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Highland Games | Celtic Cultural Minute

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Celtic Cultural Alliance

Highland Games are a colorful, unique mix of sports, culture, and community. A celebration not only of all things Celtic, but especially of Scottish Highlands heritage and history.

Highland Games are a mix of field and track events, piping, and Highland dance competitions, as well as “heavy events” like the tug-o-war, the hammer throw, and the caber toss. Some say that the Games date back to 2000 BC in Ireland, before they crossed the water to Scotland with the fourth and fifth century migrations of the Scotti into Argyll and beyond.

The Braemar Gathering, still held every September in Scotland, is the biggest and most prestigious Highland Games event and enjoys the annual attendance of the Royal Family. Its origins are royal as well. The contests of strength at Braemar– jumping, running, throwing, and riding – were introduced by King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland in 1040 as a means of selecting the most able men for his soldiers and couriers.

The popular Games grew and grew but suffered a mortal blow with the Act of Proscription in 1746 following the Battle of Culloden and the crushing of the Jacobite Rebellion. This act outlawed all Scottish dress, customs, and gatherings, and was in force for nearly 40 years. After its repeal the Games revived, and the fortunes of such Scottish customs got a tremendous boost with the visit to Scotland in 1822 of George IV. His visit is commemorated to this day in two of Edinburgh most famous landmarks – George Street and George IV Bridge.

So, what are some of these ancient games of skill and strength? There’s the caber toss, wherein a long, tapered pine pole is balanced and then tossed, turning end over end, larger end hitting the ground first in as perfect a 12 o’clock position as possible. There’s the stone put - not unlike the shot put in the Olympics, except that it’s a large stone up to 26 pounds! There is the one-handed weight-for-distance throw, featuring a metal weight up to 56 pounds on a chain – longest throw wins. Or the sheaf toss, with a 20-pound straw bundle tossed over a high raised bar with a pitchfork.

Highland Games, of course, are as much about culture as they are about sports. Dancing, piping, fiddling, and playing the Gaelic harp are part of the Games, but with a competitive element. Clan chieftains use to pit their pipers against those of other clans, and enormous prestige came with victory, and that hasn’t been forgotten. And no Games are complete without the unforgettable massing of the pipe bands to open and close the event.

The first U.S. Highland Games took place in 1836 in New York, and Games now take place throughout the country. Founded in 1988, the Celtic Classic festival that’s held every September right here in Bethlehem has blossomed into one of the largest Highland Games and Festivals in North America. The event has the distinction of hosting the official U.S. National Highland Athletic Championships. Professional highland athletes compete all season to make it to the Celtic Classic. Only the top 10 point-earners secure a coveted spot at the Celtic Classic, our own little bit of the Scottish Highlands right here in the Valley.

With special thanks to Scotland.org, this is Kate Scuffle for Celtic Cultural Alliance. Slainte.

An actress, producer, writer and educator, Kate is the Managing Director of Selkie Theatre, and was the founding Executive Director of the award-winning Theatre Outlet. At The Outlet she produced several innovative performance series featuring new drama, music, dance and spoken word, as well as the Outlet’s Educational Outreach programs.
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