 spectators.
  • The Braemar Gathering
  • When: The first Saturday in September (September 5, 2020)
  • Where: The Princess Royal and Duke of Fife Memorial Park, Braemar, Aberdeenshire
  • Website
  • What: One of the oldest clan gatherings, this one has the patronage of the Queen herself. The sponsoring Braemar Royal Highland Society has been around, organizing the games since about 1815 - though they didn't award any prizes until 1837. Actually, gatherings at Braemar have been taking place, in one form or another for about 900 years, since the time of King Malcolm Canmore. And it has long been traditional for the clans to gather to proclaim the monarch "chief of the games".
    The modern Braemar Gathering, attended by the Queen, Prince Charles and other members of the Royal Family includes piping and Highland dancing competitions, heavy sports, various sprints, and hill races, a "long leap", a tug-of-war and a children's sack race.
  •  Note: This is just a one-day event and very popular because of the presence of the royals. Tickets go on sale almost a year ahead of time, in November for September the following year. If you are thinking of going, visit the website to book your tickets well in advance.
  • Pitlochry Highland Games
  • When: Mid September (September 12 in 2020)
  • Where: Recreation Ground, Ferry Road, Pitlochry
  • Website
  • What: One of the last Highland Games of the season, Pitlochry includes the usual heavy sports, piping and dancing competitions as well as cycling, track events and a parade of massed piping bands.
  • Blairgowrie & Rattray Highland Games
  • When: The first Sunday after the first Saturday in September (September 6, 2020)
  • Where: Blairgowrie, Perthshire
  • Website
  • What: In addition to the usual events, this Highland Games includes Bird of Prey demonstrations and Shinty - a Celtic game with a ball and sticks similar to hockey.

Links to More Highland Games