Can't Get to Europe This Summer? A Scottish Highland Games is a Close Second
Experience the British Isles without the pricey airfare. There are many great Scottish festivals in North America where you can watch ancient athletic games (caber toss!), enjoy excellent food, beer and whisky all while listening to traditional bagpipers or modern Celtic music.
Whether you’re celebrating your heritage, wanting to relive a Scotland vacation or you just want to see men in kilts throw telephone poles into the air, there are plenty of fabulous Scottish festivals and Highland Games outside of Scotland. Here are 13+ things you can expect to see and do at some of the premiere festivals and games.
1. Heavy Athletics
These are not your run-of-the-mill sporting events, this is where ancient history and sports collide. Many of the Highland Game competitions (aka - heavy athletics or heavies) originated centuries ago in Scotland.
The caber toss is probably the most popular of the games. A caber is a pine pole ranging in size from 16- to 20-feet long, weighing about 100 pounds. The athlete must balance the caber straight up in both hands then flip it end-over-end into the air so that it lands with the end they were holding furthest away from them. The straighter that the caber lands in front of them, the higher their score. So, if it lands at “12 o’clock” from where they stand, they had a successful toss.
Another popular game is the sheaf toss. Born on the farm, this ancient game has the athlete use a pitchfork to toss a 10- to 20-pound bale of hay wrapped in a burlap sheaf into the air and over a horizontal bar, like a pole-vaulting bar. The bar is raised incrementally in each round of competition, often more than 30 feet in the air. The weight of sheaf depends on gender and the weight-class of the athlete.
The hammer throw is similar to what is played in modern track and field games. The hammer is a four-foot long stick that is attached to a metal ball that weighs anywhere from 12 to 22 pounds. The athlete stands in a fixed position and whirls the hammer over their head then throws it as far as possible.
Weight throw events are often part of the games. It’s usually a kettle ball or block weight on a chain tossed for either distance or for height. For women, the weight is 14 to 28 pounds and for men 28 to 56 pounds. The stone throw is another popular game that is very similar to modern-day shot put.
Tug-a-war competitions are also commonplace at Highland games, sometimes pitting clan against clan or the local fire department takes on the police department.
More unusual games can be found at some festivals as well. The Scottish Fest in Costa Mesa, California has a strength and endurance game called the Farmer's Walk where the competitors have to carry a 150-pound rock as far as they can. Other versions of the game will have the players carrying free weights are far as they can. If you're going to the Chicago Scottish Festival, check out the haggis-throwing competition for women only. Competitors have to throw a one-pound frozen haggis while balancing on half of a whisky barrel.
A marching bagpipe band is impressive to hear as well as see, and yet a single piper can be just as emotional and moving. Highland Games often include musical competitions for bagpipe bands, individual pipers and drummers, all ranging in skill level. Some festivals, like the Stone Mountain Highland Games in Atlanta, has a harp competition as well.
Modern Celtic music (often called kilt-rock or bagpipe rock) is a mix of rock, punk, folk and often a few tribal drums. These bands put out a unique sound that is full of energy that gets the crowd moving. You'll feel as if you’re at a traditional cèilidh, which is a gathering that involves dancing to live Gaelic music (sort of a Scottish or Irish rave). If you see these bands headlining the festival, make sure to check them out: Albannach, Red Hot Chili Pipers, Black Market Haggis, The Tartan Terrors, Screaming Orphans, Enter the Haggis.
A Scottish fest is an opportunity to try traditional Scottish fare like haggis, Scotch eggs, meat pies (sometimes called a bridie), bangers and mash (sausage and potatoes), and fish and chips. When dining on Scottish cuisine, skip the ketchup and tartar sauce instead top off your meats and taters with HP Sauce and malt vinegar. And remember to get some Scottish shortbread or whisky fudge for dessert.
4. Whisky Tasting
The Scottish spell it whisky and the Americans and Irish spell it whiskey. There are a few theories as to why the difference, some say it's the type of grain used in the distilling process, or the number of times it is distilled or it could have been the translation from Gaelic. Whatever the reason, a big part of experiencing a Scottish festival is attending a whisky tasting. They’ll be an additional cost above your admission ticket to imbibe in the heavy stuff. The New Hampshire Highland Games also offers a cocktail mixology class as well as beer tastings and pairings. The Smoky Mountain Scottish Festival and Games in East Tennessee offers a scotch tasting seminar instead of the traditional whisky tasting.
