A woman is throwing the hammer at a Highland Games event

Highland Fling: The Lowdown on Highland Games Season in Scotland

Written by Gillian Kyle


As we near the end of May and Spring blooms into Summer here in Scotland, Highland Games season is getting underway. 

Scotland's most spectacular showcase of culture, strength, and community, Highland Games have been a part of Scottish life for hundreds of years.  But what exactly goes on at a Scottish Highland Games, why should you get involved and where are they held? 

Read on for the skinny on all things tossing, hurling and skirling!

What exactly is a Highland Games?

Highland Games 101

For the uninitiated, Scottish Highland Games are usually one-day, outdoor, weekend events featuring the classic Highland events you’ve probably heard of like Tossing The Caber, Tug o’War, Hammer Throw and Highland Dancing.

Expect delicious food and drink, craft and design stalls, plenty of bagpipes and perhaps local music, ceilidhs and discos in the evening. Some events will also have crowd-pleasers like pet, equestrian and livestock competitions, parades and more. 

Taking place all over the country from the lowlands to the isles, Games season kicks off with the Gourock games in mid May, peaks in July and August and finishes at the end of September. 

A strongman lifting the log at a Scottish Highland Games

The Highland Games were such a vital part of Scottish culture that emigrating Scots took them with them to all corners of the globe. There have been Highland Games in the USA since the early 1800’s! 

A few years ago I was honoured to be asked to design the official t-shirt of the Texas Highland Games.

The Texas Highland Games t-shirt design by Gillian Kyle

History & Tradition

The origins of the Highland Games are thought to stretch back to the 11th century when legend has it that King Malcolm III, seeking a swift courier, held a foot race to the summit of Creag Chòinnich, near Braemar, aiming to find the fastest runner. 

This tradition continues today with hill races featured in many games. Although thankfully, today's winners aren't bound for a life of Royal servitude!

Over time, these games grew into a broader celebration, testing not only physical prowess but also artistic talents in dance and music, designed to entertain royalty and clan leaders alike.

Expect the unexpected! What you'll see at the Highland Games...

First-time at the games? Visitors often wear a wee touch of tartan to get into the spirit of things but above all, come dressed for a day outside in Scotland. That might mean 4 seasons in one day – sunblock, layers, wellies and an umbrella are a useful kit. Depending on the location, midgey repellent might also be a good shout.

You’ll watch as competitors take part in field events like the aforementioned hill race and flex their muscles in the ‘heavy’ events like the hammer throw, the shot put and the weight for height. Unique techniques are employed to gain an edge, including the intriguingly named “handbag technique” in the weight for height event, where the starting position mimics holding a handbag.

The tug o'war is one of my personal favourite Highland Games events, and one I've taken part in quite a few times. Teams of 8 people pull against each other, aiming to pull the other team forward to their side of the line. The competition can get pretty fierce as past-life memories of clan rivalry are awakened! Success is not about braun and sheer pulling power but rather teamwork and technique; how you use your lower body to push against the ground and your upper body to hold onto the rope. That's the theory anyway!

The photo below is from the Glenfinnan Games a few years ago - the plucky Loch Shiel Pullers (including my wee bro and Dad) with t-shirts sponsored by Gillian Kyle 💪

The Loch Shiel Pullers at the Glenfinnan Highland Games
The Loch Shiel Pullers at the Glenfinnan Highland Games

Total Tossers

The quintessential event of the games though, is the caber toss. It’s thought to have originated from the practical need to throw logs from one hillside to another over a gap or chasm. Today, it’s no longer about distance but rather style; competitors aim to flip a log weighing about 11 stone so that it lands straight away from them in the perfect 12 o'clock position.

Speaking from experience I can say that this is easier said than done! If you have a spare tree trunk kicking about your garden you can get into training for your first caber toss using this handy how-to guide from Visit Scotland

Hurl That Haggis

In true Scottish style, Highland Games are not all serious competition. Ever heard of haggis hurling? Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like – a battle throwing power to see who can toss our national dish the furthest!

A practical joke born in the seventies, it’s now essential viewing at many Highland games and there's even a World Haggis Hurling Association dedicated to it! In case you’re wondering, the current world record is an impressive 217ft, set at the Milngavie Highland Games in 2011!

Skirls and Flings

A huge part of the Highland Games experience is the massed pipe bands. Most Games bring together hundreds of pipers and drummers from various local and national groups, marching and playing in perfect harmony. Plus the solo piping competitions, where pipers showcase their skills in styles like the Pibroch, the classical form of bagpipe music.

Dancers captivate audiences with their stunning performances of traditional Scottish dances, including the intricate sword dance and the celebrated Highland Fling. If dance is your thang, the Cowal Highland Gathering is particularly famous for its high-caliber Highland dancing, attracting top talent from across the world to compete in both the Scottish and World Championships.

2 women Highland Dancing at a Highland Games in Scotland

Great Chieftains o' the Games

Historically, Highland games were fierce battlegrounds where clans went head to head but today clan participation is more social and ceremonial. Games often coincide with clan gatherings and each Highland Game is presided over by a ceremonial chieftain, usually a respected local community member or a clan chief but occasionally even a Scottish celebrity or Royal - Susan Boyle, Ewan McGregor and Prince William have all taken on the role in the past.

Games Dates for 2024

Fancy a wee day trip?

Each Highland Games has its personality and traditions - and often a beautiful location too.

The Braemar Gathering stands out, famously attended by the Royal Family. Over in Cowal, the Cowal Highland Gathering claims the title of the largest, drawing huge crowds keen to be thrilled by the feats of strength and agility on display.

Here are some of the most notable Highland Games of the season.

Men rolling barrels at a Scottish Highland Games

Game On?

So there you have it. Highland Games are more than just a display of cultural pride, strength and athleticism. They are a celebration of community and a living tradition that connects our past with our present.

Whether you’re a Scot by birth or by heart, a Highland Games is a spectacle well worth experiencing this year and a fantastic day out for the whole family. There's a first time for everything! So dig out your kilt, practice your caber tossing technique and start planning the best wee day out of the Summer.

I’ll see you at the Haggis Hurling!

Gill x

An illustration by Gillian Kyle of a man tossing the caber