A beginner’s guide to the Scottish Highland Games

The Aberdeen Highland Games were back in 2022 on Sunday 19th June! Thousands joined the celebration at Hazlehead Park for a day packed with entertainment, from traditional Highland Games events to stage performances and catering outlets. Learn more about the history of the games and what you can expect if you decide to attend in the future.

Introducing the Highland Games

The Highland Games are an outdoor event, usually taking place over a single day. It sees some of the attendees compete in traditional Highlands sports, such as the famous hammer throw. Despite the focus of the event being on the competition, you can also enjoy Highland dancing, music performances, food stalls, and non-competitive games during the celebration.

Even though the games did start in the Highlands, they now take place all over Scotland between May and August. Most events are organised over the weekend to allow more people to attend. Aberdeen’s own Highland games usually attract between 8000 to 15,000 people annually!

The origins and evolution of the Highland Games

The Highland Games as we know them today have been celebrated since the early 19th century, but there are ancient traditions and gatherings that can be associated with them. Indeed, many trace back their origins to the 11th century.

Malcom III, the son of the murdered King Duncan who inspired the story of Macbeth, might have been the precursor of the tradition. It is said that he organised a foot race near Braemar to appoint the fastest runner in the land as his personal courier. To this day, many games still include a hill race!

Braemar Castle

As time went on, the games became a way to keep kings, queens and clan chiefs entertained. You can see a representation of these games in the Disney’s film “Brave”, where the first-born of each clan leaders compete for the hand of Princess Merida in a game of archery.

Today, the event is so popular that two of its games – the hammer throw and the shot putt – are now included in the Olympics. The Highland games have also crossed borders and are now played in America, Canada, Norway, New Zealand and even Brazil!

What to expect at the Aberdeen Highland Games

The games at the heart of the competition

The games that you can compete in are usually divided into two categories: heavy contests and light events. Heavy contests are a fit of strength while light events test speed and stamina. Here are some of the most famous games that you will find at the Aberdeen Highland Games:

Caber toss

The caber toss is the event’s most iconic game. Participants have to lift a full length log and toss it into the air with the goal of flipping it end over end, landing it flat and as close as possible of the “12 o’clock position”. While competitors have to run to build momentum, the length the log travels is unimportant.

Hammer throw

The hammer throw is famous globally due to its appearance in the Olympics. In the Highland Games, the hammer is made of a metal ball attached to a long wooden pole. The metal ball weighs 9.98kg (22lb) for men and 7.25kg (16lb) for women. The aim of the game is simple: throwing the hammer as far as possible.

Hammer throw

Weight over the bar

In this game, competitors have to throw a 25.4kg (56lb) weight over a raised bar, with just one hand. If they succeed, they can throw the weight again, this time with a higher target. They keep going until they fail. Dan Williams, from America, broke the record for highest throw in 2014 with a bar that was 6.17 meters (20ft3in) high.

Tug o’ war

The tug o’ war puts the strength of two teams against each other in a fierce competition. In this game, participants pull on opposite sides of the same rope with the goal of pulling the rival team across a line in the middle. Each team has eight people pulling on the rope as well as an additional member who shouts encouragement and instructions.

Tug o’ war

A celebration of Scottish culture

Though the heavy contests and light events are the focus of the day, the Highland Games are above all a celebration of Scottish culture. And that includes bagpipes, traditional dances, chieftains and more!

During the games, hundreds of pipers and drummers get together to march and play. Musicians can even take part in a competition of their own with solo piping contests. Competitors face off in different categories determined by various styles of music such as “Piobairaechd” – the classical music of the Great Highland Bagpipe – or “Jig” – a popular folk dance.

Pipers and drummers

You can also be dazzled by dancers who perform Scottish dances, such as the Highland fling or sword dance. At the Aberdeen Highland Games, children and adults alike can participate in the Highland Dance Competition!

Sword dance

Another way to celebrate Scottish culture during the games is to simply browse the catering outlets offering traditional food and drinks. There might also be stalls that you can visit to learn more about Scottish history and the country’s famous clans.

Finally, the modern games have upheld the tradition of appointing a chieftain. Their role is to open the celebrations and oversee the event throughout the day. In the past, the clan chief would have been given the honour of being chieftain. Nowadays, many celebrities have accepted the role, such as Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor. In Aberdeen, the Lord Provost is the appointed chieftain for the local games.

For more information about life in Aberdeen, visit the RGU website.

Related blogs

A Beginner’s Guide to Doric

Explore Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire through surprising facts

Leave a Reply