The Highland Games have survived, indeed thrived, for centuries on local and clan support that has coursed through generations, says Ettie Neil Gallacher

Since the beginning of Highland Games in the 11th century, these epic contests have achieved iconic status, yet they remain the beating heart of communities near and far, says Ettie Neil Gallacher.

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The northern boundary of the Roman Empire stretched from Tyneside to the Solway Firth. This year marks one of celebration for Hadrian’s Wall, writes Martyn Baguley.


In 1864, the American Civil War was being waged, the Clifton Suspension Bridge was opened, and John Wisden published the first edition of the Cricketers’ Almanack. It was also the year that one Robert Kellas won the adult sack race at the very first Ballater Highland Games. He took part in the piping competition and in the heavy events, including putting the stone and throwing the hammer, as well. Today, 158 years later, his great-great-grandson, Scott Fraser, is vice-chairman of the same Highland Games; in his youth, he too competed in heavy events and was involved in the pipe band as a drummer.

This snapshot of familial consistency is, of course, pleasing from a cultural perspective, but it also tells us something significant about the Highland Games in general; these events have survived – indeed thrived – in many cases for centuries, on local and clan support and involvement that has coursed through generations of the same families.

In fact, the history of the Highland Games stretches back for almost a millennium. The earliest details weren’t documented, and many have got lost “in the distant mists of time”, according to Iain Watt, chairman of the Royal Scottish Highland Games Association (RSHGA). But the story goes that, around 1040, King Malcolm III of Scotland called all the clans together to find the fastest runner, the strongest warrior, the finest piper. This became a regular event, though the earliest Games still held are the Ceres Highland Games, which claim an ancestry back to 1314. After the Battle of Bannockburn, where the Scots trounced the English, Robert the Bruce granted the village of Ceres permission to hold a market on the green, in commemoration of the villagers’ support, by way of thanks. Ceres has held a market and Games every year since.


Most Highland Games aren’t so old, and either started or saw a resurgence during the 19th century, and have since carved themselves into the cultural landscape of Scotland and further afield. Among the most traditional examples of Highland Games is Ballater itself, which is one of the so-called ‘Kindred Gatherings’, a loose affiliation of four Highland Games, with the others being Braemar (which HM The Queen and the Royal Family attend), Lonach and Aboyne. The organisation behind the Braemar gathering dates from 1815 (“the same year as the Battle of Waterloo”, observes Watt); it’s the oldest friendly society left in the UK and claims ancestry back to King Malcolm Canmore, 900 years ago. “We help each other out,” explains Fraser, “by working together for mutual benefit, by sharing equipment and expertise. What we do is broadly similar and as traditional as possible, focusing on expanding cultures and traditions.”

The Kindred Gatherings form a group within a group within a group: these games on Royal Deeside are part of the Grampian Games Association, and all come under the auspices of the RSHGA. With the aim of promoting Highland Games, the RSHGA is the sport’s governing body and represents its interests in Scotland, as well as having several overseas affiliate members. With so many people in these countries claiming Scotch heritage, attendees and participants from abroad are common, with the better athletes getting a placing, and eligible to win prize money.

Indeed, there’s a very egalitarian aspect to the Highland Games. At some events, participants can simply step up out of the crowd, and anyone can apply for some of the tougher challenges by contacting the local Games secretary, who will help them liaise with judges to ensure they have sufficient experience to compete safely. Watt points out that the Games have long been open to women; one of the few points of inflexibility regards doping: “clean sport is a big thing for us; we organise a number of anti-doping tests each year with UKAD and we’re rolling out an education programme to maintain high standards”.

Events include heavy and light field competitions, Tug O’War, piping and Highland dancing [left]. Some Games have their own idiosyncratic events; Ballater has Tilt the Bucket, held for over 100 years. It involves someone sitting in a wheelbarrow with a long staff; someone else pushes them at speed towards a board with a hole in it. If they miss driving the staff into the hole, and hit the frame, a bucket of ice-cold water falls on them. “You get drookit,” summarises Fraser.


Traditions are, of course, born of history and heritage. And a key aspect of the Games is their relationship with the Royal Family. It began in 1848, when Queen Victoria first attended the Braemar Gathering. That year, it took place in front of Invercauld House, the seat of the chief of the Farquharson clan. Victoria and Albert enjoyed it tremendously, returning and eventually granting the Gathering royal patronage in 1866. Ever since, the reigning monarch has acted as
chieftain. The Queen is a keen supporter of the Gathering (she has never yet missed it), which has been held at its present ground since the Duke of Fife donated it in 1906. HRH Prince Charles, known as the Duke of Rothesay when in Scotland, is also a great supporter. Along with other royals, he is often seen out unofficially in Braemar and Ballater during Games season, visiting the local shops.

Which goes some way to accounting for the overwhelmingly positive feeling locally for the royals. “They love it here and we love having them here,” says Fraser. “They can relax because they’ve grown up holidaying here, and we’ve grown up having royalty here, so there’s a certain ease on both sides. They’re here on holiday and treated the same as everyone else.” Watt also notes the strength of their links to the Games: “The royal connection creates a tremendously positive impact, not just on Deeside but also the wider Highland Games. We’re incredibly fortunate to have had that connection for so many years, and Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay, is an excellent patron. He knows many of the athletes and is really well informed. He gave us an excellent video message of support for Scotland’s Games during the Covid lockdown, which helped boost morale during a difficult time for all event organisers.”

One of the many benefits of the royals’ involvement is the attention it brings to the Games. “People think, ‘If The Queen and the Royal Family go, it must be worth attending,’” says Watt. Increasing visitor numbers is critical for the Games’ survival, as they are largely self-funded. Strictly speaking, they’re neither solely a sporting event, nor a cultural event, nor a touristic one, so traditionally struggle to fit neatly into the boxes preferred by funding bodies. Ticket sales are key: many Games are moving towards online ticketing, but many still rely on people coming through the gates. For other income, the stallholders pay a fee, and most Games also receive local sponsorship and some get private donations. These are “village events, grassroots events,” explains Watt. “They depend on community involvement and goodwill.”

With such enthusiasm for the Royal Family, it’s unsurprising that several Games plan to mark the Platinum Jubilee: Braemar is building a Jubilee Arch, Ballater has devised a new distance event involving two 70lb stones in honour of the occasion, and Crieff has rechristened its Games the ‘Platinum Jubilee Highland Gathering’ for 2022. Clan Gatherings are a major aspect of those Games who host them: Ballater, for example, hosts Clan Farquharson, and Lonach has the impressive march of the Lonach Highlanders, comprising more than one clan. Not all Games still involve one, but Watt explains that for those that do, these draw in huge numbers from overseas, creating a good atmosphere and boosting ticket sales. The ceremonial chieftain who opens a Highland Games doesn’t have to be from a clan, and is often the landowner who lends the land, a local dignitary or someone the community wants to recognise. But the longest-running chieftain was at Ballater, and he was a clan chief: Captain Alwyne Farquharson of Invercauld held the position for 70 years. He was hugely popular, and passed the role to his great-nephew just months before his death at the age of 102. The new chieftain, Philip Farquharson of Invercauld, has reformed the Invercauld Highlanders, who will have their first public appearance at the Games this year.

Summer 2022 sees the return of the Highland Games after a pandemic-shaped hiatus. A few held reduced events last year, though the Oban Games went ahead in full, celebrating their 150th anniversary with HRH The Princess Royal in attendance. With such proud heritage and local support, it seems that this year will herald renewed enthusiasm for this proud and robust Scottish institution.