What are the Highland Games?

For centuries, Scots have been testing their physical strength at unique gatherings. These games, called the Highland Games, consist of seven events. The official origin of the games dates back to Malcolm Canmore’s reign, whose objective was to train his army with various tests of strength and power.

From the 16th century, the games became a festive occasion. Although, for kings and chiefs, they remained a selection method for their future escort. Over the decades, the rules evolved to normalize the heavy events, now performed by men and women.

In the pre-industrial era, the manufacturing of equipment and materials for the events was done by the Highland communities themselves, using accessible materials. Weighing weights—commonly used to measure grain and other crops—blacksmith (or carriers) weights, quarry stones, and logs were all used.

The traditional events

Stone Toss

The Braemar Stone Toss is named after an old festival held in Braemar, Scotland, during which participants tried to lift a stone weighing between 22 and 28 pounds.

This test, based as much on force as on technique, requires the lifting of the stone from a vertical position to launch from the station. Without swing or rotation, the athlete must keep both feet stationary while the stone is released. He must not pass the board on the ground, which marks the front and back of the station, nor throw or touch the ground with any part of his body other than his feet.

Open Stone

Clachneart (stone throwing) is one of the oldest events of strength in the world. The challenge was simple: determine who can throw a good-sized stone, found in a creek, the farthest.

The open stone toss was created based on the Clachneart, while allowing the swing or pivot, the weight of the stone generally measuring between 16 and 18 pounds. The athlete must then, at all times, keep at least one foot within the limits of the throwing surface, measuring 4’6” wide by 7’6” deep. The beam, which determines the throwing surface on the ground, must in no case be exceeded.

Heavy Weight

In Scotland, the traditional measure is the stone, equivalent to 14 pounds. Historically, weights of 2 stones (28 pounds) and 4 stones (56 pounds) were commonly used to balance cereal scales. These weights were thrown by the locals, who gathered around the grain market to determine the strongest man in the village.

During the Heavy Weight Toss, the athlete must keep at least one foot inside the limits of the throwing surface, measuring 4’6” wide by 9” deep. The beams, which serve as the front and rear demarcation lines, must in no case be exceeded when throwing.

The traditional events

Light Weight Toss

Derived from the same origins as the Heavy Weight Toss, the 2 stone (28 pounds) Light Weight, once used to weigh grains, reinvented itself in the modern track and field event. This event is composed of 35 pounds weights. The athlete must constantly keep at least one foot within the limits of the throwing surface, measuring 4’6” wide by 9” deep, and respect the beam limit on the floor when throwing.

Heavy Hammer

Developed hundreds of years ago, the carrier’s solid stone hammer throw is now recognized as a Highland Games’ heavy event. Bigger than the blacksmith’s, this heavy 22-pound hammer is thrown by the athlete during the Heavy Hammer Throw.

While keeping his feet stationary, the athlete is supported by metal spurs, mounted on the back of his boots, and pushed into the ground. While standing behind the throwing beam, he must avoid falling, touching the ground and keep both feet firmly planted until the hammer is released from his hands.

Caber Toss

Known as “tree” in Gaelic, the caber is an integral part of the Caber Toss, the Highland Games’ ultimate test of strength and skill. It supposedly takes its origins from the lumberjacks, who threw small tree trunks over the rivers in order to cross them. Meanwhile, warriors also used 20-foot tree trunks as ladders to attack castles by pushing them against the walls.

Nowadays, the Caber Toss is the only event that measures neither height nor distance. Instead, points are assigned subjectively by judges. Thus, a perfect score is obtained when an athlete returns a trunk by throwing it so that it lands straight in line with its direction. The score, assigned according to a clock dial, would then be 12, so that if the caber turns around without landing straight in front of the athlete, scores between 9 and 3 are awarded, depending on the position in the dial. If the trunk does not roll over, the linesman assigns a score in degrees, up to 90°. The subjective nature and uniqueness of the cabers event make it extremely complex.

The traditional events

Sheaf Toss

The Sheaf Toss originates from throwing straw into the barn attic, a once customary task. This event, traditionally competed at agricultural fairs, has made its way to the Highland Games over the past 100 years, becoming one of the fans’ favorites.

Using a three-pronged fork, athletes try to throw a jute bag filled with straw or rope over a crossbar. Each athlete is given three tries for each increased height until there is a winner. If two or more athletes are tied, failures are considered.

Weight Over Bar

Weight Over Bar is a raw and explosive force event, commonly known as weight for height. Stemming from a tradition similar to the distance weight throw, this event is frequently seen at strong men’s competitions.

The simplicity of its rules — that is, keeping a vertical position under a crossbar and throwing a 56-pound above it, only using one hand — makes it a must-see of the Highland Games. The authorization of the swing or pivot is at the discretion of the judges. In addition, each athlete is given three tries for each increased height until there is a winner. If two or more athletes are tied, failures are considered.