The Highlands

In World terms the British Isles are tiny, but each country within Great Britain has a distinct national identity which sets itself apart from the others. England has its Morris Dancing, the Welsh are renowned for their love of singing, particularly male voice choirs and Scotland has it's Highland Games, dancing, tartan and the Kilt which gives Scotland and particularly the Highlands a vision which is as distinctive as anywhere in the World.

Tobermory on the Island of MullHighland Games

Traditional Scottish outdoor gathering that includes tossing the caber, putting the shot, track events, hammer throwing, weight throwing, dancing, and bagpipe playing.
The most celebrated is the Braemar Gathering, held annually in Aug. Highland Games are held in Scotland from the end of May to the middle of September every year, attracting crowds from several hundred to over ten thousand at some of the larger Games.

Whether they be large or small, the ceremony surrounding the games are always spectacular. Games such as those at Tobermory on the Island of Mull in the Inner Hebrides are preceded by marching bands in full Highland Dress.

Putting the Shot is probably the oldest of the heavyweight sports, putting an iron sphere of 16 or 22lbs. Originally, a smooth stone from the river bed was used. Each different Gathering had its own such stone which might vary in weight between 13lbs and 28lbs.

Tossing the Caber is easily the most recognisable trademark of Scottish Highland games and is one of the most spectacular of the heavy events. The origins of caber tossing are unknown although it has been suggested that it was developed by foresters for throwing tree trunks into the river. It would be difficult to devise a more physically demanding method of moving felled timber and the more likely explanation is that it was a sport amongst foresters that became part of the traditional Highland Gathering events. The dimensions of a caber - or cabar in Gaelic - can vary enormously but the norm weighs about 150lbs (68kgs), is 18 feet (5.5m) long and about 9 inches (23cms) thick at one end, tapering to about 5 inches (l3cms) at the other.

Games organisers strive for consistency in the weight of their caber and because timber dries out and becomes lighter, they will often soak the caber in a convenient loch for some days before their annual games or, bore holes in it and fill them wit molten lead! Contrary to popular belief, the caber is not thrown for distance but for style.

Throwing the Weight is divided into two different events: a 28lb weight for distance or 56lbs for height.

For Distance
Said to be one of the most graceful of heavyweight events. There are two standard weights - the commonest being 28lbs (12.7kgs). The weight consists of a 28lb ball, chain and handle, the overall length of which must not exceed 18 inches (0. 45m).
In simple terms the thrower grasps the weight in one hand, spins round and throws it as far as possible. More accurately, the thrower has a distance of nine feet (2.7m) between a peg and a trig. Grasping the weight and facing the trig, he stands beside that peg and swings the weight to the side and then round behind him. He's now ready to start his throw which consists of three waltzing turns, gathering momentum on each. On the third pirouette and at exactly the right moment, he heaves the weight as far as he can. A protective cage extends around the sides and rear of the thrower to safeguard the public!
In some amateur games, throwers will use both hands to hold the weight but that is the method used for the Olympic hammer and not the Scots 28lb weight.

For Height
For this event the commonest weight is a standard commercial 56Ib (24.5kgs) box weight with a ring attached. As in the high jump, a bar is raised between two posts and each contestant has up to three attempts at each height to which the bar is raised.
Many heavyweights seem to pride themselves in the apparently nonchalant way that they approach this event: frequently the entrant will saunter up to the weight - which is lying underneath the bar - and without even a glance upwards will suddenly heave the weight up with one hand where it soars through the air and thuds back down into the ground only inches from the thrower.
The air of nonchalance is very deceptive however since the strength and skill needed are enormous.

Throwing the Hammer with an iron sphere weighting either 16 or 22lbs on a bamboo shaft. The origins of throwing the hammer have never been in doubt. Wherever hammers were used - blacksmiths, quarries or farms - a diversionary pastime would be throwing the utilitarian wooden-shafted sledgehammer. Throwers used to gain great momentum - and distance - by turning the body rapidly to build up speed before releasing the hammer. Instances were very common of throwers losing their grip on the shaft or of releasing it a little too late with the hammer flying over or, even worse into the crowds. This soon brought about a ban on that method!

