A Beginners Guide to Highland Games – Part I

What is it?

Highland Games v Celtic/Irish Festivals

A Highland Games is a competitive event that also has entertainment with a more Scottish focus.  An Irish or Celtic Festival is more like a traditional music festival often with multiple stages of entertainment and generally has a more Irish focus.  Both events have food and merchandise vendors.  Now, many events are a mix between the two.

What’s happening?

Although every Games is different, expect to see several of the items below at a highland games.  When you arrive, it is a good idea to pick up a program.  The program will have a schedule of events, site map, information on events and entertainers.  Some games have created apps with all the “goings on” available at your fingertips.  If you can, visit their website before you go and plan out your day.  A lot of events will be running at the same time, so you may need to pick and choose what you can see.  Don’t forget the make time to visit the vendors and note the lines for food can get very long at meal times.

Clans – Scotland was built on the clan system.  Each village was ruled by a clan chief that the people swore allegiance to.   Each clan developed their own tartan (plaid fabric) which was originally woven for the men to camouflage themselves but as they all wore the same pattern, it later became an identifier for the men sworn to the same clan chief.

At a festival, there can be dozens of major clans (Donnachaidh, MacDonald, Gordon, Campbell, etc) set up in tents around the festival.  There are thousands of names that come from Scotland and many names will have a tartan associated, but most will be a sept of a larger clan.  For example, my last name is Reid which falls under the Donnachaidh clan, tartans for my name include Robertson, Duncan, and now there is also a Reid tartan.  If you have any Scottish or Irish background, most clan tents would be able to help you figure out what clan you are associated with.  Come armed with as many last names as you can to help the search (mom and grandma’s maiden names, etc).   The clan tents are welcoming and love it when people walk around and talk with them.  There are often activities the clans can participate in like the Parade of Tartans (be sure to wear your clan tartan or you may be able to borrow a piece if you are new.)  Sometimes there are races or tug of war where you can vie to be the top clan.  Most clans will also have a nice potluck lunch to share amongst themselves, so it pays to get involved and skip the food lines!  Once you find your clan you will be surprised by how you have found a new instant family that will support you and make you feel welcome.

Entertainment – There are usually one or more bands brought in to entertain at a festival.  Sometimes the venue can be tricky to find so look in your program for the site map or ask at the information booth.  Music can be very traditional to Celtic Rock and many festivals have something for everyone.

Vendors – Scottish and Irish merchandise can be found at most festivals from full kilt outfits to small gifts, you will be able to find what you need to celebrate your heritage.  Some vendors have a good selection of Clan Crests, so once you have discovered your clan, you can take a little piece home with you.

Heavy Athletics – This is what most people refer to as “highland games.”  The heavy athletics are comprised of Caber Toss, Hammer Throw, Weight for Distance, Weight for Height, Stone Throw and Tossing the Sheaf.  Historically, the heavy events were used by the king to select the finest athletes to be his personal guard and entourage. The games were also a way for the clans to demonstrate their relative strength to each other without actually having to go to war. Some of the implements used in the games were created as alternatives to traditional weapons when England forbid any Scotsman from bearing arms.  The caber toss (turning the telephone pole end over end) is one of the most popular events and has come to symbolize the Highland games.

Pipes and Drums – At any highland games, you are sure  to see traditional bagpipes and drums.  Some games will have individual and band competitions and others will just have demonstrations.   Competitions are on different grade levels with the top Pipe Bands at Grade I and top individuals competing at Open/Professional level.

Highland Dancing – Scottish Highland Dancing competitions are frequently held at Highland Games.  Dancers can compete starting at age 4 in the Primary category and move up through various levels in to the Premier/Professional level.  Highland Dancing is very athletic, and the program will usually have a write up of the story associated with each dance.  Dancing is done to bagpipe music and all traditional competition is individual.

Sheep Dogs – A crowd favorite is the sheep dog demonstrations.  Highly trained dogs corral sheep, ducks and even children sometimes.  An amazing show of skill and teamwork.

Running events – A lot of games have one or more running race attached to them from sprints to marathons, quite often with the participants required to wear kilts.  Check the games website to see what is available and when to sign up.

Children’s activities – From bouncy castles to coloring, games often cater to the younger lads and lasses.  Games are a family-oriented event and bringing the little ones is encouraged.

Ceilidhs & Concerts – Look in advance if there are additional evening events for a Games.  Ceilidhs (kay-lees – Scottish for “Party”) are fun events with music, food and dancing.  Concerts would be events oriented just around music – usually the same bands you can hear during the games.  These evening events are frequently an additional charge, look it up so you are not surprised.

Additional Activities – More could be available such as the calling of the clans, kirking of the tartans, celebrity appearances, scotch tastings, cultural talks, lessons, weapons demonstrations and more.   Don’t wait to do something you really want to do, some things pack up early.

Opening & Closing ceremonies – Each games will have their own take on an opening and closing ceremony.  Most will include various National Anthems (Canadian, USA, Scotland and/or Ireland are most likely).  Massed bands are a sight to behold and not to be missed.  This is when all the bands present during the weekend all march onto the field and play the same tunes.  Massed bands is also when the band competition results are announced.  You may also see color guards, Scottish associated actors and more.  Grandfather Mountain Highland Games has a unique closing to their games when all the people and entertainers invade the infield to perform some tunes.  Musicians lead the audience in and then everyone makes a circle.  After a few closing words, everyone participates in Auld Lang Syne and then the musicians lead everyone out.

Stay tuned for part 2 of “A Beginner’s Guide to Highland Games” where we discuss what to wear and what to bring.