Highland Games competitors often include cute and furry border collies. These working pups were used for centuries along the border of England and Scotland to keep livestock from wandering off — that probably explains the name. Although sheepherding is somewhat universal, it is often a part of many Scottish festivals because it is a big part of their history. Today’s competition will have the handler instructing the dog to round up sheep, geese or ducks into a pen or separate a group of sheep into two whilst making sure neither group runs off. It's fun to watch, especially for the kiddos.
There will no doubt be a beer tent (aka — pop-up pub) at whichever Scottish festival you attend. Hopefully, they’ll have it situated near one of the performance stages so you can enjoy a show with your pint. Even if your favorite local brew is on tap, try a traditional Scottish beer like Belhaven, Caledonia, Orkney, Tennent’s or Innis & Gunn.
The athletes tossing the cabers are mighty strong but don’t dismiss the physical strength and agility of the Highland dancers. Like ballet dancers, these dancers spend most of their time on the balls of their feet — in shoes called “ghillies” — so their moves require stamina as they’re being judged on precision timing. They dance to traditional Scottish bagpipes; the dances are made up of different parts called steps and there are usually four or six steps per dance. There are three basic dances, the Sword Dance, the Highland Fling and the Seann Ttrubhas. The competitions are divided up into age and skill level. Many of the kids travel far to be in these competitions, so cheer them on, they worked hard to get there.
8. Car Shows
Antique British cars are often a staple at Scottish festivals. Basically, if James Bond drove it, it’ll likely be there — Aston Martin, Austin-Healey, MG, Triumph, Lotus, and of course Jaguar (make sure to pronounce it Jag-you-are).
A lot of the festivals are held at destinations that you’d want to visit even if there wasn't a festival. Outside of Los Angeles, the Highland Games are in Long Beach on the grounds of the Queen Mary and some of the events are on the ship. The Long Island Scottish Festival takes place at Old Westbury Gardens, a Gatsby-esque estate due east of Manhattan. In Atlanta, the Stone Mountain Scottish Festival naturally takes place at Stone Mountain Park.
10. Kids Activities
There is plenty for kids to do at every Scottish fest. The Glengarry Highland Games in Ontario holds legit Junior Heavyweight Events for three different age groups — sheaf toss, discus throw, hammer throw and tug-a-war. If your little one is not ready for the real deal, they’ll likely have a wee caber toss (cardboard tube), archery (suction cups), armor decorating (painting cardboard shields). You’ll also find typical festival-friendly kid activities like face painting, petting zoo, puppet shows and crafts.
Interested in researching your Scottish heritage? Ancestry specialists and clan chairmen will have information about the history of their clan, where in Scotland they resided as well as where in North America they emigrated to. Even if you don’t see your surname on the list of clans, your ancestors may still have been part of the clan, they did have off-shoots with different surnames. Each clan has their own distinct tartan, so you may find you have a new plaid in your DNA.
12. Historical Reenactments
MATHEW MARTINEZ @2mb_imagery
Many Scottish fests will have a renaissance fair vibe because you'll see folks in medieval costumes doing craftsman demonstrations or performing ancient battle reenactments. For instances, if you go to the Colorado Scottish Games in Edgewater, you’ll see an entire living history village with the villagers demonstrating everything from lacemaking to sword fighting. Just up the road at the Estes Park Scottish Festival, you can watch jousting competitions. The Historic Highlanders, a nonprofit educational organization come together at the Glasgow Lands Highland Games in Massachusetts to reenact what life was like 300 years ago in the Scottish Highlands.
Other Things You May Experience
Many festivals have sponsored foot races, runs or kid runs (kilts optional). Try your hand at ax throwing, see a falconry demonstration, watch some of the clan competitions like a bonny knees contest (men with the prettiest knees). If you’ve got a strong stomach, the Chicago Scottish Festival holds a haggis-eating contest — no hands allowed, contestants just have to put their face right in it. All festivals will have a marketplace where you can pick up all sorts of Scottish wares from apparel, jewelry, Caledonian delicacies and lots of family crests and tartans.