Welcome back, and thanks for continuing with us as we explore strength sports throughout history! Previously, we discussed wrestling in its numerous incarnations, from ancient Greece and Mesopotamia through today's popular MMA competitions and the modern Olympics. We touched on one element of athletic competitions in discussing Turkish Oil Wrestling – the importance of traditional sports celebrated in a particular time and/or place each year. The cultural significance of such events is enormous. Athletic competitions can mark important historic events, honor heroic figures, and keep elements of a culture alive across generations and through adversity.
One iconic example that fits each of these purposes is the Scottish Highland Games. You've likely at least glimpsed a picture or video of these festive competitions, where kilt-clad athletes engage in contests of strength, speed, and endurance. Highland Games are generally celebrated between May and September, and have developed into a combination of sport, music, history, and cultural identity.
A good deal of lore surrounds the conception of the Highland Games. One of the oldest tales concerns an uphill foot race to the top of Creag Choinnich, a steep and rocky hill overlooking Braemar. The race was purportedly declared by the 11th century King
Malcolm III in order to find the fastest man, who would serve as his royal messenger.
In June 1314, the Scots, under Robert the Bruce, defeated Edward II's army near Stirling.
While the First War of Scottish Independence would wage for more than a decade and was ultimately unsuccessful, the victory at Bannockburn was celebrated and the village was awarded a charter under Bruce to hold a market, and it was there that the longest running free games in Scotland began.
The early games included horse races, several variations of foot races (including sack races and hurdles), music, and dancing (a male-only pursuit until the late 1800s!) The “heavy events” included the Caber toss, shotput/stoneput, and the hammer throw. Documents from 1332 describe implements that were used in the competitions, which will sound familiar next week when we look at the modern games: “A heavy rock was fetched from the bed of a mountain stream, and the hammer was a huge club with an iron head."
The tumultuous political relationship between the Scots and the British crown would once again play a major role in the games, though in this case it would have a negative impact. In response to the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the British Parliament imposed the Act of Proscription in 1746, which disarmed and disrupted the Scots, particularly those of the Highland Clans. The Dress Act forbade the wearing of traditional Highland garb including the kilt, except within a military context. Penalties for violations included anything from a six month term of imprisonment to a seven year term of forced labor in one of the Colonies.
With such oppressive laws in place, the Games could not take place. However, neither the Games nor the Highland identity would be suppressed forever. In fact, the popularity of the Games and the adoption of the Highland style would come about in a rather ironic way.
After the Act was repealed, the Highland Games events began to reappear, gradually building steam. Enthusiasm for the Highland garments grew as well, with different societies and interest groups The widely unpopular King George IV was convinced by Sir Walter Scott to make an appearance in Edinburgh in 1822 clad in Scottish attire. His custom-ordered bright red regalia cost an equivalent of £100,000 in today's currency (around $125,500 USD) and was met with equal pomp and pageantry. Scott also drummed up popular enthusiasm and interest in the Highland garb, which rapidly morphed from “what had been thought of as the primitive dress of mountain thieves became the national dress of the whole of Scotland” per the Scottish Tartans Authority. Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837 and was a great enthusiast of Scottish culture, and in 1838 began the tradition of British royalty attending the games at Braemar each year.
From rebellious post-combat celebration to festivities attended by the Royal Family, the Highland Games have represented many of the ways that competitive strength sports play a part in history and culture. Next week, we'll delve into the more recent history of the games, and will look at how the Highland Games have spread beyond Scotland. Thanks for reading, and please join us again next Friday!