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How are the Highland Games Celebrated Today?

Welcome back to the Viking Strength Sports blog! Thanks for bearing with us, and apologies for the missed post last week. If you've been following along, you'll know that we have been looking at the historic presence and significance of strength sports around the world, as well as the modern iterations of those sports. Most recently we touched on the cultural significance and long history of Scotland's Highland Games. Today, let's take a look at how the Highland Games are celebrated now.

This year is turning out to be an odd one for most sporting events and social gatherings, as the world learns to navigate around the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the Highland Games as celebrated across Scotland are no exception, and the majority of Games through the end of July 2020 have been cancelled or postponed. Under normal circumstances, over 60 separate Games are held in Scotland between May and September. Highland Games can also be found in Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, and even Brazil! Events in the modern Highland Games tend to very closely resemble those undertaken for centuries. Competitive dancing, music, and track and field events are staples. Some of the most common and recognizable events are those that put contestants' strength to the test, known as “Heavy Events.”

Tug-o-War is a hugely popular event, and is pretty much exactly what it sounds like! Two teams of eight athletes each face off, each with one coach to give commands. Per the website of the Spokane Highland Games Association: “The official length of the pull is 12 feet, measured by two marks on the rope each six feet from the center. When either mark passes the marker flag at the original center of the rope, the other team has won the pull. The teams change ends. Best of three pulls is the winner.”The Shot Put (or Stone Put) event may also look familiar to track and field aficionados. The aim is to throw the stone (generally between 20-26 pounds) the furthest distance. Depending on a given competition's rules, this may be from a standstill or may be preceded by a brief run to a fixed toeboard from where the stone is then thrown.

The Hammer Throw also tests the distance which a competitor can throw. The hammer, weighing approximately 16 pounds for female competitors or 22 pounds for male competitors, is spun above the head of the athlete to gain momentum, then tossed.

Weight for Height (or Weight Over the Bar) tests how high an athlete can toss a 56 pound (25.4 kg) weight (for males) or 28 pound (12.7 kg) weight (for females) over a bar overhead which is moved higher with each successful throw. The iron weight is either spherical or cubical in shape and has a handle affixed to the top which may be triangular, ring-shaped, or D-shaped. Oh, and did we mention you can only use one arm?

A second event which measures weight for height is Tossing the Sheaf. In this variation, the athletes use a pitchfork to hurl a bag (made of burlap or fabric) over the bar. For male competitors, the bag is stuffed with 20 pounds (9.09 kg) of straw, mulch, or similar material; for female competitors, the bag weighs 12 pounds (5.45 kg).

The Caber Toss is perhaps the most iconic heavy event of the Highland Games.

The athlete begins by lifting the upright caber (which looks a bit like an enormous, rough-hewn baseball bat) from the ground in an upright position. The caber is made of a pine log around 150 pounds (~68.2 kg) and of approximately 20 feet in length (~6 meters). Once hoisted from the ground, the athlete must cup the smaller diameter end in his or her hands, then begins to run forward. The toss is executed as the larger diameter end tilts forward. Using the momentum of the run, the athlete pulls upward on the small end and flips the caber end over end. The event is judged from a position directly behind the athlete, based on a clock configuration. At the completion of the toss, the caber should land as close as possible to the 12 o'clock position (which is determined to be the original direction of the run). An ideal toss finishes with the athlete at the 6 o'clock position with the narrower end of the caber directly in line with the 12 o'clock position.

Highland Games are a lot of fun to witness as a spectator. The worldwide health crisis presented by COVID-19 has also required cancellation of the 44th Annual Savannah Scottish Games and the 48th Annual Stone Mountain Highland Games, with the hope of resuming festivities safely in 2021. With a whole year to plan, this is a great opportunity to read, research, and maybe even train for the next Games! Thank you for joining us again and we'll see you next week!

*****If you read our last post on the history of the games, you'll recall that the Ceres Highland Games are the longest running free Games in Scotland, dating back to 1314 AD. The games were scheduled for this weekend, but unfortunately had to be cancelled for 2020 due to the public health concerns presented by COVID. The Ceres Games committee President, Richard Cleary, is leading the “1314 Challenge” by running 131.4 miles to raise funds to support the Games through this disruption. The committee has also challenged interested persons to create their own fundraisers around the number 1314 to help. If you are interested please visit to donate or to launch your own 1314 Challenge!


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