Highland games competitors

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Highland Games Competitors: The Scottish Highland Games, held mainly in Scotland, the United States, New Zealand, Iceland and Canada, are a place of social, cultural, and athletic gathering. These athletes work hard in these competitions, and the gatherings draw thousands of spectators throughout the world. Many of the professional Highland athletes were originally track and field athletes.[1] They are tough and take their sport seriously. Most American professional Highland athletes live on the eastern coast, but many travel throughout the US, Canada, and Scotland to compete.[1] This article deals mainly with the athletes of the Highland Games and their individual sports, both past and present.


The competitors in highland games carry out traditions dating back to the eleventh century and perhaps even earlier. They were originally men who participated in acts showing off their manhood, using items that were found commonly in the Scottish Highlands, such as stones or logs. The Braemar Gathering claims to be the first recorded Highland Games. King Malcolm tested the athletes in a hill race in order to choose a messenger who was not only physically fit, but also quick.[2] Thus the Highland Games were born, and other events were added throughout time as tests of the athletes’ strength and speed. The first formally organized and annual gathering dates back to around 1820.[3]

Scottish Societies also sprung up around the United States in the 1820s. The first to hold Highland Games in the US held them in 1836. The members, mostly immigrants, competed in the sports to remind them of their native land and customs.[4]

Athletes and Athletics[edit]


The best stones used by stone-putters are untouched by tools. They are found naturally in the bottom of rivers, worn smooth over time by the water. Early athletes used these smooth, round stones in their competitions. The stone-putters can practice their sport practically anywhere at little or no cost, because the only things they need are stones and ground. This made the sport easily accessible throughout Scotland, and was often practiced in farmyards and villages.[2] Inferences to stone-putters can be seen throughout Scottish history, beginning with the ‘stone of strength,’ which was placed at highland chieftains’ entrances. The ‘Stone of Strength’ was the earlier version of putting the stone. Later, the ‘Manhood Stone’ was placed at the entrances to homes. A visitor who could lift this stone onto another stone about three or four feet high was assured hospitality and a good welcome.[2]

The distances thrown by stone-putters at early gatherings were much longer than the distances thrown today. It is not because they were stronger or more skilled, but the techniques and rules differed in the earliest Highland Gatherings. Depending on where an athlete competed, they would use different sizes, shapes and weights of stones. Larger athletes, as well as inexperienced stone-putters may power their throws mainly with their arm and shoulder, while connoisseurs of the sport have developed techniques involving many more muscles in their bodies. These strategies allow them to throw longer distances.[2]

Caber Tossers[edit]

Participants in the Caber toss must be strong. Dealing with bruises, splinters, possibly snapped tendons, professional caber tossers travel throughout the world to compete in the tough sport.[5] They clutch 16 to 20-foot logs weighing around 120 lbs (the caber is this roughly trimmed tree trunk [6]) and toss them end-over-end. The man who can toss the caber in a straightest line—that is, the closest to 12 o’clock—is the winner.[7] This is known as “pulling a nooner[8]”. The longer the caber, the more difficult to flip it over There is an old saying that says “the desire for strength is greatest where manliness is strongest.” This is suggested as part of the original motivation for caber tossing.[2] In fact, the highland sports are tests of strength, and originally, manliness.

Hammer Throwers[edit]

When preparing for a throw, Hammer Throwers use Venice Turpentine in order to maintain a firm grasp on the handle of the hammer. Venice Turpentine was one of the ingredients used to make sealing wax in medieval times.[9] It is a sticky, pale green liquid that comes from Larches.[10] Hammer Throwers must be not only strong, but must have a good sense of timing and speed.[2] Depending on their preference and technique, competitors are more successful with either more or less flexible shafts on the hammer. Also, early in the history of the sport, different athletes attained longer distances by using a turning style. This was banned soon after its introduction because it was considered to be cheating by officiators in Scotland.[2] Hammer throwers were banned from practicing their sport in the early 1300s[11] by King Edward II.[2] However, this rule was soon avoided and forgotten as athletes began practicing it again. It became popular throughout the Highlands as a test of an athlete’s strength and skill.[2]

