Nothing evokes the spirit of wild Scotland like the Highland Games. All over the world, from New Zealand to Russia, the Scottish diaspora and the Scottish at heart gather for a celebration of all things Alba- piping, dancing, racing, feats of strength, food and Gaelic heritage.
Legend has it the origin of the games lies with King Malcolm III, who, in the 11th century, summoned the fastest runners of the realm to compete in a foot race to determine who would be his royal messenger. The first recorded games date to 1703, when members of Clan Grant, bedecked in their Highland coats, gathered with “gun, sword, pistol and dirk” to compete in feats of arms. Today’s version of the games is basically- like the clan tartan- a Victorian invention developed after the Highland Clearances- a romantic pastiche harkening back to a culture that, had it really existed, would have been wiped out by the English. But the tradition took off like wildfire, and today there are over a dozen Highland gatherings in Scotland each year, and many more all over the globe- from Switzerland to the Bahamas. In the United States alone there are at least 150 games!
I went to the world’s largest games, The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games in Linville, North Carolina, many years ago. Upwards of 50,000 folks gather for this annual event. Scots Americans take great pride in their heritage and they pull out all the stops there. But it was high time I went to a real Highland Games.
The 2013 Oban Games fell on a beautiful sunny day in August, with temperatures in the mid 20’s (mid 70’s Fahrenheit) – positively roasting by Scotland standards! I arrived in mid-afternoon on foot. Traffic was backed up all the way out of town. The smells of barbecue and fried sweets filled the air before I even caught site of the field. The stands were quickly filling up and the games were in progress. A large field was partitioned off into areas for the various sports- caber tossing, stone putting, hammer tossing- as well as piping and dancing, and all the while runners circled the track. The stadium was a riot of bagpipes and tartan, so much to take in, so much to see. And more kilts than you can shake a stick at.
On the green, colossal men resplendent in kilts and t-shirts (hubba hubba!) showed their prowess in hurling very heavy objects as far as possible. These guys were massive- well over six feet tall, with arms like rocks and calves like tree trunks. They were the pride of the Highlands and Islands- representing Mull, Tiree, Fort William, Inverness- and even the big cities like Edinburgh. They mostly seemed to be rural boys, though. And speaking of tree trunks, the caber, from the Gaelic for “wooden beam,” is a 6 meter, 80 kilo tree trunk made from larch. The tosser carefully balances it upright, then flings it- thud! My favourite strength event was the Sheaf Toss, in which the tosser hurls a 7 kilogram burlap bag stuffed with straw over a horizontal bar with a pitchfork. It was easy to see how these events got their start with robust farm boys showing each other up while doing chores on the homestead.
I took a walk around the field, visiting the various booths and vendors, and enjoyed a Highland roast beef sandwich. I met the Duke of Argyll, the officiator of the games, resplendent in his tartan and feathered tam. I squeezed my way to front of the standing room only crowd to catch the wee pastel- tartaned Highland dancing lassies, skipping and jumping with grace and exuberance. Piper after piper climbed a soapbox to show off their skills, and pipe bands of kilted young folk marched across the green.
I found a grassy place to sit on the spectator hill and settled in. All these different events were taking place at the same time on the field, so there was plenty to see. I met some nice ladies from London sitting next to me and we enjoyed chatting about the spectacle. They were of Scottish heritage and never missed an Oban Games, they told me.
After the professional races, it was time for the audience to join in. The announcer called category after category and urged onlookers to come down for a 100 metres footrace. First, the kids’ race, then the Over 50’s men and women. Next, he announced, it was time for people from other countries. The London ladies looked at me- “Come on,” they urged, “Go for it!” Shy foreigners slowly took to the field. I hesitated. But a bottle of whisky was on offer to the winner. Oh, what the heck, I thought. So I kicked off my boots and scurried down to the track. The announcer asked our names and where we were from- we intrepid racers were representing from all over the world- South Africa, Switzerland, and several from the U.S., including a gal from Kentucky. Dixie is in the house y’all! Ready, set…the gun shot and we were off! Huff, huff, huff…I only wanted to finish without tripping over my own feet. The guy in the lead fell, I made a final push. Kentucky first, Sweden second….Mississippi fourth! The crowd went wild! I didn’t win the whisky, but Dixie still took the day and that was good enough for me.
A bit sunburned and tuckered out from my debut as a Highland athlete (I hadn’t run at flat out speed since I was, oh, ten?) I headed home, following the Oban Pipe Band through town to the tune of Scotland the Brave.