Highland Dancing the very essence of Scotland with bagpipes accompanying a kilted dancer!  No event at Highland games encompasses such verve, enthusiasm and colour as Highland Dancing and what better sight and sound can there be that encapsulates the very essence of Scotland than the bagpipes accompanying a kilted dancer, swaying and pirouetting to traditional airs!
Highland Dancing is regarded as being one of the most sophisticated forms of national dancing in the world and whilst it is almost impossible for dance historians to separate fact from fiction when researching the more popular Scottish dances, the following explanations have gained great currency, probably because they are imaginative and picturesque stories.
Traditionally, dancing competitions included just four standard dances - The Sword Dance, The Seann Triubhas, The Reel of Tulloch and The Highland Fling, but in 1986 a couple of imports were added to the repertoire - The Sailor's Hornpipe and The Irish Jig.

The Sword Dance
Gille Calum or Gille Chaluim.
Said to have originated in 1054 when King Malcolm Canmore clashed in battle near Dunsinane with one of Macbeth's chiefs. Having slain his opponent, Malcolm crossed his claymore with that of his opponent to make the sign of the cross and danced in exultation over them. After this time, it is said, clansmen would cross their swords prior to battle and if they could complete the war dance without touching the swords, it signified that they would be the victors.

The Sean Triubhas
Said to reflect the highlander's desire to shake off the hated Sassenach trousers that Scots were forced to wear when the kilt was prohibited after the 1745 rebellion. The dance is performed in the then much-hated triubhas (pronounced trews) and the slow tempo shows the dancer's disgust. The quicker steps show either the dancer's attempts to shake off the offending garment, or the pleasure at the rescinding of the ban in 1782. The very great French influence on Scottish culture is shown by the embellishments such as pirouettes and the final French-style entrechat.

The Reel of Tulloch
Originated in the north east village of Tulloch one winter morning long ago when the minister was late in arriving. The assembled congregation waiting outside the church doors, stamped their feet and clapped their hands to keep warm and as someone began to whistle a Highland air, the movements developed into a lively dance.

The Highland Fling
Together with the Sword Dance, the Highland Fling is probably the most famous of Scottish dances. Thought to have originated in about 1790, legend has it that an old shepherd was giving chanter lessons to his grandson on a hillside when he saw a stag rearing and wheeling in the near distance. He asked the boy if he could imitate the stag's dance which he did, and hence the steps and the graceful curve of the arms and hands depicting the stag's antlers. The dance is performed on the same spot throughout and this is held to be because the clansmen of old danced it on their targe (leather-covered, studded shield). Another more prosaic explanation is that the dance evolved as a solo performance of the reel.

BagpipesThe Great Highland Bagpipes - competitions of solo piping and of the large Pipe Bands. The great masters of the bagpipes can make the pipes convey nearly every human emotion, as though the pipes themselves were speaking. Indeed it was at one time widely believed that the masters actually made the pipes talk, and within Iiving memory in the more remote parts of the Western Isles, this view was accepted. This centuries old belief can be traced to the fact that in the 16th & 17th centuries, the pipers took over the duties of the harpists. It was the piper's duty to compose music to commemorate every important occasion and we have music handed down to us which ranges from the mournful to the exultant. Some love the wild marches which conjure up the march of the clansmen as they stride to battle, others prefer a gay air, probably written in honour of a famous wedding. You may hate the mournful wail of a lament for a fallen chieftain but whatever your reaction to the different types of music it is most unlikely that the strains of the great Highland bagpipe will leave you indifferent."
David Webster in his book Scottish Highland Games. Visitors to Highland Gatherings will invariably see and hear two types of competition piping - solo piping and that of the large Pipe Bands.

Track Events - Running, Cycling, Jumping and Tug-o-War.

Highland Dress

Scottish Piper in Highland Dress in GlencoeThere is nothing more impressive than full Highland Dress. it is something that typifies the true spirit of Scotland. There are many different forms from daily wear to military dress and evening wear. All though, look exceedingly smart and though many Englishmen will mock a Scotsman wearing a kilt and claim it to be a skirt, if they were honest, they'd admit that there is a large amount of envy in the pride and smartness that is, Highland Dress.


The Forbes TartanWoollen cloth woven in specific chequered patterns individual to Scottish clans, with stripes of different widths and colours crisscrossing on a coloured background; it is used in making skirts, kilts, trousers, and other articles of clothing.

Developed in the 17th century, tartan was banned after the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, and not legalized again until 1782.

