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Europe’s Festivals: Highland Games in Scotland


Competitive Highland Games are held in towns throughout the Scottish Highlands in summer. Usually lasting a day, the games feature feats of strength (weight throw and caber toss), track races, and dances involving intricate footwork, accompanied by a bagpipe.

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Along with ritual and pageantry, some festivals originated with a more practical purpose: to train their men to be fit for battle. Warriors — whether in ancient Greece competing in the Olympics, or clansmen gathering here in Scotland — would go at it on the field.

And today, communities throughout Scotland still host a Highland Games, where kilted athletes from the surrounding countryside gather to show off their speed, strength…and grace.

A Highland Games is an all-day celebration of local sport and culture, like a track meet and a county fair rolled into one. It’s a fine day out for the family. With a soundtrack of traditional Scottish music, and clan pride showing itself in the tartan patterns, the community cheers on the athletes and dancers.

The day's events typically kick off with the arrival of a parading pipe band,led by the local clan chieftain. After a lap around the field, the competition begins.

In the heavy events — billed as feats of Highland strength — brawny, kilted athletes push their limits. In the weight throw, competitors spin like bulky ballerinas before releasing a heavy ball on a chain. The hammer throw involves a similar technique with an iron ball on a long stick, and the “stone put” has been adopted in international sports as the shot put. In this event, Highlanders swing a 56-pound weight over a horizontal bar that keeps getting higher and higher. And, of course, there’s the caber toss: Pick up a giant log (called a “caber”), get a running start…and release it end-over-end with enough force to make the caber flip all the way over and land at the 12 o’clock position. Or…not.

Meanwhile, the track events run circles around all that muscle.

The races offer fun for all those attending — including events for the kids.

And visitors from faraway lands are welcome to join in as well.

OK, I think I’ve found my sport. Lifting what’s called a “manhood stone” is a standard part of these games. Brawny lads impress their girls with a show of strength.

With a wee glass of courage, competitors lift and carry the 250-pound stone…or at least give it a good try. I taught this guy everything he knows, There’s always a show-off.

And it’s not all brute strength. Highland dancing shows off both athleticism and grace. With years of practice, young girls dance with an impressive confidence and fluidity. A lone piper accompanies serious wee dancers who toe their routines with intense concentration. Within a few years they’ll likely be dancing with the same mastery as the older girls.