I have always been curious to see what this is all about after years seeing advertisements for these Games. There was always a picture of a large bearded man heaving a big rock or throwing a Thor-like hammer. Locally, there is a version of the Highland Games even though we are six thousand miles away from the real highlands of Scotland. The internet has allowed the world to get a good look what at first glance appears to be an outdoor festival with a bunch of people performing ancient feats of strength. Yes it is that and more.
The Highland Games celebrates Scottish and Celtic culture and especially that of the Scottish Highlands. Yes, you get a good dose of bagpipes and men wearing kilts which is part of it but it centers on the competitions for the Scottish athletics along with piping, dancing and drumming. Even though the events are based on centuries and centuries of Highland culture, the organized version of what we see today was started in the 1800’s. It is said to be influenced by a chap by the name of Baron Pierre de Coubertin who saw a display at the Paris Exhibition of 1889. He wanted to plan the event based on a revival of the Olympic Games. There will be debate on this by many but there is no denying where the games originated.
The Highland Games has become international with a season that usually runs from May through September. The most renown Highland Games event is the Cowel Highland Games held in Dunoon, Scotland. This event will attract an international crowd of 25,000 people. In the US, there are two events that will attract even more, those being held in Pleasanton, California which have as many as 50,000 spectators during Labor Day and the one at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina which sees more than 30,000 fans.
Of course there is the great cultural aspect of the games but I really think that most of the spectators are there to drink some good Scotch, what? of course I am kidding. When I go to my first games I really want to see some good athletes perform acts of strength and listen to the bagpipes, something about the pipes that can bring a tear to my eye.
As far as the feats of strength here is a list of some the events:
The Scottish Hammer Throw – Similar to the traditional hammer throw but here the man or woman throw a metal ball that has a four foot shaft connected to it. The feet stay in a fixed position as the athlete twirls it overhead then releases.
The Caber Toss – An athlete holds a long pine pole that is tapered and held end over end. With the thicker end on the bottom, the pole is tossed and flipped so the thinner end is on the ground and the thicker is on top. The goal is to get the pole to stand straight up in a twelve o’clock position.
Stone Put – This is similar to the shot put but here a real stone is used instead of a steel ball. There are two differing competitions with this event, one allows for any type of pre throw motion and the other is a standing position. As long as the stone is heaved with only one hand with the stone cradled against the neck. These stones weigh various weights ranging from 20 to 26 pounds for men and 13 to 18 for women in the standing only event and 16-22 and 8 -12 in the open throwing event.
Sheaf toss – The athletes have to toss a 20 pound bag of straw with a pitch fork over a bar. Like pole vaulting, the bar is risen after successful attempts. The women use a ten pound bag.
There other great events of strength throughout the festival which are just as medieval and entertaining as well. Even though most Highland Game festivals are open invitational, these events do create a statistical database for the athletes and competitors know who they are up against. There is also a World Championship event called the World Highland Games Championships held every year, since 1980.
There are hundreds of versions of the Highland Games held internationally because it has something for everybody to enjoy. I looking forward to seeing my first games this summer because I think most of us can appreciate this type of time honored celebration of culture and athletics. Now where’s the Scotch booth?