History of the Tartan

The ancient method of describing tartan was to refer to it as mottled, checkered, stripped, sundrie coloured, marled and so on, and it is aptly descriptive of the check like arrangement of tartan patterns. When we refer to a set of tartan we mean the pattern, and a length of tartan is made up of one set repeated over and over again until the desired length is made. For many centuries tartan formed part of the everyday garb of the Highland people and while it was also worn in other parts of Scotland it was in the Highlands that its use continued and developed until it became recognised as a symbol of Clan kinship. It is believed that the tartans used several centuries ago were simple checks of two or three colours and that these colours were obtained from the dye-producing plants, roots, berries, and trees found in the districts where the cloth was woven. These simple checks were district tartans and were worn by the people of the district where they were made. As the people inhabiting a district were generally members of the same Clan, their district tartan was, in effect, a Clan tartan.

Weavers took great pains to give exact patterns to tartan by having the number and colour of every thread upon a piece of wood. It is well known that these Maide dalbh or pattern sticks served as guides for the weavers in making their tartans - the people of each district could be identified by the pattern of their tartan. When chemical dyes came into use weavers were able to enlarge their range of colours and more elaborate patterns were introduced. As time passed branches of the larger Clans evolved tartans of their own by adding an overstripe or other variation to the basic tartan of their parent Clan.

In 1572 a housewife gave coloured wool to a weaver to make into cloth. In suing him before the magistrates she accused him of making the pattern according to his "awin fasoun" (own fashion) and not according to her instructions. She won her case and the weaver was punished; by her action she has proved that Highland housewives were not prepared to accept, without question, whatever patterns weavers provided. this is some proof against some peoples belief that tartans of any colour were worn by anyone in the Highlands.

After the battle of Culloden in 1746 the government, in an endeavour to purge the Highlands of unlawful elements, passed an act of Parliament whereby the Highlander was disarmed and the wearing of tartan made a penal offense. This act was rigorously enforced and the anxiety of the government to abolish tartan and the Highland dress suggest that they held more than sentimental meaning for the Highland people.

Clan Tartans

These are tartans for general use by clans people. It is not uncommon to find a Clan tartan of recent origin described as 'Ancient clan Tartan'. The use of the word ancient is most misleading, and is merely an indication that the tartan has been woven in lighter coloured shades.

Dress Tartans

These were originally worn by the ladies of the clan who preferred lighter coloured patterns. They had a white background and were variations of the Clan pattern.

Mourning Tartans

These were at one time worn for the purpose of which they were named. They were generally of black and white.

Hunting Tartans

These were worn for sport and outdoor activities. Brown or some other dark hue is the predominant colour.

Chiefs Tartan

This tartan was only worn by the chief and his immediate family.

tartan - old term - any checkered or striped cloth, usually woven in wool or silk. Tartan in a broad sense is a most period fabric. There are three types of specific tartans:

district - a tartan woven in a particular pattern or color, associated with a specific region. EX: Lennox.

regimental - a specific tartan associated with a military group. EX: Black Watch.

clan tartan - a specific tartan associated with a distinct family name. EX: Fergusson. People with this name, and their descendants, are specially entitled to wear this tartan, but their are no formal restrictions.

Queen Elizabeth II and her family have their own tartan (Balmoral, a district one) that can be worn only by Her permission.

plaid (rhymes with had) - modem term - a checkered or striped fabric. Today, if we are speaking of a distinct checkered cloth, we use the term tartan; if we say plaid, we are referring to any random pattern of checked fabric.

plaid (rhymes with maid) - From the Gaelic word plaide, a word which simply meant blanket or big covering. It usually referred to a large piece of wool cloth, which may or may not have been tartan, that was worn as a cloak or wrapped around the body and belted at the waist. This was a forerunner of the modern, 18th century kilt that is so familiar today.

sash - Women do not wear kilts; they wear pleated skirts of their family tartan, accompanied by a sash. This long narrow piece of cloth is worn pinned at the shoulder, draping gracefully down the back. Probably, it evolved from women wearing tartan cloaks.

sett - The specific number of threads in a tartan, and their colors.

breacan - Gaelic word for tartan.


BagpipesThe bagpipe is a musical instrument having reed pipes that are actuated by air pressure from a windbag to which the pipes are attached. The melody is played on one pipe (the chanter) or two (the double chanter) having fingerholes. Most chanters have a melodic range limited to one octave, or at most a ninth, although in some highly developed instruments, keys are used to extend the range. The other pipes- up to six- are called drones; usually rested on the shoulder, they play one sustained tone each and furnish the accompaniment.

Examples include the old French musette, Scottish and Irish pipes, smaller Northumbrian pipes, Breton biniou, Spanish gaita, and numerous variants in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The Highland bagpipes are the national instrument of Scotland.

SporranSporran  A pouch, usually covered with fur, hair etc., worn by Scottish Highlanders in front of the kilt.