Weight Throwers[edit]

Weight throwers are also famous for their strength, speed and overall athletic ability. The timing is also of great importance, because only a burst of energy at the right moment can produce an effectively lengthy throw.[2] The weights are thrown with one hand only, and are either 28 or 56 pounds at U.S. games.[1] They use Venice Turpentine or resin to attain a tight grip on the weight, but actual strength of their grip is most important. Often these athletes prepare by lifting weights.[2] Originally, there was no grip or chain on the weights, which was problematic and uncomfortable for the athletes. Also, they were not allowed to move their feet when preparing to swing. In the later 1800s a half-turn as well as a chain attached to the weight was added to the sport. Even later an entire turn was allowed, and then a small run was allowed. Because of this, the early throwers did not attain distances which would be competitive today. Today athletes in this sport can be found mainly in Scotland, America, and Canada.

Hill Racers[edit]

Hill racing competitions began in Scotland under the rule of King Malcolm Cean-Mor. His original desire was to find the most able-bodied men to be his messengers.[12] The runners raced to the Craig Choinneach in the eleventh century.[3] This was the beginning of the Braemar Gathering. Today runners can still compete in Hill races at the Braemar Gathering, and participate in one of its highlighted events.[13]

Sheaf Tossers[edit]

Sheaf tossers toss a straw-filled sack[14] over a crossbar, using a three-pronged pitchfork to hoist it over the bar.[15] These sheaves are 16 pounds, and it is quite difficult for athletes to hurl them straight up and over the crossbar. It takes strength and good technique, although athletes are not restricted to tossing the sheaf with any one method. Not only do athletes work out by lifting weights, but they also use special equipment to learn how to do the sheaf toss.[1] The sheaf toss, while highly popular among spectators, is often not included in Canada, unlike the United States. In Scotland, it is often not included as a heavy event. In fact, in Scotland it is known as a farming sport. Because of this, there are athletes around the world who would like to see the sheaf toss taken out of Highland Games heavy event programs.[16]

Children in the Highland Games[edit]

Often, children are allowed to compete in smaller, less competitive games at Highland Gatherings. These are not watched by spectators, but mostly for the entertainment of the children.

Women in the Highland Games[edit]

Though originally a sport exclusively for men, women have started playing a greater role in Highland Games competitions. In Scotland, the ratio is now closer to 60-40, more men than women, but women are quickly gaining ground.[17]

Famous Highland Athletes[edit]

Donald Dinnie[edit]

Donald Dinnie was born at Balnacraig, Aberdeenshire on July 8, 1837. It is agreed by most that Dinnie was the best Scottish athlete of all time.[2] During his lifetime, he won more than 11,000 contests[2] and dominated the Highland Games. He was added to the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.[18] There are many incredible stories about Dinnie’s feats of strength. One of these is that he carried two massive boulders, collectively weighing over 785 lbs, across the Bridge of Porarch. He made large amounts of money traveling to the United States and competing in Highland Games. He also competed in Australia.

Conall Gulban[edit]

A great hero and warrior in Western Highland tales, he went on an adventure where he defeated several skilled opponents from another kingdom in feats of strength. Some of these included stone putting and hurling the hammer.[3]


The traditional outfit of a Scottish Highland Game Athlete is much the same as the traditional highlander clothing. This includes the kilt, which dates back over 600 years.[19] They also wear a sporran. Sporran is the Scottish Gaelic word for purse, and is worn around the waist with a chain or a belt.[20] This was originally worn as a sign of a man's manhood. It is a leather pouch nowadays covered with animal fur, but originally it was made from animal hide such as rabbit (interview). Competitors in both the caber toss and the weight toss are required to wear the kilt.[21] They generally wear a t-shirt with the kilt when competing.


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